BAMBOO, which is believed to have made its appearance about 200 million years ago, is one of the most primitive plant species that survive today. The "tree grass" occurs in diverse conditions - from perennially poor to perpetually rich soils, from lowlands to the foothills of the Himalayas, from drought to drowning conditions, and from tropical jungles to high mountains. It is equally varied in size. If the dwarf varieties are barely a foot (30 centimetres) high, the giants tower over 100 feet (40 metres).
Worldwide, there are 87 genera and over 1,500 species of bamboo. India has 19 indigenous and three exotic genera with some 130 species found almost all across the country, except in the Kashmir Valley and in the sandy tracts of Rajasthan.
Bamboo is an ecological wonder. Its emerging (tender) shoots are edible. The parts above ground check pollution, and parts below ground check soil erosion. Bamboo is a wonderful carbon dioxide sink with a carbon sequestration rate as high as 47 per cent, amounting to 12-17 tonnes of CO2 a hectare per annum. It is a miraculous oxygen factory: it generates 35 per cent more oxygen than other timber species. Bamboo is gaining attention as an alternative forest crop with multiple uses - economic, social and environmental - and benefits.
The fastest-growing plant on earth, bamboo grows by three to 16 inches daily. It grows three times faster than eucalyptus and can be harvested four times as often. The most commercially important species - about 100 out of 1,500 - are ready for harvest in two or three years. Subsequent harvests can be made every second year, for over 120 years.
Bamboo also leads in producing biomass. It yields six times more cellulose than the fastest-growing pine tree. It also runs an extensive system of roots that travel 12 ft (3.6 m) a year, typically binding six cubic metres of soil.
In some species of bamboo, the culm (grass or sedge stem), which is its most important part, grows to some 40 m in just three-four months. In a lifespan of 35 years, a bamboo plant can produce up to 15 km of usable pole of up to 30 cm in diameter.
Bamboo caters to the three most basic needs of humankind: food, shelter (bamboo houses) and clothing (bamboo cloth, rayon in modern times). In Indian homes, it is a source of firewood as well.
There are 1,500 faces or documented uses of bamboo: Mats to sleep on, cups to drink from, hats and umbrellas for protection from the sun and rain, pipes to irrigate, baskets to store things, winnowers to sift grain, brushes to paint and scrub, papers to write, sticks to create art, and flutes to play music - all these are made from bamboo.
Structurally, bamboo is stronger than steel, lightweight and easily workable. It has good vibration-damping and heat insulation properties, which make it an ideal material to construct houses in earthquake-prone areas. Bamboo is not just an ideal wood substitute; as an alternative material it transcends wood. It comes pre-finished by nature; culms can be used straight away, without much processing. It has less structural variability and better properties than juvenile wood. Bamboo panel boards have proven to be stronger than hardwood from oak and beech.
In India, commercial use of bamboo began in the 1920s in the pulp and paper industry. By the 1950s, bamboo represented about 75 per cent of the fibre source for the paper industry. This figure has since come down, and is now less than 25 per cent (around 1.4 million tonne) because of supply constraints, lack of impetus in the farm and agro-forestry sectors, and the development of alternatives such as plastic and metal.
A major hurdle to wider use of bamboo seems to be the general perception of it as the poor man's timber - a view reinforced over time by the absence of new technologies in the collection of bamboo and the making of bamboo products.