What’s in a name? A lot. A market of Rs 15,000 crore at home, and $7 billion globally, to be precise. The world’s fastest-growing plant, bamboo, is being increasingly hailed as “green gold”, not just by tribals and craftsmen, but by a new range of businesses, including high-tech ones. The Indian government has got itself into a lexicographic spin on whether bamboo should be classified as tree, grass or weed, because that would determine which ministry will reap the policy harvest of managing this green gold. The dispute over its classification is not new and dates back to British India. The Indian Forest Act, 1927, which forest officials still adhere to, classified palms and bamboo as trees. This has enabled Union and state forest departments to oversee the bamboo trade, with the attendant rental possibilities for the overseers! Plant scientists, on the other hand, view bamboo as “grass”. The World Bamboo Organisation, a Boston (USA)-based non-governmental body, has referred to the historic and universally accepted classification of plants by Carl von Linné, the father of modern taxonomy, which described bamboo as a giant graminoid (grass) belonging to the plants family called Poaceae. Taking a similar view, the Forest Rights Act, 2006, listed bamboo among the non-timber forest produce that could be accessed by the forest-dependent communities. As a grass “bamboo” would be out of the forest ministry’s purview and into the agriculture ministry’s.
The Union environment and forests ministry continues to regard bamboo as a tree. The need for a holistic view on bamboo is occasioned by many factors. The new assertion of forest dwellers on right to forest produce being an important one. It is perhaps this factor that has spurred the home, rural development and panchayati raj ministries to seek freer access for forest communities to bamboo resources. Forest communities have traditionally been using bamboo as building material and for making farm tools, fishing rods and numerous other household items. Tender raw bamboo is also consumed as food. Rural crafts persons also use bamboo as raw material for making utility and decorative items that find growing demand at home and in export markets. Bamboo has also found new industrial uses, with new technologies making bamboo an ideal substitute for timber in furniture, plywood, particle boards and related industries. The pulp and paper making industry also consumes bamboo.
Unfortunately, the lack of sustainable management of bamboo resources pending clarity over its classification is resulting in the steady degradation of wild bamboo stocks in several areas. The north-eastern region is the only region where bamboo is still found in abundance. Here the work of the Bamboo Technology Mission is being impaired by the classification problem. Given the growing demand for bamboo both from forest-dependent communities and modern industries, a well-crafted policy for sustainable management of bamboo resources is needed. Getting one ministry to adopt a holistic view on bamboo has become necessary.