Print edition : April 23, 2004

Bamboo mats stored at the Kerala State Bamboo Corporation godown at Angamaly in Ernakulam district. - JOHNEY THOMAS

Shrinking markets, cheaper substitutes for bamboo, and government policies of the past few decades have driven traditional bamboo-weavers of Kerala to poverty and deprivation.

BAMBOO is nature's steel. But traditional bamboo workers are now close to breaking. The onslaught of substitute materials and government policies of the past decades, among other things, have driven bamboo weavers to poverty and starvation.

For hundreds of years, Dalit and Adivasi communities (Parayas, Pulayas, Kuravas, Mavilas and Vetuvas) of Kerala have transformed bamboo reeds (Ochlandra travancorica and O.scriptoria) into a variety of products with functional and ornamental uses. Their creativity and ability to adapt to changing demands saw the weavers making varieties of baskets and mats, winnowers, window screens, bags and what not.

Whole families and in many areas even entire villages were involved in the vocation of bamboo-weaving. In the 1970s, there were 3.5 lakh traditional bamboo workers, earning at least 50 per cent more than farm labourers. In fact, the economic advantage of bamboo-weaving attracted people from other communities, such as Ezhavas, to this profession. By the 1960s, it became a lucrative business with the weavers selling bamboo products on a large scale to the farm and fisheries sectors.

With a headload of reeds collected from the forest at Bharathannoor in Thiruvananthapuram district.-S. MAHINSHA

Today, traditional bamboo-weaving in Kerala is in a pitiable state with falling incomes, shrinking markets and no access to raw materials. How did this happen? The answer seems to lie largely in the structure of the enterprise, its characteristics and the socio-economic conditions of the workers.

Traditional bamboo-weaving is characterised by low capital and simple production techniques. It requires such simple tools as a billhook and a knife, which cost less than Rs.100. It is a labour-intensive, household-based rural enterprise, run mostly by women.

While diverse products are made, the real constraint is that historically this has been the occupation of people belonging to the lower end of the socio-economic scale who have limited access to markets, raw materials, finance and technology, and hence poor managerial, entrepreneurial and organisational skills. The highly scattered nature of the enterprise, the disaggregated production structure, and the lack of assistance from support agencies provided the ideal climate for exploitation by intermediaries.

In the 1900s, mats and baskets were made for agricultural uses from reed collected from forests by people belonging to the Scheduled Castes (S.C.s), such as Sambavas and Parayas, mainly as a feudal obligation to their masters. The mats and baskets not used on the landlord's farms were bartered within the village. At that time, it was largely a part-time activity.

The situation began to change in the 1930s, when the British started to use the cheap and strong bamboo mats for tents on the warfront. The hostilities in Burma (Myanmar) gave rise to a phenomenal demand for bamboo mats. Mat-weaving became a full-time vocation. Seeing an opportunity, several people, largely from the forward communities, entered the lucrative business as weavers or as middlemen and traders. They would supply reeds to the weavers and purchase the finished products. Thus, a new class of merchant-wholesalers willing to make large investments was drawn into the business.

At a basket-manufacturing unit at Vadakaancheri.-JOHNEY THOMAS

The enterprise was concentrated in the Angamaly-Kaladi area of Ernakulam district and in the Nedumangad-Aryanad area of Thiruvananthapuram district because of the easy availability of raw material from the forests nearby and the presence of a well-developed transport system.

But after the war, the demand for mats fell and those who had invested in the enterprise began to look for newer markets. Sugar mills in Maharashtra emerged as the new buyers. The mats were used as dunnage (wedge between material) in the sugar factories and for the construction of temporary sheds to store sugarcane. But mat prices began to decline with over-supply. The merchants passed on the burden of falling prices to the weavers. However, when the market became buoyant and mat prices improved, they did not pass on the benefits to the weavers.

In the meantime, basket-weaving picked up mainly to cater to the agricultural sector - to store and transport grain, vegetables, copra, pepper and so on. This happened primarily because the seasonal nature of agricultural employment enabled the landless S.C. labourers to take to weaving during off-season.

Most types of baskets were produced only seasonally. For example, the sturdy vallom or chendakooda were in great demand during the harvest season (between December and March). The seasonality of demand led to high fluctuations in product prices.

Slowly, there emerged a demand from neighbouring States as the bamboo baskets were found to be cheap and strong and useful to transport perishable and non-perishable produce. This attracted more intermediaries and soon there was a chain of agents between the primary producers and the final users. Each area began to be controlled by a set of agents, who also kept the weavers under their control, providing them with a cash advance. The largely illiterate basket weavers were exploited mercilessly; they put in 12-15 hours of work a day but their economic conditions declined despite the sharp increase in basket sales.

At a basket-manufacturing unit-JOHNEY THOMAS

Slowly, the weavers got segmented by the markets to which they catered, such as agriculture, fisheries, the cashew industry and homes. Their fortunes became tied to the sector to which they supplied.

THE growing bamboo enterprise led the State government to set up a committee in 1959 to study its status. The committee pointed to the exploitation of weavers by intermediaries and suggested the setting up of a corporation to coordinate the various activities of bamboo-weaving, particularly marketing.

The Kerala State Bamboo Corporation was established in 1971 (first under the Ministry of Handicrafts and later as an independent body) to free the weavers from middlemen and to help them market their products. In 1977, it took over the right to collect bamboo from the forests and distribute reeds to traditional weavers and other bona fide consumers. The corporation did everything for mat weavers. It supplied reeds at a subsidised rates (on a credit basis), and bought the mats from them for marketing, primarily to the Central Warehousing Corporation and large sugar mills. The corporation's more than 100 reed-distribution and mat collection centres, mostly located in the central and southern Kerala, cover over 15,000 mat-weaving families, 2,500 reed-cutters and employ over 1,000 loaders. Workers associated with the corporation came to be known as "registered weavers".

However, the traditional weavers who mainly made baskets and comprised largely the Sambava and Paraya communities were left out of the corporation's purview. Left to fend for themselves, they became more vulnerable to exploitation.

Finishing work on a bamboo basket.-S. MAHINSHA

Where the corporation did not function (particularly in the areas dominated by traditional weavers), cooperatives were encouraged to be set up with share capital contributed by individuals and institutions and further funded by loans, grants and deposits from government and other institutions. Most cooperatives failed for several reasons, mainly inefficient management and pressure from traders, who were largely hand in glove with the middlemen. Many of the cooperatives became defunct.

The traditional weavers suffered a further blow with the Forest Department denying them access to the jungles to collect reeds. Only weavers issued passes by the Forest Department on payment of a "seigniorage" rate could collect reeds. The pass, which costs Rs.12 - over 20 per cent of the market price of reed - allows weavers to collect 20-25 reeds (one headload). Getting the pass, generally issued for a day, is a cumbersome process. It can take two or three days to collect a pass from the Forest Department office, often located many kilometres away from the weaver colonies. Thus, given the high cost of the pass and the difficulty to obtain it, many weavers either buy reeds from middlemen or collect them from the forests without a pass. Although collecting bamboo from the forest without a pass is an offence, officials generally seem to let the weavers off realising their deplorable situation. This has given rise to a new class of sub-traders who arrange "a kutta pass" (basket pass) for a price.

The reed-cutters usually walk four or five kilometres into the forest to collect reeds. Culms (grass or sedge stem) are selectively cut from trees that are about one-to-two years old. They are then cut into pieces 10-12 feet long and bundled into headloads of 15-25 pieces each. The whole process takes about 10 hours. The cutters either sell the reeds to the weavers or keep them for their own use.

Making mats for the Bamboo Corporation, at Kuttichal in Thiruvananthapuram.-S. MAHINSHA

The strong middlemen-wholesaler-retailer link usually dissuades the weavers from selling in the market as they are offered very low prices for their products - generally 20-30 per cent lower than the prices they would get from the middlemen. Thus, willy-nilly, the traditional weavers are bound to the middlemen. Studies show that if weaving is to be as remunerative as other types of casual labour, middlemen would need to increase the prices of the products by at least 480 per cent. Ironically, though the Bamboo Corporation was set up to save traditional weavers from the clutches of middlemen, the weavers seem to have slid down the economic ladder even further.

The situation turned really bad for traditional weavers after the early 1990s with the introduction of products made of plastics, synthetic fibres and so on, which cut deeply into the market for bamboo products. Fishermen, farmers and households moved to the substitutes in a big way, as they are cheaper, more durable and easy to maintain.

To make matters worse, the government in the mid-1990s leased large bamboo tracts to Hindustan Newsprint Limited at a subsidised price - while a tonne of bamboo reeds is allegedly priced at Rs.500-800 for the industry, it is about Rs.2,000 in the open market for the traditional weavers. Apart from depriving the traditional weavers of their raw material, this also led to the depletion of bamboo forests. For, while the weavers would cut only two-year-old bamboo culms, it is alleged (by the Bamboo Corporation) that the newsprint industry cut culms that were hardly two-three months old.

Unable to cope, many weaver families started to supplement their income by taking up casual work. Many bamboo weavers, in their prime, migrated (largely seasonally) to nearby towns to work at construction sites and so on. The traders, however, filled their slot by getting migrant labour families (whose primary occupation is bamboo-weaving) from Tamil Nadu (mostly from areas adjoining Madurai district) by advancing them money. As good as bonded labour, most migrants work for 12-15 hours a day for low wages. The marginalisation of the Kerala bamboo weaver was complete.

A clump of bamboo. Although bamboo is a woody grass, the Forest Act classifies it as a tree and makes access to it difficult for weavers.-

The Kerala Bamboo Workers Union, set up in 2000 to end the marginalisation of traditional bamboo workers, is sceptical about their inclusion in the National Bamboo Mission, a programme launched by the Union government in 2003 (see separate story). Says union president Raghu Eraviperur: "We have been cheated by the corporation, which we thought would help us revive our livelihood systems. Instead, it divided us by supporting only a small section of bamboo workers who make mats. Further, it aggravated our condition by cutting off our access to raw material."

Says union vice-president Sasi Janakala: "As we are spread across the State and are tied up with our own local issues depending on which sector - agriculture, fishing, cashew industry and so on - we cater to, for long we had not been able to organise ourselves. But now, we have forged an alliance to bring to the fore common issues, which are deep-rooted, complex and widespread."

Explains union secretary A.A. Chandran: "Our issues are complex because we are not only geographically spread, but also divided on political and caste bases."

But now, left resourceless and marketless by the corporation, the weavers are anxious that they are not kept out of the Bamboo Mission as well. In a proactive measure, they have come out with recommendations, which include allowing access to raw material, a training programme for weavers to make value-added and marketable products, provision of land to cultivate bamboo, festival rebates to cooperative societies and training and research centres to upgrade skills.

Says Raghu: "We hope the Bamboo Mission will address the problems of traditional weavers before it is too late."

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