Growing up third among his 13 siblings, which included 7 sisters, he came from humble beginnings. His parents sold milk to earn a meager living to support their family.
Poverty compelled his parents to leave their five-year-old son Jadav Payeng in the care of Anil Borthakur, a court-master at the District Judge Court in Jorhat, who looked after his schooling.
As a teenager in the 1970's, Payeng returned home to noticed more than 100 snakes washed up on shore dead, in his home town of Majuli Island. Erosion had erased vegetation from island sandbars, stripping away grassy cover which caused native species to flee the area.
Water from floods have transformed areas into barren landscapes, with shorelines receding after every monsoon rain. The island, Payeng's birthplace, was rapidly shrinking.
Majuli is home to 170,000 people and is one of the world's largest river islands which makes it vulnerable to tides. Every spring when glacial melts from the Himalayas empty into the river, it creates a problem for the island. The flooding problem is intensified as a result of climate change and earthquakes that alter the river's shape and flow after each event.
In the past 100 years, Majuli has lost 70% of its landmass.
“My house fell into the water,” Runa Buhyan, an elderly farmer, told the New York Times in 2012. “We are worried about our livelihoods. How can we provide for our families? That uncertainty is always there.”
That's when Payeng decided to act.