Bamboo and Rural Prosperity

Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Entrepreneurship, Business Devt., Environment, Ecology, Compliance, Skilling, Training, Professional Devt.

Bamboo and Rural Prosperity: Leveraging the Seedlings of Wealth

Ranjan, M P

Bamboo is abundantly grown in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, particularly in the eastern districts of the State. This Central State of the Indian sub-continent had dense forest cover that had been studied by British foresters over two hundred years ago. Traditional communities in Madhya Pradesh have used bamboo for several centuries as a basic resource material for basketry, home building and for agricultural supports. When industrialisation touched Madhya Pradesh the bamboo resources were exploited for the production of paper and rayon in a few large-scale mills set up near the forest tracts. Bamboo is treated as a minor forest product and is managed and monitored by the forest departments of the Government of Madhya Pradesh. One species dominates the forest tracts of Madhya Pradesh and this is Dendrocalamus strictus, which grows in the rain fed forest tracts in abundant quantities. The forest working plans for each district takes care of management and utilisation of these bamboo resources. State and National laws govern the extraction and movement of these bamboo resources within and outside the State. The local communities of bamboo workers called Basods are given special privileges in the use of the local resource through legal dispensation that is monitored by the forest departments at the district level. The Basods make their livelihood from the conversion of the bamboo resources into baskets for local and up-market uses and their relationship with the forest resource is a tenuous one. Another species of bamboo that is found in the forest is Bambusa bambos (Bambusa arundinacae), which is planted by the foresters in rain fed gullies and near streams. This species is also planted as homestead bamboo plantations near homes and farms of local settlers since it is a useful species for basketry and housing needs.

In spite of this abundance of bamboo resources and other natural resources the State of Madhya Pradesh is seen as a backward one in development terms. There is much rural poverty and the financial resources of the state are quite strained in meeting the very basic infrastructure needs of its people in the rural areas are deprived of visible signs of sustained development. Is it possible to change this state of affairs that seems to have been perpetuated for so long without the introduction of very heavy capital flows from outside to induce growth and prosperity in the region? We now believe that it is possible to bring about dramatic change in the local condition through an integrated set of measures and actions by both government and local residents alike along with a well-developed master plan for the sustainable use of the potential of the bamboo resources of the State. The potential of bamboo as an economic driver has been demonstrated in many ways in recent years by field success in China and a few East Asian countries. The growth of new industries based on local bamboo resources has been an eye opener for many people and the lessons that this holds for a State like Madhya Pradesh is a source of hope and conviction that could influence decisions at the macro and micro economic levels alike. While the State Government can mobilise policy change and provide the necessary supports and incentives for the growth of an economic region based on bamboo, the local people, both farmers and entrepreneurs, could make the efforts to coordinate their moves to be in sync with new opportunities that can unfold from investments in innovation and subsequent investment supports in a synchronised manner.

New Models for Growth
For such a coordinated set of actions and commitments to take off we will need to change entrenched mind-sets about bamboo, which is a very old material in the region. It is here that innovation and training will need to play a critical role in first creating sufficient evidence of potential new applications and value generation which is followed by a sustained programme of capacity building in terms of human resources that are required to exploit this potential with the new knowledge resources that are available today. One major policy thrust that is critical for the bamboo sector to grow in the State is the shift in focus from forest based bamboo resources to farm based supplies, which do not exist today, in any significant volume. The new applications that provide value added possibilities require bamboo that is consistent in quality and this can only be provided by plant stocks that are intensively managed so that the desired quality is selectively bred into the crop by good practices that are embedded into the cultivation and harvesting of the natural resource. This may increase the base cost of the bamboo itself but it will also increase employment at the farm level, which will be a welcome source of revenue for local people in the State particularly in the rural areas. Better quality of bamboo thus produced can be used for numerous value added applications through a programme of sustained innovation and design which could be the focus of the micro enterprises that could be established on the basis of such availability of new bamboo resources locally. Such micro industries could support very large employment with very little capital outlays and can be the mainstay of the local cluster that is based on the bamboo resource. These micro industries could produce a vast range of low technology intensive products for local consumption as well as finished goods for up-markets in the district headquarters and major towns of the region. The product categories that could be sustained in this value added market are furniture for local housing, toys and children’s furniture, agricultural implements and garden structures such as local green houses for value added agriculture, housing components and kitchen accessories and baskets that are traditional and still in demand. It should not be mistaken that this is a call for a return to some old or traditional situation based on the historic uses that bamboo was used in the past, nor are we seeking the return of the “good old days” that we Indians talk about our glorious civilisation of 5000 years vintage. The call is for investments into modern innovations that are needed and implicated in rural India if the rural producers and users can get social and economic equity in employment, and economic growth in an increasingly globalised world economy.

Besides these micro enterprises that are small family or small group ventures we can anticipate the establishment of viable small and medium enterprises if funds are made available with adequate incentives from the Government to exploit another class of semi-industrial products which too are high in employment generation potential and which have local uses as substitutes for many potential imports from urban based industries. These applications include processed bamboo components using simple machine tools arranged into small and medium sized industrial units that are both viable and able to produce goods for the local and up-market needs in a competitive manner. These machines and power tools that can help transform the local economy too need to be innovated and developed, each offering an interesting new avenue for value added product creation and for the creation of quality labour opportunities that are not based on human drudgery alone. Bamboo used as splits, rods, sticks, rounds, squares and shavings or fibres can all be used to make commercial products such as matchsticks, agarbatti sticks, agricultural props and poles for fruit orchards. However for the strategy to fructify the early stages of conversion must be mechanised through the creation of small and effective machine tools that can be both managed and maintained in the rural setting even if they are not produced in the region. The advantages of globalisation can be leveraged here by helping the local craftsman obtain the best possible tools from across the world if these are carefully selected and made available locally so that their livelihood is protected and developed in balanced manner. Bamboo can be converted and explored in other ways as well. Bamboo culms that are solid or with very small lumens as seen in some species could be further extended to the production of panel boards using splits and squared rods, which will find application in the production of furniture and local housing. Simple composite and lamination technology can be adopted to make a wide range of boards and members for many new applications in the domestic, industrial and retail space which could be a very effective timber substitute in the years ahead. The fibreboards that are possible from bamboo can be used for a great many applications and here the large resource found in the forest can be used to achieve high quality results. All this will only be possible if and only if the products made from these new enterprises find market acceptance both locally and in up-market applications. This is where the need for sustained investments in design are implicated to help local entrepreneurs move forward with well designed and tested solutions which are both innovative thereby providing additional value when compared to the traditional applications that have been used so far. Further, when we advocate new farm based cultivation models for the State we need to look at the needs of the farmers closely from the experience at other places.

Farm Based Economic Model
We anticipate at least three types of farm production based on scale of operation, all of which are simultaneously viable in the region since they can cater to different downstream user groups in a sustainable manner. The micro enterprises may well be based on own farms that are homestead based with little excess production available for distribution. However the fact that these enterprises have a sustainable supply of good quality raw material under their control they are better equipped to face competition and price fluctuations in the market place. The second scale of farm could be in the form of small and medium sized farms managed by local farmers that produce the quality of materials required by the local small industries, some owned by the farming families and others by partner cooperatives in nearby areas. The third scale of farm production could be in the form of large corporate farms that could be set up to meet the needs of large scale users in various industry segments and for the open market for particular quality bamboo materials. Here we anticipate the cultivation of a number of other species based on demand both local and up-market. Such a cluster of farm based bamboo production and utilisation can be envisaged and supported by Government policy and banking supports which would lead to a sustained economic growth that is based on one of the fastest growing plant resource known to mankind. This will only be successful if the products of the industries can fetch a better value for the producers and create a brand value in the minds of the users that is both satisfying and acceptable.

Bamboo has many useful parts and the farm-based strategy must look at the real possibility of full biomass utilisation as a strategic goal of the proposed programme. While each part may have multiple uses each such use should be evaluated in the context of the total value that any particular pattern could generate for the farmer, the local population, the environment and the down-stream craftsmen, entrepreneurs and the markets as a whole. For instance bamboo leaves could be a very good source of fibre for the production of fibreboards and even handmade paper. However this use if exploited fully would deprive the soil of certain natural nutrients, which would otherwise be available. Bamboo shoots can be extracted from most species as a source of human food or animal feed. Some species are preferred for shoot extraction but in most cases selective extraction of shoots makes the clump grow more robust and provide healthier culms. Therefore a balanced utilisation model at the farm level may call for such discriminated multiple uses that could maximise the benefits that would accrue to the producers and the environment alike. It is here that a sustained programme of local research that is based on these new farms would need to be undertaken in local institutions and in collaboration with local producers and users. The leaves of the bamboo plant, the culm sheaths, its rhizomes and branches are all valuable raw materials that could be the subject of future studies and design strategies. Such an approach makes sense in a farm based model since the seasonal nature of culm harvesting could be spaced out with periods of other activities that are based on the different parts of the bamboo plant which would help create off seasonal rural labour which can have a positive effect on the local economy. The farmers being in control of these varied uses can plan according to the viability of each option and achieve excellent results on the whole.

Research and design can indeed provide such solutions if adequate investments are made towards innovations in this sector which can then be owned and used by the local producers from a common pool of knowledge that is generated by local institutions. This kind of innovation and dissemination will help create sustainable industries that could be set up with very limited induction of capital from external sources. Local labour and enterprise can be directed and coordinated by policy initiatives of Government to grow what could be best described as an agro-industrial district cluster based on bamboo. This bamboo district cluster model would support many scales of farming as well as many scales of production, each with their own sets of products and services. The setting up of this district cluster would create multitude of opportunities for the offer of services that are needed in any such industrial cluster. Communication, transport, food, accounting, skilled labour and educational and training infrastructure could be planned and catalysed with local participation. Power is one of the critical needs for such an agro-industrial district cluster but here again bamboo could be used from the forest to produce local power using gasification as a method at fairly reasonable levels of local investment if central power supply is likely to be delayed or found unviable. This kind of localised growth could create islands of prosperity in a very short time even in the remote districts that have unreliable power supply as of now. This kind of localised power supply opens up new possibilities for the exploitation of the bamboo resources of the forest areas. Government policy is needed here to regulate the use of forest-based bamboo to ensure sustainable extraction and use. Here we see the possibility of two initiatives for policy that could benefit the local population and the environment alike. The degraded forest areas need government supports to make the joint forest management schemes to work better. Greater ownership for the local population is one such initiative that needs to be explored. The active forest areas that are not within the conservation zone too needs to be brought under the JFM schemes on a long term basis to ensure sustainability of the forests while extraction of bamboo and other forest produce continues on a regulated basis. The other zone that is the core conservation zone will need another set of guidelines and a regulatory framework that involves locals as well as Government representatives in coordinated teams.

Human Resource Development
Madhya Pradesh has also stayed backward due to poor infrastructure and low productivity of its rural populations due to low levels of education and poor access to finance and other resources and infrastructure. This needs to be changed and the bamboo initiative can give a focus to the kind of education and training that is imparted to the local human resources. New local institutions and processes may be needed that could help develop the required knowledge and innovation resources in a continuing and sustained manner. Knowledge about cultivation and management of farm based bamboo resources will improve productivity and this will help the local population to exploit the incentives that are on offer as part of the overarching development strategy of the Government of Madhya Pradesh. Further, skill development and training that is focussed on the introduction of new and improved products and processes will set the local producers on a growth path of better productive use of their human skills and natural resources of bamboo. Better quality of farm based bamboo and better products from the planned clusters will create a new and valuable brand for the bamboo initiative that will have a ripple effect that has far reaching implications for the sustained growth of the local economy. With the possibility of multiple centres or clusters growing up and being located in at least ten eastern districts of Madhya Pradesh, will be a power house of innovation and change that can transform the economic landscape of the whole State. Bamboo is projected to become a major industry across India with the efforts of the Planning Commission and the Central Governments Mission approach. The State of Madhya Pradesh is very well positioned to share the resources being disseminated by the various Central schemes through its own progressive policies and initiatives that are already under way. If there is so much potential, why then is the situation still bleak for the rural producers of Madhya Pradesh? Why is the demand for industrial uses of bamboo tapering off from the paper mils and rayon mills located near the region? Why are the forest depots getting such a low return for the stocks lying with them? The answer to these questions perhaps lies in the lack of innovation in this industry and this could be changed with some policy and investment initiatives that can change local perceptions and also create real new opportunities where none seemed to exist in the past. This is an ideal setting to demonstrate the power of design at the strategic level.

Innovation and Design
The locally abundant species of bamboo, Dendrocalamus strictus has not so far fetched a premium in any market. In fact the traditional users are also finding substitutes for this material. Paper producers are now using agricultural residues and imported wood pulp as their main source while pressing for reduction in the price of bamboo supplied by the forest department. Such natural pressures for change and obsolescence take place everyday in all sorts of industries. It is here that some of these industries have realised the power that active innovation and design can play in making viable new schemes when old models start to fade. At NID we explored the possible applications of D.strictus through a number of creative and innovative exercises to discover a real potential, which may only be the tip of the iceberg. With the assistance and sustained support of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India, the NID team was able to carry out experimental design investigations on a few popular bamboo species with an aim of discovering and developing products suitable for rural production. While in the past many of these explorations looked at product diversification in the traditional handicrafts sector in the recent efforts a greater emphasis was placed on products for rural use. While export markets helped spawn a cash rich economy it is a very sophisticated operation that can be mastered only if a very high degree of entrepreneurship exists in the region along with high quality of trained human resources. In many remote rural situations these conditions are hard to find and the result is that such products need not contribute to the local economy since the value added is located at the market end and not in the hands of the producer. It is in such a situation that the focus on products for local use and in nearby markets would create innovations that can create new market opportunities in the rural hinterland for the local producers. At a meeting called by the UNDP in Delhi I had called this strategy as innovations at the “thick end of the wedge”. Low technology innovations that can be used and exploited by rural farmers and producers can be as forward-looking and critical for economic growth as the so-called “cutting edge” innovations that are being achieved by our hi-tech industries and the software sectors. Rural users and producers need such innovations desperately to change their condition for the better, with a little help from Government policy and infrastructure that facilitates sustained innovation that can move many pressing needs towards viable solutions that can be locally implemented. Gandhijis strategy of Khadi needs to be given new meaning through such initiatives by using advanced knowledge resources available to us in a sustained programme of research and design to create solutions that can generate rural prosperity and economic growth across that region. Bamboo has this inherent capability if used in conjunction with high quality innovation and good business models to bring about dramatic change in our village economy. It is indeed a seedling that can spread wealth, and we need to take these moves forward in a determined and systematic manner.

Sustained investment in an institutional and industrial setting will show many new and exciting applications that will help keep the industry viable and profitable in the years ahead. The properties of the local bamboo needs to be continuously explored and the findings must be fed back into training programmes for local craftsmen and farmers so that these are assimilated into the local knowledge which will be at the centre of the value addition strategy of the proposed local district clusters. Such a knowledge rich approach will provide a stable demand for the produce of the region and help it compete with other species and materials occupying the product landscape of an active market economy that India is heading towards. Promoting the local innovations and protecting it through brand building and exposure to markets across India would fall on Government promotional agencies working in concert with the associations of local producers. Such an integrated development model can be sustained since bamboo is such a versatile material and the social and political hope and economic value that the proposed process can unfold and release will make it a major economic driver of the State economy if carefully managed and implemented as an integrated multi-layered strategy.

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Paper prepared for publication in the pre-conference souvenir for the World Bamboo Congress, New Delhi from 27tn February to 4th March 2004.





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