Print edition : April 23, 2004

Bamboo products displayed on the highway in Kerala. - JOHNEY THOMAS

IS bamboo a tree or a woody grass? The answer to this question would make a crucial difference to the lives of 10 million people living on the fringes of India's forests. For these people, who depend solely on bamboo for survival, have a full right over the grass growing in the woodlands protected under the Joint Forest Management Programme. Whereas botanists classify bamboo as a grass species, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, does not. This has enabled State governments to use bamboo as a source of revenue, particularly when the revenue from timber drops. The traditional bamboo weavers of the five districts of Kerala - Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Thrissur - are in the throes of poverty and starvation. They are outside the purview of the State Bamboo Corporation.

In Thiruvananthapuram district's Bharathanoor Colony, for instance, 74-year-old Kunjan Kunjuraman, who has been a weaver for over 60 years, said he had never been through such a pathetic situation before. His family survives on one meal a day. He remembers wistfully the time when workers even saved for contingencies. V. Binu, who works with an agent in Kollam district and earns Rs.100 a day, manages to provide his family of six one meal a day. But, Binu's father Vijayan, who has been a weaver for over 40 years, says: "I am not sure how long he will have work there. The noose is tightening around our neck. We just do not know what to do."

Laments M. Joseph of Bharathanoor Ambedkar Colony: "From being lucrative and providing a daily income that was at least 50 per cent more than farm labour, bamboo-weaving has made us a marginal group. We earn less than a-third of what a farm worker earns. All this change in less than three decades." According to Joseph, who has been weaving six types of baskets for the past 30 years, all the 30-odd weaver families in the colony have tried everything from changing the product mix to creating new designs in the past six years. Nothing has helped. "We seem to be losing out to substitute and alternative products. Our skills seem to be useless and our lives a waste."

Life has become tough, according to Karthiya, who has been collecting bamboo reeds from the forest and selling it in the village for the past three decades. Gruelling work of 10-12 hours a day fetches her one headload of some 40-50 sticks, which sells at Rs.50 in the market. Karthiya is not sure if she can continue to go into the forest. Getting a pass to enter the forest is a cumbersome and time-consuming task, and Karthiya has been going into the jungles without one. She has been caught by forest officials several times, but let off most of the times. Sometimes the officers have confiscated her knife and billhook and imposed a fine.

Elavupalayam village in Kollam district is completely outside the ambit of the Bamboo Corporation. Most of the over 150 households in and around the village collect bamboo from the forest, usually without a pass. Many of their members tell stories of brutal beating by forest officials. They do realise that it is illegal to enter the forests without a pass, but they have no choice. "One fine day we were just stopped from gaining access to the raw material on which our families have depended for several decades," says A. Raju, a basket-weaver for four decades.

Raju's daughter has been engaged for three years now. For want of money, the marriage has not taken place. "I, like most people in Elavupalayam, have borrowed from all possible sources. Most of us have even sold off our lands (given to some Dalit families by the government in 1951). There is no way I can get my daughter married off," says Raju.

The plight of the colony is summed up by D. Soman: "From eating three times a day, now most of us go to bed hungry."

At Anandeshwaram village in Alappuzha district there are a few agents making baskets for fishermen. M. Abubakkar employs four workers from Thiruvananthapuram district for six to seven months every year and buys reeds from the Bamboo Corporation's depots. Each worker makes eight baskets a day and earns up to Rs.150. Abubakkar used to sell over 50,000 use-and-throw baskets a month to the fishermen of the area. But all that changed with the arrival of plastic products and the government's policy of encouraging small enterprises. As plastic boxes are durable and easy to maintain, fishermen all but stopped using bamboo baskets. "This period," says Abubakkar, "was the worst in my 25 years of experience."

Most agents gave up the bamboo basket-making business and moved to neighbouring districts to work as casual labourers. Some of them like Abubakkar, who could not migrate for personal reasons, held on and started to make sturdier baskets to compete with the plastic ones. Now Abubbakar manages to sell 150 baskets a month to the fishermen on a credit basis. "That kind of personal dealing," he says, "is the only way to survive."

Binu and Sasi of Thiruvananthapuram district have been coming to work at Abubakkar's shed seven months every year since 1994. With no work at home, they are pushed to search for work. "Not being bothered about marketing the product is a great incentive to come here," says Binu. According to Sasi, the main problem is that "we are not acknowledged as traditional workers by the government. While toddy tappers and potters are classified as traditional workers and are entitled to government benefits, we are not."

What are the reasons for the declining livelihood systems of bamboo workers?

Their problems started even in the 1960s because of the exploitation by middlemen, and got aggravated in the 1970s with the setting up of the Bamboo Corporation which cut off their access to the bamboo in the forests. Then, in the 1990s, with the government encouraging small industries, products made of metals, plastic and fibres cut into the market in a big way. Says Bamboo Workers Union president Raghu Eraviperoor: "The last straw was the leasing out of the bamboo forests to Hindustan Newsprint Limited. With that the marginalisation was complete. We are cut off from raw material and the market, and our fate is sealed."

How did they cope all these years? Initially most of them managed by borrowing from moneylenders - for every Rs.900 borrowed they repay Rs.10 a day for 100 days. When even this repayment became difficult, they started to sell whatever they could. Then they started to tighten their belt - for instance, eating twice or once a day. Says K.P. Krishnan of Angamaly in Ernakulam district: "Borrowing has now become a way of life for us. Just to survive we keep borrowing. Liability is all we are going to leave our children."

Says V.E. Kuttappan of Varavur village in Thrissur district. "The middlemen are squeezing us much more now. Earlier they only used to buy products from us. Now they even sell us reeds. Thus, we are tied to them now both for the raw material and the market." According to V.K. Sankaran, 70, the daily earnings have fallen to less than Rs.25. Bamboo-weaving, the only occupation the 50-odd households of the village know, has shrunk their incomes, increased their indebtedness and made their lives insecure. Says K.K. Mani of the same village: "We want to live with dignity. We do not want to be reduced to begging. We are willing to learn and change our product profile. We are willing to do anything as long as we can live with dignity."

Amid all the gloom, however, there are a few success stories. One such is the Bamboo Workers Cooperative Society at Vadakaancheri in Thrissur district. Started in 1979 with 230 members, the society makes over two lakh baskets a year and earns a profit of Rs.20,000. Says its secretary N.S. Parameswaran: "Our main product is making baskets for exporting betel leaves and flowers." Significantly, only those cooperatives that have tied up with exporters or industries have survived.

Even a successful cooperative as this one, which is all set to open a handicrafts unit, is constrained by the non-availability of raw material. It has to buy reeds only from the Bamboo Corporation, which, however, is unable to supply them regularly. According to Parameswaran, there are times when the cooperative is left without reeds for up to 15 days a month. At such times, according to Ammini, 62, a weaver of the cooperative, the workers borrow money to survive.

The Bamboo Corporation has problems of its own. According to Managing Director K.V.P. Francis, the three main problems facing the corporation are inadequate raw material, tough competition from the northeastern States in the market, and the difficulty to get funds from the government. Francis agrees that basket weavers are the worst affected.

The Corporation's Divisional Manager at Angamaly, K. Jayakumar, says that while the Forest Department provides 30,000 tonnes of reeds free every year to the corporation, it has allowed Hindustan Newsprint Limited (HNL) to extract 1.89 lakh tonnes from the forest. Moreover, there is a cycle of reed cutting that the Forest Department follows in order to manage the bamboo forests. Hence there are times, according to Francis, when there are no reeds to supply the cooperatives and the mat-weavers.

Says Jayakumar: "Since the setting up of HNL, getting raw material has been a problem for us." Says Francis: "HNL uses the clear felling method of collection, which clears bamboo forests, while we use the selection felling method, as we cut only mature plants. So ours is an environment-friendly way of reed cutting, which is sustainable. And we cater to the social cause of supporting bamboo weavers. We should be given priority in accessing raw material by the government."

With no scope of being covered by the Bamboo Corporation, the only hope for the traditional weavers seems to be their inclusion in the Kerala Bamboo Mission.

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