In 2006-2007, a bamboo species will flower over vast swathes of Mizoram, Tripura and Assam. When bamboo flowers, it dies; usually a famine follows. How prepared, asks nitin sethi, is northeast India this time? Can they turn disaster into opportunity?
Mautak will flower
The abundance of seeds in moist areas then invites rats and rodents, whose fertility, as nature would have it, increases when they feed on bamboo seeds. A study by Fabian M Jaksic and Mauricio Lima, ecologists at the Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity in Chile, records a clear relation between rodent outbreaks in South America since in the 16th century and bamboo flowering and high rainfall. No such study exists in India, though a record of different species flowering in Mizoram does(see: Every 48 years).
People say when mautak flowers, rat numbers turn abnormal. They run amok, quite literally. Calamity occurs after all the seeds are eaten: the rats attack granaries, fields of standing crops, paddy, fruits, vegetables, whatever is available.
It happened so in Mizoram in 1959. The Mizo people lost everything (see: "Once the rats came..."). No help came from the plains of Assam, many allege. Famished, boiling with anger at alleged discrimination, they rose in armed revolt against the state. The Mizo National Famine Front formed at the height of the famine; today it is called the Mizo National Front and the state chief minister today, Zoramthanga, is its leader as he was one of the leaders then.
He knows the threat is clear and present. In 2002-2003, 34 villages faced an increase in rodent population. In 2003-2004 another 16 witnessed it. 85 villages have already recorded sporadic mautak flowering, as per a directorate of agriculture report. But when flowering peaks in 2006-2007, a mautam -- a famine driven by mautak flowering -- is predicted.
Out of the 2,108,700 ha geographical area of Mizoram, 87.42 per cent (1,843,000 ha) is forested area as per the State of Forest Report 2003 . Of this forested area, the state government reports that 51.38 per cent (1,254,400 ha) is under bamboo and that 68.06 per cent of this bamboo forest area (644,600 ha) is completely dominated by mautak, though another 9 per cent has small patches of mautak. An estimation by Jorhat-based Rain Forest Research Institute in 2002 suggests almost the same. It says mautak actually grows over an area of 850,000 ha. The Union ministry of environment and forests MOEF has estimated, in 2005, that 510,000 ha of the mautak-dominant area will flower gregariously.
For the Mizo people, mautak is an integral ingredient to jhum cultivation, practiced over more than 70 per cent of the land at one or the other time. As Michael Lalmanzuala, a retired chief secretary of Mizoram, explains, "In January and February the rural folk begin to fell bamboo for jhum. In March they set fire to the fallen bamboo, turn it to ash. This ash is the best nutrient our steep and young, muddy hills can get for cultivation. Without mautak, cultivators can grow nothing."
The state's forest department also earns revenue. According to the state's Bamboo Development Agency (bda), at present only a small percentage of resource -- 28,315 tonnes per year -- is harvested for local construction, and small handloom and handicraft production. The maximum possible yield of bamboo in the state, though, works out to 3,237,689 tonnes per year if harvested completely. Presuming a royalty of Rs 1 per pole (what the state charges today for extraction; 250 poles make a tonne) the government could earn a phenomenal Rs 8,09,42,250 per year.
In other words, what is currently extracted is just one per cent of the total resource available. Mizoram makes about Rs 66 lakh as annual royalty from bamboo sales, according to a report of International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (inbar), an international ngo the Mizoram government asked to make the first report on the state's bamboo resources. It is a pittance, but with other forestry operations grinding to a halt since 1996, it is a substantial 40 per cent of revenue the state makes out of the forestry sector -- Rs 1.63 crore in 2001-2002 according to the Forestry and Wildlife Statistics 2004.
In 2000, the state government set up a state-level rodent control committee. In 2002, it asked inbar to develop a bamboo development action plan. It has created the bda as the nodal agency. Working in tandem with the Centre, in 2004, it also prepared the 'Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Schemes' or baffacos: 16 state departments came up with plans to tackle the challenge of mautak flowering (see table: Dream plan); Rs 556 crore for 5 years, beginning 2004-2005, was budgeted.
This plan is indeed all-encompassing. It envisages a four-pronged approach. One, the state government wants to evacuate (fell) as much bamboo as possible before it flowers and dies. Two, to prevent famine it will store larger volumes of foodgrain than done under normal circumstances. Three, it will try and diversify crops and agricultural livelihoods to reduce dependence on subsistence agriculture. Four, it wants to develop bamboo as an industry.
Also, to help the northeast states, the Planning Commission has begun a Centrally Sponsored Scheme, to be operated by the Union ministry of environment and forests MOEF, also providing additional central assistance to fight flowering.
For a state that woke up to the menace in 2000, not much has happened on the ground, except official parleys and fund-seeking from the Centre. "Ever since the locus of bda shifted to the industry department there has been complete inertia. They have no clue about forests or its resources, have never believed that bamboo can be a raw material for industrial products," says a senior officer in the state forest department. The forest department, claims an official in the planning department, is smarting from the loss of complete control over the agency. A tussle is on; meanwhile funds have been released to demarcate coupes and enumerate the growing stock in forest divisions. Peak flowering is only a year ahead, but this work is nowhere close to completion. "What can we do even if we have done all possible demarcations? We should have built roads into our most vulnerable areas long ago. Now each department is into building its own roads (to take out bamboo)," says David Thangliana, of Centre for Environment Protection, an Aizawl-based ngo.
The MOEF reports that of the 510,000 ha expected to be hit, only 120,000 ha are at present accessible for extraction. Clearly, the state is far from realising its potential of extraction. But then, the state has always abdicated its responsibility in this respect. Only look at the way the trade in bamboo currently occurs.
Do most of the forests in northeast India belong to its people, as is commonly thought? Mizoram proves it's a white lie. 562,226 ha of forests in the state are declared reserved forests. This includes the forest 800 metres each side of the major rivers. Some of the richest bamboo groves exist in these forests, segregated into zones or mahal s. And mahaldars or contractors -- usually non-Mizo people -- get to bid for this bamboo and cut it at will.
The bamboo is then sold to two paper mills of the Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited (hpcl), based in Assam and the biggest purchaser of Mizoram bamboo. The bamboo is floated down rivers to roadsides and then taken via road or rail by contractors. They pay a royalty of Rs 1 per pole and can take out as many as they want. "Right now we don't even know how much bamboo is being cut. To say that mahaldars under-report is to put it mildly. We are now going to build the first booms across major rivers used to transport bamboo," says L R Thanga, conservator of forests, Mizoram. The forest department admits a large volume is also smuggled out to Bangladesh.
"The mahaldar s engage us in Assam. We come here , work for three weeks at a time, cut as much as possible, push it into the rivers or bring it up to the roadside, take our daily wages and go back," says Siraju Mohammed, a labourer who has worked in the Kolasib forest division for last several years.
Most of the bamboo gets cut in areas close to the paper mills. Thus the most heavily-cut forests lie along the Aizawl-Silchar road. "The economics does not work out for the contractors to access areas in South Mizoram," says Thanga. The paper mills and the contractors completely monopolise the trade. Thus, villagers close to mahals have no alternative but to sell to the contractor at whatever price is offered.
Mizoram is parleying with the hpcl paper mills -- the biggest in the region -- to see if they will pick up more bamboo than they do at present. "The ones outside northeast India have made it clear that the economics does not work out for them. They will buy only if they have no alternative. Also, bamboo from Mizoram has an extra entry tax since it passes through Assam," says Thanga.
The state government has reached an agreement with hpcl, North Cachar to supply 800 metric tonnes of bamboo chips directly, not through mahaldars.
400 metric tonnes have already been supplied, and the bda is preparing to procure the rest from the Rulpuihlim-Rawpuichhip area, via bamboo chipping plants the government set up recently. The government has also exempted royalty payments for bamboo sold to bda, to curb the mahaldar business. A mechanised semi-portable ropeway has been installed at Vankal Ram under Champhai forest division to facilitate extraction.
But none of these measures can break the stranglehold of the hpcl paper mills. And as mautak flowering nears, there will be a glut. Contractors are sure to make a killing.
The only way out is to create alternative bamboo-based industries, micro- to large-scale. But the state's first attempt to go large-scale, to make bamboo-based boards, is yet to take off. A factory was to be set up at Sairang, as a joint venture between the state government, Mizoram Venus Bamboo Products Ltd, a Kolkata-based firm and Boarke Machine Company Ltd., a Taiwanese firm. Rs 4 crore was the project cost, and the Centre released th entire amount to the state. Yet in July 2005, Lakshmi Chand, secretary, Department of Development of North East region, noted: "Though some machines were found to have arrived from Taiwan and some were already installed, most were lying idle...nobody could inform the exact date of commissioning."
By January 2005, when Down To Earth visited Mizoram, the government had not even begun thinking of any micro- or cooperative-based enterprise. There is only one large handicrafts entrepreneur in Mizoram: Ramhmangaiah. He makes over Rs 25 lakh per annum in domestic sales and exports. He says, "I went out for just one international fair and got an order worth one crore. I could not muster enough resources to do even half the work in a year. So I let go of it. The entire state put together cannot accomplish the order at present." He now buys Chinese bamboo products and tries to innovate or imitate them. "You won't believe what all is possible. If I can make so much money by merely producing clothes-hangers and umbrella handles, imagine the market."
According to a 2005 MOEF status report: "The (state's) Industry Department is planning to utilise bamboo resources for panel making and charcoal making." The industry department, meanwhile, believes that 'whether or not bamboo-based, development and upgradation of infrastructure is necessary'. It wants to spend Rs 80 lakh and build/refurbish industrial estates.
If Mizoram corrects the direction of its industrialisation to push hard for a multi-layered bamboo-industry, it is bound to come up with another roadblock: dead bamboo. baffcos documents accept the state cannot evacuate all bamboo to the paper mills in time. Natural regeneration of even the hardy mautak, from the left over rhizome in the ground, will be sporadic and three to four years will pass before stocks build up, even in the most favourable ecological areas. The people will require mautak for jhum cultivation. Adds David Thangliana of the Centre for Environment Protection, "The firm root system of mautak holds the young soil of our hills together; thus, landslides could increase if we don't grow mautak quickly."
But the government is looking to grow other bamboo species. Paper mills do not like mautak. It has thin stems and low pulp value. "The paper mill has approached us to plant species they can buy and also gain out of. The forest department is keen to grow thick-walled species, to ensure people can sell it to the mill," says one senior forest officer. Records show that seeds of Bambusa bambos, D hamiltonni and other thicker-walled species have been procured, and seedlings are being raised in forest department nurseries.
That's what records show. As a conservator-level officer of the department accepts: "The only nursery really working is the central nursery at Turial." Mizoram is toying with the idea of bringing in exotic species from China and other places. But no research has been conducted on the impact new species will have on the soil and fertility of the land. Also, baffcos documents reveal the forest department is looking at bamboo plantations over a mere 27,000 ha.
This time, famine control might cost the state more than the famine itself, for 49.5 per cent of all Mizos live in urban areas and can easily be covered by the public distribution system (pds). Only 4.5 lakh people live in rural areas today. Says Michael Lalmanzuala, a retired bureaucrat, "The government has not really worked out if we need to invest so much on distribution of subsidised rice. If our pds is really functional, rice will reach the poorest too. Then why do we need more rice? We need to make people self-reliant, not make them depend on the state again. During the 1959 crisis people suffered because they were dependent on the state."
Says I V Ramanuj Rao, director (programmes) of inbar, "Instead of large godowns, they should have made small bamboo board-based storing vaults, incentive for setting up a bamboo board factory. Moreover, this would have ensured decentralised storing of grains by people." In jhum lands, he believes, the government should help people save grain rather than purchase tonnes of rice through pds.
Mizoram's malaise also ails much of northeast India. Other states faces the threat, too, and the challenge of building a flourishing and equitable bamboo economy. The Rain Forest Research Institute estimates an area of 1,800,000 ha of mautak bamboo forests to suffer flowering. What will happen then?
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