Print edition : April 23, 2004

Star footballer Baichung Bhutia walks down the catwalk at a fashion show at the World Bamboo Conference in New Delhi on March 1. Models at the show wore clothes made of bamboo. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

THE Central government seems to have suddenly woken up to the potential of the bamboo industry - it is keen on showcasing India as home to one of the largest natural bamboo forests in the world. The international market for bamboo products is expected to double to $20 billion by 2015. Seeing this as a significant opportunity for the country, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee announced an allocation of Rs.2,600 crores in the Tenth Plan period to rediscover bamboo and transform the "orphan plant" into "green gold". Speaking at the inaugural of the VII World Bamboo Conference, which India hosted in New Delhi from February 27 to March 4, he said the government hoped to create eight million jobs in the bamboo industry, lift five million rural artisan families out of poverty, and earn Rs.16,000 crores in revenue by the end of 2007.

In 2003, the government unveiled an action plan to tap the vast potential of bamboo. A committee set up by the Planning Commission proposed a Rs.2,608-crore National Mission on Bamboo Technology and Trade Development. The comprehensive mission document submitted to the Prime Minister in July charts out a strategy for the use of bamboo as an instrument of rural poverty alleviation and employment generation, and outlines long-term goals such as organised production and processing of bamboo shoots, consumption of bamboo as part of the national effort to eliminate micronutrient deficiency, and the use of bamboo as a means to reclaim degraded land, conserve soil and improve environment and for drought-proofing. The report also suggests policy changes to regulate the bamboo trade, which is worth over Rs.2,000 crores.

India is a small player in the global market. "There is a huge gap between the present and potential yields," the mission document points out.

The mission's action plan wants the Ministries of Agriculture, Forests and Rural Development to propagate bamboo in a coordinated manner. It also recommends the involvement of local communities in growing and primary processing of bamboo and wants all value-addition and commercial activities to be taken up by cooperatives and private entrepreneurs with the government playing the role of a facilitator. It has recommended an additional two million hectares to be brought under bamboo cultivation in order to keep pace with the expected increase in demand, and making it part of the "greening India programme", which aims at doubling the country's forest cover to 25 per cent by the end of the Tenth Plan.

According to C.P. John, Member, Kerala Planning Board and Kerala Bamboo Mission, bamboo has immense potential for employment and environmental protection. For example, nearly 52 man-days are needed to harvest (eight to10 man-days), load, unload, stack, transport (two man-days) and process (40 man-days) one tonne of bamboo. And, if bamboo replaces a quarter of the plywood used, nearly 8,000 hectares of natural forest would be spared from being felled, creating an additional 66 million mandays of work.

The Kerala Bamboo Mission is working out details - from providing inputs to marketing the products - to help the bamboo sector.

According to John, the thrust of the mission is to increase bamboo plantation, developing bamboo products as wood substitutes, enhancing the skills of rural artisans and researching eco-friendly applications of bamboo. The mission, according to John, is a comprehensive and holistic one that aims at combining traditional skills with modern applications, with policy and technological interventions. But what this would mean to the lakhs of traditional bamboo-weavers in Kerala, who have been driven to the brink particularly after the setting up of the State Bamboo Corporation, ironically meant to release them from the clutches of the middlemen, is a question that would continue to rankle until the weavers get easy access to the woody grass. According to Madhu Narayanan of Humus, a Kerala-based bamboo centre for alternative science, technology, research and action, there seems to be no scope for traditional workers in the National Bamboo Mission. "The mission's action plan states that workers' skills can be enhanced. But there is no mention of how this can happen." Although he understands that traditional weavers can hope for some respite only if the Union government does something for them, he wonders how the government can do anything for the workers when it has no idea about the numbers, spread and problems of traditional bamboo workers.

The government, according to N.S. Parameswaran of the Kerala Bamboo Workers Union, shut out traditional bamboo workers and cut their access to raw material when it set up the Kerala Bamboo Corporation. It made raw material scarce when it leased out bamboo forests to private industries, and now, by making bamboo industry-centric, it is going to push lakhs of traditional bamboo workers, who are already close to starvation, further against the wall. He wants the State government to involve traditional weavers while planning the Bamboo Mission's State action plan so that people who have so long protected and nurtured the "green gold" are not left out, once again.

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