The indigenous bamboo trees that grew on the side of the road were burnt in the fire | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
The indigenous bamboo trees that grew on the side of the road were burnt in the fire | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
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At the 69th plenary of the North Eastern Council in January 2021, then Union Minister for Development of North Eastern Region, DoNER, Dr Jitendra Singh had reasserted the potential of the region to become India’s growth engine, particularly in the aftermath of Covid-19 pandemic. He had highlighted bamboo as one sector that also had the potential to fulfil the Atmanirbhar Bharat Mission of the Narendra Modi government. On the occasion of World Bamboo Day, a broad assessment suggests that it is indeed so.

India’s domestic supply of raw bamboo falls short of the domestic demand because of limited commercial plantation as around 70 per cent of bamboo resources, being in forest areas, were inaccessible until recently. However, the reclassification of bamboo as a “grass” and not a “tree” in 2017 has lifted restrictions on its cutting and transportation, thereby making it possible for the northeastern region, which accounts for two-thirds of bamboo resources of India (or more than 11 million metric tonnes of raw bamboo), to upscale its commercial plantation. As supply meets demand and cheaper local produce become the first choice of the bamboo industry, India’s staggering imports of raw bamboo from China and Vietnam will cease, giving a fillip to Modi government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat Mission.

In addition to being cheaper, raw bamboo produced in India is also a more suitable raw material preferred by local industry. The Sympodial bamboo variety (clump and cluster based) mostly found in northeast is thicker and shorter, and is preferred by Indian manufacturers over the Moso Monopodial variety (without forming clumps) that is presently imported from China and Vietnam. Following the law change, the North Eastern Space Applications Centre (NESAC) needs to expeditiously complete district-wise bamboo-resource estimation, so that the government can promote bamboo plantation in select districts, not only for meeting raw-material requirements of existing users but also as a business opportunity to new entrepreneurs looking for end-to-end product-based targeted forestry.

Yet, a mere amendment to the Indian Forest Law will not galvanise the bamboo industry because it is ridden with low productivity.


Also read: Modi govt wants more bamboo trade but it must end ​control of China, Vietnam first


Inefficient production processes

The authors’ own estimates of Total Factor Productivity Growth (TFPG) of bamboo industry, using data from Annual Survey of Industries over the period 2009-10 to 2017-18, reveals that production of bamboo industries are highly inefficient, hinting towards low value addition, high cost of production and use of obsolete technology. A case in point is incense stick manufacturers incurring high cost of production because majority of the bamboo sticks are either unutilised or wasted in the production process, making incense sticks less competitive to cheaper imports. In such situations, the manufacturers need to think of cross-industry linkages that can increase utilisation of wasted products. In this example, the unutilised bamboo sticks can be used for manufacturing activated bamboo charcoal, which has a huge demand in making of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals the world over, notwithstanding environment related restrictions on its exports. With the customs duty on bamboo sticks being raised to 25 per cent to help domestic production of incense sticks, such cross-industry linkages become more critical to reducing costs.

Scalability constraints also come in the way of increasing productivity as typified by the handicraft sector of the bamboo industry. This labour-intensive sector being unorganised and exposed to highly uncertain demand is averse to expansion. Here, the successful experience of Khadi and Village Industries Commission can be replicated to form handicraft clusters, promote bamboo packaging as a ‘fashionable’ and ‘affordable’ substitute to single-use plastic, and utilise e-commerce to increase marketability.

The bamboo industry also needs to address the challenge of meeting traceability norms that become a pre-requisite when using engineered bamboo for making bamboo products such as furniture. Traceability norms are certified compliance standards (related to environmental sustainability, animal welfare, expectations on social and working conditions) to be followed while sourcing natural resources. Absence of adequate institutionalised traceability certifications leads to high compliance cost for small entrepreneurs and micro units. Here, the success of Tripura Forest Development and Plantation Corporation (TFDPC) can be replicated across northeast to institutionalise traceability norms. TFDPC has its own bamboo forestry with responsible forest management under Forest Stewardship Council certification.


Also read: Everyone’s cheering bamboo’s no longer a tree in India, except in the northeast


Bamboo tourism and super-foods

Bamboo shoots are also in demand as staple super-foods in both East and West. One of the best varieties (sweet in taste) of bamboo shoots has been identified in the north-east. However, most bamboo shoots in northeast are harvested for personal consumption and the sector remains largely unorganised, rendering quality of shoots unreliable. Consequently, retail buyers, including Indian restaurants, have shifted to costlier imports. If harvesting of bamboo shoots is taken up by establishing dedicated tissue culture laboratories, as in South Korea, then at the micro-propagation stage itself, the desired level of fermentation will be achieved. The resulting standardisation of shoots will then enable its commercial transition.

Finally, revenue from bamboo tourism is another big potential yet to be realised in the northeast the way it has been in East Asian countries that have developed bamboo parks as attractive tourist hotspots — the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto is one such example. Currently, bamboo forest visit in the northeast is only limited to guests with special permits and it is yet to become mainstream. The first Bamboo Industrial Park in the northeast in Dima Hasao (Assam) promises opportunities for eco-tourism. Bamboo tourism will also help nurture “Bamboo Diplomacy” given NER’s geographical proximity to ASEAN, their sharing of common heritage and large demand for bamboo products from countries of East Asia and South East Asia.

Bamboo and bamboo products present a myriad of opportunities that are waiting to be tapped through replicating or scaling up successful models found within and beyond the northeast region. While Covid-19 and climate change related uncertainties loom, bamboo promises to provide resilience to vulnerable communities of north-east in the same way as it survives by bending with the wind without cracking.

Bhaskar J. Kashyap is assistant director, NITI Aayog and Rajiv Mishra is adviser to Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance. The officers are from the Indian Economic Service. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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