New Delhi: Going by Google Maps, it’s a distance of 2,250 km, takes 41 hours by car and almost two days by train to reach Delhi from Charaideo, a remote district of upper Assam. To cover this vast expanse of a journey on foot, one needs immense courage, a strong will power and uncompromising determination. However, for Nizara Phukon, it was the cause—“to save Mother Earth”—that kept her going.
Why did she not take a train? Perhaps it was the drive to achieve her purpose— conservation of environment—that led her to undertake the long hardship required for the walk. It took her 70 days to reach Delhi from Charaideo district of Assam.
Started on 1 December 2019, her padayatra went through Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and finally reached Delhi on 29 February 2020.
“The aim of the padayatra was to spread awareness among people and submit a memorandum to the Union government on environmental conservatism,” said Nizara Phukon, 31, who is currently doing her PhD in Russian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She also has a group named Brikhyabandhu which works to save the environment and tackle climate change.
With a flag on her shoulders espousing her cause and pamphlets in hand, she walked alone from Guwahati by spending numerous nights at local police stations until she reached Delhi.
“It was very difficult indeed. Till Guwahati, I used to be accompanied by my friends and well-wishers. But after passing Guwahati, I was completely alone. Though I received police escort all my way from Guwahati, due to lack of some official permission, I had to face some difficulties to get police escort in some areas. In such scenarios, I had to talk to the control room requesting escort and accommodation as I was alone,” said Nizara Phukon.
Throughout her padayatra, Nizara Phukon stayed in local police stations at night and started her padayatra again on the very next day. The target was to cover 30-40 km every day. “Every day, my walk started at 6.30 am in the morning and ended at 5.30-6.30am in the evening. I have endured sun and rain and encountered the roads filled with dusty storm,” Phukon said while recounting her journey.
In December, when Phukon started her journey, Assam was almost in a state of lockdown due to the massive protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Sharing her experience in such a turbulent political situation, she said, “The whole country was unstable at that time as people were protesting against the CAA and NRC in every nook and corner of the country. The situation in Assam was also terrible. Because of the situation, I had to halt my foot march twice—for seven days in Nagaon district of Assam and another seven days in Guwahati.”
“Sometimes, the long patches of highways are only covered by open fields. There were no hotels for 10-15 km and I walked for 35/36 km without food. I was full of mental strength to continue for the same distance, even while menstruating. When there were no toilets, hotels or dwelling to urinate in highways, I used to pee in the open and sometime cry due to stomach pain,” she said while recounting her struggle during the padayatra.
She also shared her bitter experience with police due to her affiliation with JNU and said, “They don’t say anything directly, but I can realised from their attitude. In some nights, I was tortured by women police and after struggle and agitation, would fall asleep without a blanket in the winter chill of January.”
After facing stigma in the hands of policemen, she finally reached Delhi on 29 February. Though she had decided to submit her memorandum to the President of India and Prime Minister, to her dismay, she could only submit her memorandum to Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar.
In her memorandum, she has requested the government to establish an “environmental university” in Assam, an “Environment Security Force” for the security of nature, along with a few other demands.
“I applied for an appointment with the President of India from 3-10 March, after going through all the procedures. But I am now informed by the office of his Excellency, the President of India, that the President won’t meet me. So, I have decided to sit in front of Rashtrapati Bhawan from tomorrow (Saturday), and plead for an appointment,” Phukon said, expressing her discontent.