Most appropriately, it was on Leap Year Day that Nizara Phukon completed her epic walk from Charaideo to New Delhi, bringing the curtains down on a saga that kept her followers on tenterhooks for well over two months. While reinforcing the inherent mental and physical strength and fortitude of women of this region, her solo ‘Padayatra’ also smashed stereotypes about gender and safety across the northern ‘lawless’ lands. Hopefully, the positive vibes that her walk has generated along the way will help bridge the distance between New Delhi and the north eastern region in these turbulent times.
Charaideo, the erstwhile capital of the independent Ahom empire, was the emblematic starting point for Nizara’s walk to India’s capital city. The town of Charaideo is the closest urban center to Laichang village, where Nizara was born to Bagadhar Phukon and Akoni Phukon, a place where people still prefer the uncomplicated lives of a farming community.
It is not hard to imagine the shock and consternation of her close-knit rural community when a daughter of the village decides to return to the city of her education, all the way by walking! Nizara had taken a break from her PhD research at the Jawaharlal Nehru University at New Delhi to attend to her ailing mother. The call from Mother Nature was powerful and she was determined to follow her heart. As the secretary of Brikhyabondhu, an organization of like-minded nature lovers, she had the initial support to realize her mission.
With the blessings of the Forest Man of India Jadav Payeng, she began her walk on the 1st of December 2019. Her stated mission was to raise awareness about the rich natural heritage of India, the unique culture of Assam that is intrinsically connected to nature, emergent conservation needs and the challenges arising out of climate change impacts.
She was heartened by the support she got during the initial days; people lined up to greet her and well-wishers walked along with her. But less than two weeks after she started walking, Assam was caught up in violent protests over the citizenship amendment bill, forcing her to take unscheduled breaks at Nagaon and Guwahati.
These two weeks difficult, and even her most ardent well-wishers were skeptical about the continuance of the mission, particularly since similar disturbances had occurred in other states along her route. Security was the primary concern, with some regions along her route perceived to be unsafe even during normalcy, especially for women, and certainly unthinkable for woman walking alone. Undeterred by any eventuality, she spent the days of forced break meeting people and in meticulous planning for the rest of the journey.
During the three months, quite literally, everyday was a new day for Nizara. She started early, and having walked between 30-40 kilometers, she would arrive at a new place, meet new people and learn new things. She made it a point to write down her experiences before retiring for the night. At most places along the way, it was the local police who arranged an escort to ensure her safety and organized her lodging for the night.
At the few places where she had to walk all alone, she did face some difficulties. Sometimes people would yell out nasty things at her. Unruly youngsters would call out names, trying to break her concentration, but she was oblivious to all the taunts and ridicule. Instead she smiled at her tormentors and continued the walk, taking it all as part of her vast learning experience.
Most of her experiences were pleasant and she was welcomed whole-heartedly by the people she met. They were intrigued to hear of her solo walk from Assam to Delhi and her motivation for protection of India’s natural heritage. She reached out by telling tales of life in her native village, the biodiversity of the blessed and bountiful land, the people and their varied and nature inspired cultures.
Even for someone used to hard labour- she helps rake the soil in the family farm and is adept at hacking firewood- the impact of continuous walking was painful. Most days, she coped by practicing yoga and simple stretching exercises at the start and end of each day. When the body could take no more, every two weeks or so, she would take rest for a day or two, allowing the muscles time to recuperate.
Nizara talks to her mother everyday, both finding comfort and joy over the telephone. The conversation would inevitably start and end with food, health and safety. During the walk, she never had the time or resources to find the food that she was used to. The taste of home-cooked food was something she missed everyday during the three months. Expectedly, finding her favorite food will be among the little things she has lined up for the end of the trip.
She may have reached her destination, but Nizara’s mission is far from complete. Her first priorities at New Delhi are to meet the President of India, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Environment, Forests & Climate Change. In consultation with other environmentalists, she has prepared a memorandum for submission to the highest authorities. Among other things, the wishlist includes the establishment of an environmental university, mandatory tree plantation, ban on production of single-use plastics and progressive action on the climate crisis.
The impact of Nizara Phukon’s walk for nature on the environment movement may not be evident immediately, but it will certainly be among the most important acts of activism of all times by anyone from these parts. Single-handedly, she has demonstrated that the perceived distances are not as great, even without the considerations of modern transport facilities. It is the first known walk from the northeast region to New Delhi in a very long time and a glorious moment for inclusive development, women empowerment, and environmental leadership.