GUWAHATI: Wildlife biologist and conservationist Purnima Devi Barman, popularly known as ‘Hargila Baideu’ for her work in conserving the endangered greater adjutant stork (locally known as the Hargila) was conferred the fourth Yamin Hazarika Women of Substance Award at a sombre function in Guwahati recently.

The award celebrates the life of the late Yamin Hazarika, a 1977 batch police officer. Earlier recipients of this prestigious award include writer and journalist Indrani Raimedhi, athlete Tayabun Nisha, and noted Assamese actress Moloya Goswami.

Kuladhar Saikia, director-general of police for Assam, was the chief guest on the occasion. Aparna Sharma, documentary filmmaker and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles was guest of honour. Shameem Hazarika, mother of Yamin Hazarika was also present.

Indrani Raimedhi’s book Crime, Justice and Women, which is dedicated to Yamin Hazarika was released on the occasion. “Yamin Hazarika remained in my mind while I was compiling my book, and today is the best opportunity to dedicate this book to her.” said Raimedhi.

Journalist and writer Teresa Rehman, citing the example of the documentary film Sisters of ’77, which chronicles the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, held with the goal of ending discrimination against women and promoting equal rights, said, “In the same year Yamin Hazarika rose to be a trailblazer and the first woman from Assam to join the Central Police Service, and later became deputy commissioner of police (crime against women).”

Educationist Nellie Ahmed Tanweer recalled the police officer’s adventurous and courageous life. “While in the 70’s western countries were celebrating women’s empowerment, a silent girl in India rose to be a pioneer in her field. Since childhood she was a determined girl and a voracious reader, qualifying for the civil services exam in her very first attempt. She was the kind of woman for whom duty always comes first.”

Purnima Devi Barman is a wildlife biologist working with Aaranyak, an NGO working on biodiversity conservation and wildlife. She has been a crusader for the greater adjutant stork in Assam’s Kamrup district. Purnima has worked relentlessly in her endeavour in the villages of Dadara and Hingimari, to protect the endangered species from extinction.

The journey was arduous for Purnima, but she was determined to achieve her goal. Initially, the odd looking scavengers were not welcomed by locals, as a result of which it was becoming difficult for her to do her PhD research. It was then she realized that the issue needs much more attention.

Along with a team from Aaranyak, she set forth by engaging and educating local people about conserving the Hargilas by including the species in their culture, tradition and religious customs. At present she is working with around 10,000 people of Dadara and Hingimari in protecting the storks and their habitats. Moreover, she would engage local women in protecting the birds, proudly referring to them as the ‘Hargila Army’.

An ecstatic Purnima receiving the award said, “I am honoured to receive the Yamin Hazarika Women of Substance Award, and dedicate it to my Hargila Army, this will definitely inspire the young brigade to work for the society.”

“Initially, when I started my journey of protecting the birds, I was mocked for my interest in conserving the species. However, I was determined that awareness needs to be created among the villagers and now I am working with the whole community in saving adjutant storks.

“There is a huge difference between working in the forest and working with the villagers. I tried to incorporate the bird into their sacred space and cultural aspects. I used to play web of life with the women to make them aware about the extinction of the birds. Whenever a Hargila lays eggs we organize baby showers, and celebrate in the local temple by offering rice pudding,” said Purnima.

Earlier, a panel discussion was organised on the theme, ‘Is social media dividing society, instead of uniting it?’ which was moderated by education consultant Reshma NC Shah. The panelists included senior journalist Durba Ghosh, psychiatrist Nahid Islam, and Arpana Sharma, circle officer of the Hajo Circle.

Kuladhar Saikia spoke on rising violence among the public and the role of social media in spreading rumours, saying, “Nowadays we are more inclined towards digital connectivity than emotional connectivity. Social media has both good and bad effects, one has to be aware about the real and fake messages. What happens in society is sure to come back inside our homes. Instead of stopping crime we are clapping or encouraging attacks on people on the streets.”

A documentary film, Mihin Sutta, Mihin Jibon, about the weavers of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti was screened at the event. The 97-minute feature is directed by Aparna Sharma.