Empowerment of Small & Marginal Bamboo Workers through Diversification and Value Addition.



India is one of the large bamboo producing countries, like the other tropical regions, in the world. Asia is the richest continent in the world pertaining to bamboo resources. Bamboos are very common in the monsoon regions of eastern Asia. They are the largest of the grasses, with woody stems, which may reach one inch in diameter and nearly 100 feet in height.  There are exceptions as well. Some 65 percent of total world bamboo resources come from the Asian continent. Three of the top six bamboo producing countries are from Asia. India and China together account for approximately 45 per cent of the world bamboo resources. While the share of India has been around 30 per cent and that of China has been some 15 percent.

It is important to know that a sizable portion of the work force engaged in the bamboo industry comprise the small and marginal workers. Most of them were traditional workers who come from the erstwhile untouchables of the society. In fact any discussion on the empowerment of these sections of the people must have its own bearing on poverty, women employment, environmental sustainability and the like. In a way, this is directly related to the millennium development goals (MDGs) of the United Nations. Thus   out of eight such goals, four are applicable in this thematic discussion and is contextual as well.


Bamboo Varieties:


It is known to the world that more than 100 bamboo species are used commercially and can provide excellent means of income generation in primary and secondary processing with out much capital investment.  There is a growing demand for the bamboo-based products. There is a policy dimension arising here which needs to be addressed. It is about the plough back of the incremental incomes realised in the industry to make it self sustaining in the long run.  With the depletion of the area under bamboo, its sustainability is a major policy issue. Substitutes for bamboo like eucalyptus may not be that easy. Bamboo is extremely versatile. It has a little over 1000 uses, and can be used to produce anything that can be made from timber.  Bamboo products, among others, include furniture and handicrafts; flooring mats, housing, pulp – paper, charcoal, fibre for textiles, bamboo shoots for food, and the like.  Bamboo is used to contain soil erosion.


Recent Policy Thrusts:


Some recent policy based decisions came as a major boost to India’s cane and bamboo sector,  when the North Eastern Council (NEC) of India and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation(UNIDO)  had  signed  a US $ 600,000 Trust Fund agreement for the promotion of  “Cane and Bamboo Networking Project” in the North-East. The Agreement was signed in the state capital of Assam on 29 January 2009.


Its major thrust will be related to technology issues of bamboo processing in its various forms and a rich diversity of bamboo based items.  It covers products like handicrafts, construction materials and export-quality flooring products to mention a few items.



In the long run, UNIDO plans to facilitate job creation and income generation in the region through the vast number of bamboo workers, who are mostly poor and inarticulate in the region.


Demand for Bamboo Products:

There are several uses for bamboo and its products. Household items are several. It is used in the construction industry, fencing of country side properties and fields, etc. It was used for a long time in the water logged areas to fix up piling required for empowering the building sites in places like Rotterdam, Amsterdam and in places like Kerala for its Kuttanad bunds. Much of the bamboo of late is used for a variety of purposes like furniture, kitchen ware, decorations, etc. Bamboo rice, as it is known among the aboriginals- adivassis- is an excellent food at the famine times. But bamboo flowers once in a century and as such it is a rare treat to have this bamboo rice.


For the tribal people, bamboo is more of like a food security during rainy days. It serves as an income generation activity as well as an employment promotion avenue.


Bamboo as such is a non-durable resource and is used for exposed conditions with or without treatment. Bamboo can be processed into modern products. It is known as engineered bamboo. It may successfully compete with wood products in price and performance. Use of bamboo in composite panels and boards can easily overcome differences and deficiencies in quality related to the culms and allow the production of homogeneous products. Engineered bamboo may well replace wood, steel and concrete in many uses demanded by the local conditions and based on considerations of cost effectiveness and innovation imperatives.


Bamboo charcoal is traditionally used as a substitute for wood charcoal . It can serve as a fuel, absorbent and conductor.   Bamboo has its uses in pulp making, paper industry and even in cloth sector.  Bamboo shoots are a kind of delicacy for the elite in the star hotels: Fresh bamboo shoots are delicious and healthy with high fibre content though has its far reaching ill effects on the sustainability of the bamboos.


 Estimates & Potential:

There is a growing world market for bamboo.  According to some estimates or guesstimates the global market for bamboo is at about $12 billion. This may go up to $20 billion by the year 2015. However, reliable statistics are still lacking and most of the economic activities related to bamboo are not recorded officially as well as not updated too.


Recent estimates say that world wide some one million people use bamboo for various housing needs. Interestingly it may be noted that some 2.5 billion people use or trade in bamboo.


Bamboo industry supports now some 2.5 million people and it may go up from dollar 12 billion to dollar 20 billion by 2015.


It is against this background one has to see the profile of the Indian consumers. It is estimated that there are some 144 million rural households in India with a total population of 732 million people under this category. Out of this   for some 58 million the annual income is around Rupees 54,000 (One $ = 45 Rs). This offers new opportunities for the consumer durables industry. Much depends on the innovations we bring   about in the bamboo products like product diversification and value addition based on customer taste as well as rural reach coupled with affordability.


Such is the magnitude and potential of bamboo related activities. Under such a scenario, it is very imperative to look at it holistically, so that its stake holders are benefited in terms of purchasing power. The major intervention to facilitate this is through the process of value addition.


How to Address Value Addition & Diversification?

1) It is mainly possible by making bamboo a demand driven enterprise. Conscious efforts are required at the policy making levels in making it appeal that it is a nature friendly product and its green properties are to be highlighted. As the purchasing power is increasing for the middle income groups in the developing countries, affordable budget oriented products are to be developed keeping in view the different emerging market segments. Gone are the days of one size fitting all marketing approach?


2)   Product innovation may be taken up along with a demand driven strategy. Efforts are required to go the extra mile in making innovations in relation to the customer demand. Consumer tastes are undergoing rapid and drastic changes as the world has come down to the click of a mouse. Innovate or perish must be the slogan for a vibrant bamboo economy to face the future challenges. It is high time to learn the “innovate and prosper” philosophy.


3) Though India has 17 per cent of the bamboo acreage, it has only four percent of the bamboos global market due to poor yields as compared to Japan, China, and Malaysia. They have a share of some 80 per cent of the world market in bamboo.


4) Common Facility Centres (CFCs) are to be set up on war footing for the collective good of this industry particularly addressing the needs of the poor and the marginalised in order to make them viable and sustainable in the long run.


5) There is a need for taking up master crafts men rehabilitation training programme. This would ensure, among others, that the sector is sustained with traditional skills and the various associated and intrinsic skills are passed on to the posterity. The aim is to empower the bamboo workers and crafts men as well as the small and marginal traders.


6) An institution may be set up in each district known as District Bamboo Crafts Men Society (DBCS) to facilitate the ensured supply of raw materials at reasonable price and for the buy back of finished products. It may be run by the small and marginal bamboo workers and not by the government officials. Thus it becomes cost effective.  It may be a good idea that the CFCs work in close liaison with the DBCS. It would train the costal and high land unemployed youth and women in the bamboo product manufacturing, so that the opportunity cost for them becomes discernible.


Government officials must realise that their role is only to facilitate and to work with the beneficiaries and the stake holders.


7) There must be in place a system where by planning   has to be done as an exercise of top down and bottom up consultations. We must have a change of heart and to embark up on a new management culture of listening to the stake holders prior to drawing up   projects and programmes meant for the benefit of the masses, instead of imposing them over the beneficiaries, howsoever, benevolent they may be.


8) Policy makers must have the ability to comprehend and assess issues not from the macro economic stand point alone, but from practical perspective too. Take it or leave it attitude, must be abandoned once for all. The guiding philosophy must be one of,

“right intervention at the right time”.


9) It has been observed in many a case that while the traditional workers bring their products to the markets from hinterlands, they are harassed by the government officials in the name of some inhuman rules of conservation. It must be stopped.


10) There are now some 35 marketing centres operating in Kerala for the cane and bamboo products and each one is provided with Rs 25,000 as support to them by the government. The number of such centres to be increased to 100 by 2010 on the basis of felt needs of the industry.


11) There are some excellent NGOs working for the uplift of the bamboo workers in Wyanad area of Kerala, India with more than 2000 members; Idukki district again in Kerala, India with more than 1000 members and Pathnamthitta district with some 1000 members. Such NGOs may be encouraged financially and logistically.


12) Bamboo variety used for making furniture may be constantly placed under R&D efforts by centres like KFRI for evolving new varieties as demanded by the future markets. Conscious efforts are required by policy makers in making it a priority.


13) There is a need to up grade appropriate technology with out job losses in the Indian bamboo sector to make product refinement as well as to reduce drudgery of work.

14) Under diversification and value addition, efforts may be made to think of drawing inspiration from Chinese products and the western demand pattern for events like Christmas. Jewellery boxes, cake boxes, cake stands, bridal flower holders, bread baskets, wine  baskets, Diwali dry fruit  boxes, travel  baskets,  fruit baskets , Christmas  stars, dining mats, etc are some of the challenging items to be  considered.


15) Again one has to think in terms of making with bamboo other innovative products like dining tables, chairs, sleeping cots, TV stands, etc. Besides, its use for ceiling purposes may be   thought of for aesthetics and it has excellent use as window curtains as well.


Bamboo industry must be resilient particularly in the hands of the poor and inarticulate work men and women as they have markets with different customs, cultures, needs and tastes. We need a holistic approach instead of piece meal system while dealing with bamboo crafts men in relation to its vast challenges. The future beckons.




Leave a Reply