On edge

Can bamboo become the basis of a thriving industry? Can the northeast cash in the most?

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

On edge

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The states do earn some royalty from extraction but considering the area the plant covers, the sum is a pittance. State revenue could shoot if bamboo products were made in the region. But as of now, bamboo harvested in most states is either taken by the two paper mills in the region as raw stock, consumed within households at low value addition products like mats, or taken out of the northeast raw. Take Mizoram's case: it earns a paltry Rs 66 lakh as annual revenue. Much of the stock is unutilised for lack of opportunities to people.

Assam, too, scuttles away its opportunities by leasing out all its reserve forests containing bamboo to the paper mills. (It intends to continue to do so even after the flowering, according to an moef report). One of Assam's thickest bamboo forest areas is in North Cachar hills -- reserved and the unclassified state forests together make up 4,890 sq km area of the autonomous district. In 2004, the entire area was given to a single person -- Ranbir Singh Gandhi of Hill Trade Agencies -- through his various companies. In 2004-2005, bamboo to the tune of 21,861 tonnes were extracted from this area, at Rs 85 per tonne - the cheapest rate in the region: that's the kind of business Gandhi now monopolises. Hill State Agencies plans to put up four chipping factories. Located at crucial transport junctures, the factories will turn bamboo poles into small chips that take less space. This will enable more bamboo to be packed into a truck and transported. He has paid his bit to the underground, everyone acknowledges, including him and the underground.

In other areas, the hpcl paper mills have direct lease over the forests: they take out 5,268 million tonnes per year of air dried (mtad) bamboo in Barak valley, 8,000 mtad in Kamrup east division and 1,500 mtad in Nagaon. Till 2002-2003, hpcl was paying just Rs 62.50 per tonne. Now, it pays a strongly negotiated figure of Rs 118 per tonne.

Regions of the northeast without a paper mill feel ignored. Nagaland is pleading with the Centre to revive the state's only paper mill, now shut. Some are too far from the paper mills to fit into their costing chart. Those regions wait for the National Bamboo Mission (nbm) to turn this wild weed into an economic miracle.

Miracle weed
nbm is meant to use bamboo development "as an instrument of poverty alleviation and employment generation, particularly in the rural sector". It will diversify, modernise and expand bamboo based industries through the application of modern technology and financial support; and "use bamboo as a means to achieve ecological security through plantation of quality species needed by industry and the handicrafts sector".

The Planning Commission (pc) began work on nbm in 2002, but it remains a non-starter. A year-and-a-half ago the Cane and Bamboo Technology Centre, Guwahati helped prepare the detailed project report. In October 2005, the Union government's Expenditure and Finance Committee passed a note on nbm's formation. One to six months from now, the Cabinet note shall be discussed by the government. In the year bamboo flowering begins to peak in Mizoram and Tripura, the prime minister may release the plan for nbm . By the time the flowering gets over, we shall know what nbm was worth. Till then, the northeast states are busy looking for other avenues for money. The Union government's department of science and technology has begun a National Bamboo Mission on Applications (nbma) with a budget of Rs 100 crore. nbm is the mother mission; nbma was to be a part of it, the child that produced the technology and applications. But strange are the ways of the government: the cart may come before the horse.

None of the officials want to speak on the mission because it is yet to go before the Cabinet. "Write on it a month later please, then it will all be in place," says M L Chowdhary, commissioner, horticulture, whose office under the Union ministry of agriculture (moa) has been made the nodal office. Details of nbm are not available in the public domain. It's worth Rs 2,600 crore, as per the 2003 report prepared by pc. It's much needed but not in the shape it is taking.

Realising that four-fifths of the 10 th Five Year Plan is already over, the budget for nbm for 2005-2006 has been kept at about Rs 600 crore, reveals Chowdhary. Half of this is to be spent through moa and half by moef. Why? Because moef believes it is central to plans: after all, 80 cent of the bamboo grows on forestland. moa knows this: it believes bamboo grown on non-private lands has amazing potential as a commodity, and only it can drive that process. Only 20 per cent of bamboo grows in homesteads, according to the pc report. nbm is meant to decrease the difference; to at least 70:30.

But the actual situation is worse than the figures indicate. People in the hamlets of Manipur, Mizoram, Assam or Tripura may grow bamboo in their homesteads but they can only use it at home. If they take it on the road, move it anywhere out of their house, they have to take the permission of the forest department (fd), or else they are illegally transporting forest produce. This is how ludicrous it gets. This is the biggest challenge before nbm, yet none of the concerned agencies publicly acknowledge it.

Regulatory regime
Bamboo is scientifically classified as a grass, not a tree. Yet, in Section 2(7) of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, 'tree' includes bamboo and timber includes felled or fallen tress. Further, under Section 2 [4 (a)] the term forest produce includes: "the following whether found in or bought from a forest or not, that is to say timber, charcoal, catechu etc" and "the following found in or brought from the forest, that is to say, grass, surface soil, rocks, minerals etc".

The jargon implies bamboo felled or extracted from abackyard or reserved forest is 'forest produce' whose trade fd controls. But forest officers in the northeast believe it's a weed. Shantikam Hazarika, assistant conservator, forests, in Guwahati, goes a step further when he says, "It's the miracle weed of the northeast."

But the stranglehold of the forest department over bamboo ensures it remains as worthless for common people. This despite a Supreme Court (sc) order dated February 18, 2004, exempting bamboo from restrictions it had earlier imposed on tree felling, on the ground that it is a grass.

The forst department still keeps bamboo under the purview of Sections 41 and 42 of the Indian Forest Act, making transit passes (tp) obligatory to move it, even if harvested from a homestead. In December 2004, moef did take a positive step by issuing guidelines for felling and transit regulations for tree species grown in non-forest lands. But they omitted any mention of bamboo, leaving it to the state's discretion. Only Mizoram has used it to its advantage.

In June 2005, moef sent another letter to the states to clarify bamboo's status. It mentioned sc had banned collection of, besides other things, bamboo from protected areas by its order dated February 14, 2000. This time it forgot to mention sc had not banned collection of bamboo from non-protected areas. But state forest officers in several states stopped extraction; they ordered shut, in Arunachal Pradesh, plywood units trying to shift from timber to bamboo. "It was hilarious, they did it despite clear instructions from the High Powered Committee of the Supreme Court on Northeast to allow plywood or veneer units located inside approved industrial estates to use bamboo," says a senior bureaucrat.

The industry may get its way around but not the common man. "The large traders can get tps for 3,000 bamboo and load 5,000 if you have struck a deal. But if I as a villager want to take out a few to sell from my village, I shall have to deal with the ranger I shall need a tp, this despite the fact that these are our forests. The forest department has nothing to do with them," says a member of Dimasa Student's Union in Longmaisa Dikreng in North Cachar.

For state forest departments, tps are a big source of earning, officially as well as illegitimately. inbar tracked a truck from Tripura carrying bamboo to a southern state.

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