Meet These Three Heroes Championing A Greener India

Though climate change is a big challenge, hope exists in the form of forest warriors who are on a mission to protect the green cover of India. This World Environment Day, we celebrate them
Many forest warriors have made it their mission to protect the green cover of India.
Many forest warriors have made it their mission to protect the green cover of India.

The past few years have been peppered with clear evidence of a climate and biodiversity crisis edging dangerously beyond our control. While most of humanity takes things for granted, a group of individuals sees things as they are&ndashthe environment is in a precarious state and saving our world will require all of us to step up. These green warriors are raising awareness about the situation and striving to ensure that we all have a safe place to call home. According to various United Nations reports, since the 1980s, each decade has been warmer than the previous one, with the last decade, 2011-2020, being the warmest on record. Every year, environmental factors take the lives of around 13 million people, and there has been a spike in the number of people living in areas with extreme water shortage.

In the face of such unending, disturbing news, how can ordinary citizens become active participants in the natural world around us "Sadly, people these days, especially children, don't have the natural proximity to wildlife and nature. Parents can tackle this lack of sensitization to nature by watching wildlife documentaries, going for walks in green spaces, and introducing their children to trees, birds, and butterflies," explained Dr Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). "Interning with organizations such as World Wildlife Fund and WII is also a great way to learn about the environment and participate actively. These days you can even download mobile applications like eBird and iNaturalist that can identify the plants and animals around you and connect you with a community of scientists and naturalists who can help you learn more about nature." From Uttarakhand to Assam to Tamil Nadu, these fierce forest warriors are giving us hope amidst an increasing sense of despair.

Marimuthu Yoganathan, Tamil Nadu

At the age of 12, Marimuthu Yoganathan found himself fighting the timber mafia in the Nilgiris. "My parents used to work in a tea estate in the Nilgiris where the timber mafia was involved in activities such as the illegal felling of trees. One day, I decided to protest by lying on the ground. But I got beaten up by the goons. I would write letters to the collector and paste handwritten posters on public walls in Kotagiri to create awareness. Some nights I would sleep in the forest, trying to catch people felling trees. But when I saw that I was no match for the mafia, I decided to counter them by planting more trees," said the 55-year-old bus conductor on one of the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) buses in Coimbatore. Yoganathan has been distributing saplings for free to his passengers for the past 40 years. No wonder he's called the "Tree Man of Coimbatore."

Since 1987, he has planted over four lakh saplings in Tamil Nadu he also spends his spare time visiting schools and colleges to create awareness. A projector which he purchased on a PF loan is his constant companion. "You have to make it interesting for the students to pay attention. The projector helps me share interesting facts about how we get water, what made the dodo bird go extinct, and rare trees around the country." At the campus of Bharathiar University, there will soon be a Kuyil Thoppu (bird sanctuary in Tamil), thanks to the efforts of Yoganathan, who's busy building the sanctuary, which will have 2,000 saplings of native, rare and fruit-bearing trees in Coimbatore. But his ultimate dream is to ensure that each household in every village in India plants five saplings&ndashone each of mango, chiku (sapota), coconut, guava, and jackfruit. "If every home had these five trees in their backyard, they could build a cooperative society and a business. There would be no hunger, and we would have built a forest of fruits."

Yoganathan's Green Suggestion&nbspPlanting a sapling and taking care of it should be a part of the school curriculum. The government should make it mandatory for real estate developers to plant a certain number of saplings before commencing construction, just like rainwater harvesting and reserving parking space. 

Jadav Payeng, Assam 

In 1969, Jadav Payeng was 16 years old when a major flood hit Assam, and his land on Majuli island was washed away. The widespread destruction deeply impacted him, and he spent the next 30 years planting around 40 million trees to create a man-made forest. Life changed for Payeng in 2007 when a photojournalist saw him seeding his forest and wrote an article about him. He soon gained the attention of the Indian government, which honoured him with a Padma Shri in 2015. "An agricultural scientist once told me&mdashplant trees, and the trees will save you. So when I saw that my village was turning into a desert, that's what I did," said Payeng, who changed over 1,300 acres of barren land (approximately the size of 15 football stadiums) into a lush green forest in Majuli island.

He began by planting bamboo and betel nut in 1979 and then moved on to other species. "I built a small boat to ferry the sapling across. People thought I was mad, but I didn't give up. I planted every day and came back to see how my plants were doing," he said. It took close to 30 years for the land to turn into a forest. Today the jungle is known as Molai Kathoni or Molai's forest (Molai being his nickname). It is home to tigers, elephants, rhinos, and a variety of native and migratory birds. Payeng's story is being taught as an ecology lesson at Greene Hills School in Bristol, Connecticut, in the USA. "Planting a sapling and taking care of it has to be a part of the education system in India. We need to teach our children the importance of trees." He is currently converting a 2,000-hectare plot near his village into a forest by using seeds from Molai Kathoni. Today, Payeng is an activist, motivational speaker, and mentor for PhD students.

Payeng's Green Suggestion&nbspStop cutting a cake on your birthday. Instead, plant a sapling and gift one to each of your friends and relatives. 

Vijay Jardhari, Uttarakhand

Vijay Jardhari witnessed the destruction unleashed by the green revolution first-hand. "In the 80s, the government distributed packets of genetically modified soya beans and chemical fertilizers to farmers. It was a bumper crop the first year, but the yield declined the next year drastically. That's when I realized chemical fertilizers were poisoning our fields," said Jardhari, the youngest member of the Chipko Movement. The forceful replacement of indigenous cultivation, such as millet with cash crops, led Jardhari to launch the Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA) at his village Jardhargaon in Tehri, Uttarakhand, in 1986.

He went on a mission to collect native varieties of seeds from some of the remotest parts of Uttarakhand and also began educating farmers on the dangers of monoculture or growing only one crop on the fertility of the soil. The BBA seed bank now includes over 700 seeds. These were part of traditional farming till the 1980s but made a tame exit with the arrival of modern high-yielding varieties. "We need to bring more pride to our millets, mota anaj, which are reserved only for the poor," he said.

Jardhari's Green Suggestion Start growing a vegetable or herb in your kitchen garden and see it prosper. It will not only give you something healthy and chemical-free to eat but also teach humility and a sense of achievement. 

Many forest warriors have made it their mission to protect the green cover of India.
8 Biosphere Reserves In India

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller