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Celebrating five nature champions who believe in the power of one to transform the planet

Celebrating five nature champions

Meet these inspiring Indians who have demonstrated that every small step can have a transformative impact on the environment

American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau once said, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” As the climate crisis worsens, the truth inherent in this statement becomes more clear than ever. There are however nature champions among us who are showing by example that with hope, courage, initiative and a plan-of-action, even the impossible can be made possible. These are people who started with one step, one idea and today have made a huge difference to the environment. We pick five such heroes who are doing their best to preserve the biodiversity and ecosystems our collective well-being depends on

1. Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng

Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng is known today as the Forest Man of India and truly exemplifies the power of one. A forestry worker from Majuli, Jadav became part of a tree plantation drive in 1979 as one of the many labourers on the site but then stayed back after the project finished to singlehandedly tend to the forest and plant more and more trees. He has built an entire ecosystem that today houses a wide variety of flora and fauna. For decades now he has worked to turn over 1,360 acres, near Jorhat, Assam, into a full-fledged forest reserve. Jadav also won the Padma Shri, in 2015 for showing that where there is a will, there can be several thousand trees. Most importantly, the man who lives frugally in a hut knows better than most city dwellers, the connection between soil erosion, deforestation and flooding and wants to turn more sand bars around Brahmaputra river into forests.

2. Sumaira Abdulali

This globally respected braveheart has faced attacks by the sand mafia, spoken up against noise pollution through her NGO Awaaz Foundation and led a Movement against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists (MITRA). She has filed public interest petitions, written articles against illegal mining, and used all possible mediums to make people realise the hazards of exploiting the earth’s resources heedlessly.It is due to her efforts that in 2009, the Bombay High Court directed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to demarcate 2,237 silence zones around hospitals, educational institutions, courts and religious institutions. Thanks to her efforts, Maharashtra decided to make noise mapping integral to developmental activities for the next 25 years. She is also known as the most powerful voice of dissent against illegal sand mining and open-pit mining in eco-sensitive areas. Her battle to protect the environment is unrelenting and unstoppable.

3. Bikrant Tiwary

He has been a winner of the Silicon Valley Fellowship organized by AFI and has also been nominated by U.S. Consulate General Mumbai for their EcoHeroes campaign. He had left his corporate career in 2010 with a passion to bring positive social changes to society. After serving GiveIndia, the largest philanthropic online platform as a National Head he decided to work for environment & nature conservation and started his journey with With his idea and strategy, in the last 9 years, he has successfully planted over 9.5 million plants in 23 states of India. His idea to engage the local community members, self-help groups and community-based organizations in the entire tree plantation activities like- seed collection, nursery preparation, pit digging, plantation, monitoring etc worked as a key to the success. Because of 9.5 million plantations, it has not only improved the biodiversity but also created more than 799,000 workdays for the rural communities in different parts of the country. These trees will offset over 193 million kg of CO2 on their maturity.

His selfless contribution has created many social impacts like- sustainable livelihood for the rural/tribal communities, improved wildlife habitats, increased water table, reduced man-animal conflict etc. The entire plantation activity has also created awareness cum habit change in urban folks, that is replacing traditional gifting (flower bouquet, chocolate box etc ) with Greet with Trees concept.

4. Rajendra Singh

The next world war, it is said often, will be fought over water. Rajendra Singh or the ‘Water Man of India’ knows the value of every drop as he hails from the arid regions of the Alwar district in Rajasthan and has been working since 1975 as a water conservationist and environmentalist. Winner of the Magsaysay Award in 2001 and Stockholm Water Prize in 2015, he runs an NGO near Sariska Tiger Reserve and knows that only by preserving and protecting natural resources can communities be empowered. He has helped villagers to manage water resources with innovative storage and conservation ideas, has brought water back to over 1,000 villages and revived five rivers. He is also a member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) and works through another UK based NGO to resolve issues like soil erosion and flooding.

5. Marimuthu Yoganathan

Marimuthu Yoganathan, or ‘The Tree Man’ is responsible for planting lakhs of trees across a span of nearly three decades and his humble beginnings belie the notion that you have to start big to achieve big goals. This Coimbatore bus conductor fell in love with trees as a young boy and came to dedicate his life to them when he saw with what impunity and cruelty they are cut. His work has inspired generations of college and school going kids and the fact that he uses over 40% of his humble salary in philanthropic and plantation activities is a humbling lesson for everyone. He is today credited with planting over 4,20,000 tree saplings, across Tamil Nadu and he is not stopping anytime yet.