Men from India's Erikala tribe unload bamboo from the Nalamalla forest, at their hamlet at Lingala Mandal in Mahbubnagar district in Andhra Pradesh. The Erikala tribals earn their livelihood mainly by making bamboo products. Photo: AFP
Men from India's Erikala tribe unload bamboo from the Nalamalla forest, at their hamlet at Lingala Mandal in Mahbubnagar district in Andhra Pradesh. The Erikala tribals earn their livelihood mainly by making bamboo products. Photo: AFP

The humble evergreen plant that once fueled insurgency in India’s northeastern states has now become a beacon of hope in the drive to improve the country’s rural economy.

The Indian government is hoping to revitalize a range of bamboo-based industries with a slew of financial and policy-related changes. “Bamboo’s market potential is estimated at $10 billion. There is immense wealth in forests, and bamboo can revolutionize the village economy,” economist Ajit Ranade wrote recently.

India has the world’s largest fields of bamboo. It grows on nearly 13% of the country’s forest land. The seven northeastern states – Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Sikkim and Tripura – grow 67% of India’s bamboo and have 45% of global bamboo reserves. Nearly 35 species of superior quality bamboos are found in the region.

Bamboo is an important raw material in the $600 million incense stick industry. There is huge demand for edible bamboo in East Asian cuisine and medicine. It is also used in flooring, scaffolding and for making furniture and paper (among other uses in the pulp industry). Overall, the grass has more than 1,500 documented uses. And since bamboo grows quickly and needs less water, both plantations and maintenance are relatively easy.

From tree to grass

Despite being a type of grass, bamboo was classified as a tree 90 years ago, which meant people needed a ‘transit permit’ to transport it under Section 41 of the Indian Forest Act in 1927. Even people who grew bamboo in their backyard were not able to harvest and sell it without permission. And in 1966 it was subject to the Supreme Court’s blanket ban on the movement of cut trees and timber from the Northeast.

These provisions prevented the Northeast from fully exploiting its vast bamboo reserves. “Due to restrictions, scores of tribal people switched to growing broomstick, which doesn’t give much return. Besides, low-quality bamboo is being imported from Malaysia and Thailand to fulfill demands of bamboo-based industries,” Ravi Mokashi, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati associated with bamboo projects, said.

An Indian migrant laborer walks on a bamboo scaffolding in Mumbai. Photo: AFP

But in November last year, the central government removed bamboo from the list of trees, relaxing rules on its felling, transit and processing. The government has also made several other relaxations, allowing the free export of products made from bamboo (except bamboo charcoal, pulp and unprocessed bamboo shoots).

In the same month the Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur governments signed an agreement to supply bamboo to the Assam-based Numaligarh Refinery’s upcoming bio-refinery.

These measures open up a whole array of possibilities.

Economic influx

The most important push for bamboo came in the Union Budget on February 1, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocating $200 million to “restructure” the National Bamboo Mission with a “holistic approach”. Funds allocated to the Mission previously ranged from a comparatively measly $2 million to $10 million.

Jaitley did not elaborate on how the funds would be spent, but the seven northeastern states are expected to receive the lion’s share. In fact, they have already received nearly two-thirds of the mission’s funds.

“Arunachal Pradesh will be one of the highest gainers. Such initiatives will offer a permanent source of revenue generation to bamboo growers and communities owning bamboo groves,” Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu told reporters after the budget.

States like Odisha, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh are other major beneficiaries of the scheme.

Whose win is it anyway?

The much bigger budget allocation is expected to give impetus to the rural economy and contribute to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious target of doubling farmers’ income by 2022. But recent deregulation is also expected to help corporates to enter the bamboo business, which has been restricted to forest dwellers to date.

Women weavers make curtains out of fine-bamboo sticks in the old quarters of New Delhi. Photo: AFP

Companies eyeing huge business in “green gold” can now buy or lease agricultural land to grow bamboo for raw material in various related industries such as paper and pulp, experts say. Once they do that, village communities in states like Maharashtra may be hurt the most.

Tribal activist Mahesh Raut said: “Since village communities in tribal districts such as Gadchiroli are selling their own produce, the cost of bamboo has gone up to Rs 100 ($1.56) per bundle against Rs 8 ($0.12) when the sale rights were with the Forest Department. Buyers and industries are feeling the brunt. The policy changes actually aim to help the corporates to gradually take over bamboo cultivation. This will eventually weaken the village communities, defying the very purpose of Forest Rights Act and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act which seek to empower villages in managing their own produce.”

Maharashtra had freed bamboo from the transit permit months before the national government. It constituted a bamboo development board that ensured that village communities have total control over the sale of bamboo – not the Forest Department. It even set up a bamboo research center, funded by Tata Group, the Indian multinational. Several villages in the state now earn around $160,000 from the sale of bamboo.

“The apprehensions are based on the fact that the budget doesn’t mention how these communities will be involved in the mission,” Neema Pathak, a member of NGO Kalpavriksh, said.

Historically, bamboo was often in focus for the wrong reasons, as cartels used violence to get their share of commercial opportunities. The flowering of the bamboo — a phenomenon that caused several famines in Mizoram (and Chin state in Myanmar) – also causes a dramatic increase in rats every 48 years.

But hopes remain high with the latest Indian thrust on bamboo. “The recent policy changes and fresh outlay under the National Bamboo Mission will facilitate free movement and trade of bamboo across India, [and] generate employment with the help of green industries in the eco-sensitive region,” Professor Mokashi said.

Experts are even demanding an integrated bamboo industry along the pattern of China, where each part of the bamboo pole is efficiently graded, dissected and sent to different industrial units. But whether the country chooses to use bamboo to its full potential – or not – will only be known in coming months.

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