Written by Remya Lakshmanan and Aarushi Aggarwal

Green Gold, as bamboo is often known, is found everywhere in India. It is one of those rare, naturally-occurring resources agnostic to climatic conditions, soil conditions and precipitation levels available in 136 species. Millions of Indians rely on bamboo for a part of their entire livelihoods.

Despite this vast bamboo habitat in India, which is also the second-largest bamboo growing country in the world, the grass remains woefully under-utilised. The perception of bamboo as “poor man’s timber” and a law that had designated non-forest bamboo as a tree prevented it from making inroads into the consumer goods and lifestyle products segments where it otherwise holds tremendous scope.

However, the Indian Forest (Amendment) Ordinance of 2017 that re-classified bamboo as a grass, has opened doors to its widespread cultivation and encouraged many bamboo manufacturing organisations to mainstream their products. They openly challenge the epithet “poor man’s timber” and seek, instead, to prove that bamboo is a ‘wise man’s timber’.

Indeed, the widespread use of bamboo is a wise step in today’s precarious environmental and climate crisis. Bamboo is a rapidly growing, renewable, durable, and affordable non-wood raw material whose tenacity makes it ideal for construction and furniture design. Its use would replace the over-reliance on wood which depleting forests have also made financially unsustainable. At the same time, bamboo is also highly malleable and can be used to make products that, at present, are made of plastic.

Replacing plastic in the market is the objective of Bamboo India, a social entrepreneurship venture established in 2016, which has 42 full-time employees and over 3,000 associated farmers. With a wide array of products like toothbrushes, combs, pen stands and diaries, the organisation has already prevented 13.8 lakh kg of plastic from entering the market. But even though systems to cultivate and acquire bamboo already exist in India, they function at a non-industrial level and rely on imported machinery. For the organisation, this changed during the pandemic, co-founder Yogesh Shinde shares, when they were forced to acquire indigenous machines which helped scale up production, particularly for toothbrushes, from 100 per day to 20,000.

To exploit bamboo’s potential in construction and architecture, Sunil Joshi, chairman of Bamboo Society of India’s Maharashtra chapter says, institutions need to teach its application. Mr Joshi added that mechanical, chemical and civil engineers must also explore bamboo’s potential for use in building world-class, future proof designs. Disjointed efforts to develop the industry, he further said, may only cause more harm than good; therefore, a clear-cut strategy will be the right step forward.

Krunal Negandhi, co-founder of JANS Bamboo, is particularly optimistic about the prospects of bamboo in the construction and furniture sector that are undergoing transformational changes in India. The organisation is the largest exporter of bamboo from India and has successfully constructed bamboo structures in Africa and Maldives through the indigenous process and engineering capability they have developed. This has helped sequester more than 25 lakhs of carbon dioxide and provided regular employment to over 250 artisans.

Bamboo can also be a gateway to Indian rural development, primarily since it features so prominently in many rural communities across the country. Commercial bamboo cultivation does not need large tracts of land and can be planted alongside trees and on the bunds of existing crops, according to Sanjeev Karpe, founder of KONBAC, a non-profit founded 15 years ago. In addition to manufacturing bamboo products, KONBAC also provides training in cultivation, production processing and enterprise development to its 120 employees and associated farmers in the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra.

Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) can be a thrust factor to create institutional demands for bamboo. A demand-driven shift to bamboo cultivation can generate incomes of Rs 1-2 lakh per acre for the farmers, according to a report in Village Square. The report further states that the Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) of bamboo is 3.7 compared to that of mango and cashew, which are 2.3 and 2.8, respectively. This growing profitability brings the potential of bamboo to India’s farmers and allows them to benefit from it.

Increasing the stagnant income of Indian farmers is a crucial aspect of Prime Minister Modi’s comprehensive agricultural reforms. This objective of doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022-23 is essential to promoting their welfare, reducing agrarian distress and bringing parity between farmers’ incomes and those in the non-agricultural sectors. According to Milind Patil, the founder of Sayhadri Nursery in Kudal, Maharashtra, the cultivation of bamboo is a financially and ecologically viable option that can help in achieving these objectives.

To scale up and maximise the potential of bamboo, widespread institutionally-backed investments are required along the entire supply chain, right from cultivation to harvesting and processing, to enable farmers and manufacturers to produce the best quality bamboo products that can sustainably replace other competitors in the market.

Research in aligning soil conditions and cultivation practices, efficient processing units closer to farms, fire retardancy in multi-storied bamboo structures can immediately enhance the presence of bamboo in the consumer markets. Furthermore, technology integration in manufacturing, marketing bamboo among the public, and establishing export routes to potential markets can boost sector evaluation, which will in-turn augment production and market size.

To boost exports, agarbatti, made from bamboo, is a strong starting point. In contrast to perceptions, it is not a small cottage industry but a billion-dollar opportunity. With 20 lakh employees across the nation, this industry yields a staggering export revenue of INR 1,000 crore FY 2018-19. In the next five years, it will continue to grow at a CAGR of 15 per cent and cross the INR 12,000 crore mark.

To substitute imports from countries like China and Vietnam, agarbatti manufacturers in India are increasingly looking to the north-east to source the tulda variety of bamboo that is preferred in incense stick making. Similarly, India is eyeing the export market for food products like bamboo shoots, bamboo vinegar and Mulayari (bamboo rice) that come with some exceptional nutritional values.

The concerted efforts of government and non-government agencies are slowly helping bamboo rid itself of the stigma of being “poor man’s timber”. A national conference on new age bamboo on 25 and 26th of February brought together the National Bamboo Mission, Ministry of Agriculture, Invest India and all relevant department and industry stakeholders to chart the way forward in making the country self-sufficient.

In recent years, bamboo has shown its strength in producing superior value-added products that can replace wood timber and low-quality plastic, responsible for much of today’s pollution and environmental degradation. The application of advanced technology for proper management of bamboo derivates can lead to the transformation of this natural resource from ‘green grass’ to the ‘green gold’ that it is.

The authors are part of the Strategic Investment Research Unit at Invest India. Views expressed are personal.