Bamboo mission has tall ambitions

Bamboo mission has tall ambitions

New Delhi: A visit to Sanjiv Nair’s office can be, well, bamboozling. The floors are made of bamboo, the furniture, some of the walls and even the frame of an ornamental microscope is crafted out of the grass.

Nair, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and head of the New Delhi-based National Mission on Bamboo Applications (NMBA), says that even after four years with the mission, he can still be surprised by the incredible variety of uses that bamboo can be put to.

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“Typically, it’s well known as a source of pulp, mats, handicrafts," says Nair. “But several research institutes in India have, over the years, figured out new uses—activated carbon, body oil, composites of plastics. It’s capable of supporting an industry of its own."

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Nair is not a scientist. He says his role at NMBA is to link the small-scale bamboo-processing industries scattered across north-east India, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh with the research laboratories that conjure innovative products out of bamboo.

NMBA, an initiative of the department of science and technology, aims to develop a viable industry around bamboo products. Some 85 units spread across India manufacture a clutch of bamboo products, employing 100,000-150,000 people and generating 500 crore in annual revenue.

Nair hopes that one day, bamboo will replace wood as the material of choice for building houses.

This isn’t too ambitious a dream to come true, he adds. “In the US, there are several varieties of plywood that are specially treated and then used to build houses. The bamboo that we now have is as strong, is cheaper to process and as durable as brick and mortal houses. So all we need is a change in mindset."

To bring about this change, NMBA has associated itself with relief operations running from the Maoist-hit districts of Chhattisgarh to Leh, where a cloudburst on 7 August left thousands homeless.

In Leh, NMBA has constructed bamboo buildings on 40,000 sq. ft of land left ravaged by the flood after August that now house at least 10,000 people.

Nair says the project followed a request from local authorities. “Typically, those affected by natural disasters would either shift to tents or (shelters made from) tin sheets. But in a place like Leh, where the winters see temperatures go below –10 (degrees Celsius), tin sheet houses are going to be extremely uncomfortable," he says.

A team of workers from one of the NMBA-supported units in Kolkata was involved in the construction. The bamboo houses were well-received by locals as well as the district administration.

The structures are built to be used as permanent residences. But if people opt to move into concrete houses, they can easily become schools and hospitals, a practice that was followed in several villages of Chhattisgarh, Nair adds.

In Chhattisgarh, at least 10,000 children attend schools inside bamboo-crafted buildings. “The Naxalites (Maoists) destroyed several buildings. But these (bamboo) buildings ensure that our children continue going to schools," says Ambesh Kumar, a schoolteacher at Kontha in Dantewada district, in a film showcasing the bamboo buildings.

Ajay Kumar, a chemical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, and the mission’s director, says bamboo works because it’s a cradle-to-grave solution. “From infant cribs to coffins, bamboo is used extensively. So why shouldn’t it be used more frequently by mainstream society," he reasons.

On a still night in dense forests, Kumar swears, one can actually hear bamboo grow. “It can be that easily grown," he says.

The key hurdles to bamboo proliferating as the building material of choice lies in its availability. Bamboo needs humid conditions to thrive. Also, several environmental policies classify bamboo as a tree and not a grass.

“These issues are being looked into," says Nair. “However, the Central government now has plans to make the programme bigger and hopefully we shall have a full-fledged dedicated centre that will exclusively look at promoting bamboo."

U.N. Mishra, former director at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, says NMBA’s efforts were commendable, but required continuous state support to succeed. “It’s a good initiative. However, being able to reach out to a wide disparate audience is a challenge. Traders must be given financial initiatives—probably in the form of tax concessions or state support—to build this sector."

As India engages with processes that will take it from emerging-market status to that of a developed nation, an enormous effort will be required. In this next phase, setting goals won’t be overly difficult, less easy will be doing the things that need to get done. One of the themes of the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit this year is India’s Implementation Imperative. In the run-up to the summit, we showcase some of India’s implementers who surmounted the odds to make the change agenda work in their respective fields.