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WONDER GRASS

Some call it‘humble grass’. For many it is ‘friend of people’. Rest still refer to it as ‘poor man’s timber’.  From time immemorial, people across the world have used it to for different purposes – from hunting to housing, from utilities to food. Yes, we are talking about bamboo that has great tensile strength in its inner fibre, and but is very delicate, supple and nature-friendly.
Did you know that bamboo is actually a perennial grass and not a tree? Like any grass it grows very fast and reaches maturity in about two to five years. It grows three times faster than eucalyptus and can be harvested annually in comparison to majestic trees like oak which takes nearly 120 years. With the potential to absorb large amount of carbon dioxide, this versatile grass is capable of regenerating without the need to replant and its dense structure keeps the soil and nutrients together for continuous growth. A green alternative to timber, bamboo curbs deforestation and extenuates global warming. Its tensile strength is greater than steel.
In fact, it is the only living thing to survive the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, at ground zero and provided the first re-greening after the blast!

The entire North East India is blessed with extensive bamboo forest owing to the topography and geographical conditions. According to statistics, the number of genera and species available in the region are 16 and 58, respectively. The region substantially contributes in production of bamboo, due to which India is considered the second largest grower of bamboo in the world, after China. But unlike China, where bamboo growers flourish, the scenario here is just the opposite. Our country is yet to utilize this wondergrass to its maximum.
The environmental and financial benefits of bamboo are vast.  If pursued in the right way by all concerned, the bamboo sector could bring about crucial changes in the rural economy, especially of the North East region. Through permanent employment, artisans and craftsman can generate stable income that trickles into development of the local community.  Unfortunately, the craft communities here still produce run-of-the-mill items for daily use, and their remoteness restricts their knowledge of urban markets and ability to produce commercial products with contemporary relevance.  They are often trapped in the vicious cycle of middleman, compelled into producing humdrum products sold in run-down craft bazaars or tourist souvenirs sold for scrimpy prices.
However, the bamboo sector in the last few years has witnessed a certain paradigm shift, thanks to some passionate urban designers and entrepreneurs. They firmly believe in the potential of this grass. Some are working earnestly with rural craftsman to turn this plant into design material of the near future.
Sandeep Sangaru, whose Truss-Me bamboo collection has bagged many national and international awards, believes that the North East region needs to have some serious and focused collaboration on a long term basis between artisans, designers, producers and the market. He has been employing crafts people from the North East region and training them in his workshop in Bangalore.  He created a series of bookshelves, chairs and tables by using split bamboo poles laminated together. He borrowed the idea from a technique called ‘truss’ – a load-bearing frame used for construction. The furniture collection that one sees now was developed over a period of 5 to 6 years and several drawing prototypes. It took him another two years to train the artisans and develop consistent production methods. The reason being every species of bamboo is different in its properties, and it took Sangaru a while to explore and fine tune the technique. His creations are edgy, sculptural, light-weight, functional, and very strong structurally.
Rebecca Reubens, owner of Rhizome, believes in empowerment at the grassroot level and uses design as a tool to re-contextualize cultural capital. “One of the greatest challenges crafts people face today is the lack of market-related links and feedback. Our aim is to connect artisans to the market, and support them in the areas of marketing and design,” she elucidates. Bamboo always amazes her because of its versatility. Her creations comprise a range of aesthetically-designed, eco-friendly home decor and utility products. Worth mentioning are: The Crop collection - comprising benches and stools - made of bamboo bits left over from production. The pieces are clasped together to form a comfy seat.  Then you have the Wishboo chair that features a bamboo back-rest shaped like a wish-bone, and is perfect for a minimalist look. 
 Her tryst with bamboo started on a trip to Tripura in 2001 as an NID student where she was part of a design workshop conducted to provide local artisans with design having contemporary relevance and the potential to generate income. After 11 years, she returned to Tripura to conduct the ILFS Tripura Workshop. The project involved in-situ design and development of bamboo spa products, produced in Charilam, a bamboo cluster in Tripura. “However, I was disappointed to see not much had changed in the bamboo sector in these years!  Also, the skill level had gone down in the craft village I worked with,” she shares. But, once the work began, the craftspeople were quite enthusiastic, and she was happy to see a new level of small-scale entrepreneurs emerge.
Close to home, we have Guwahati-based entrepreneur Rajiv Goswami, the managing director of Rhino Bamboo Industry, which is situated at the Export Promotional Industrial Park (EPIP), Amingaon. His mechanized bamboo industry is one of its kind in India and is competing successfully with its Chinese counterpart. Right from processing the raw bamboo in various stages to the finish products, everything is done in factory. Goswami started his unit with two looms and few processing machines imported from Taiwan. After a year of successful commercial production, he increased the number of the looms to 20, thereby increasing the production capacity ten-fold. Today, the Rhino Bamboo specializes in making blinds which are available in myriad patterns, shades and colours. But their range of carpets, placemats, ladies vanity bags, etc are equally popular amongst buyers. Each and every strip and stick is treated to make it fungus-and termite-proof.  Their recent product is dhoop (incense sticks) retailed under the brand Fragrance World. The company also boasts of zero waste. “All the waste are utilized to make bamboo charcoal, strip boards and bamboo sticks etc,” he states.
However, all these success stories have their moment of truth. Working with bamboo has its own set of challenges. Primarily, it’s not an off-the-shelf ready material that can be brought from market and transformed to make products. It doesn’t weld and mould easily, and needs to be treated to make it fungus-and termite-proof. “One of the biggest stumbling blocks is that it is disregarded as a cheap material. Only because it grows fast and can be replaced quickly if damaged has made it a ‘poor man’s timber’. But, one can’t be justifying the price of the products all the time. There has to be some level of maturity to judge the design, craftsmanship, and finish of a creation,” shares Sandeep.
Rajiv too has his own stories to share. Mechanized bamboo sector being in its nascent stage needs lots of technical research and analysis, and practical experiments. In spite of repeated pleas to the government to relief the unit of custom duty levied on the imported machines, no such relief was granted. In fact, when he submitted his project report for the first time to National Mission for Bamboo Application, a Central Government funding agency for development of bamboo sector, they refused to give loan on basis of finding some loopholes in the project. He had to take loan from State Bank of India to start his venture.
Additionally, the Indian market is full of reasonably-priced Chinese bamboo products, because the export rate is much lesser compared to the import rate. Also the transportation charge is exorbitant. “We get our bamboo poles from Haflong (in Assam) at an approximate cost of Rs 20 per pole. By the time it reaches our unit, the cost goes up to Rs 75-Rs 80 per pole,” shares Dipankar Banerjee, an employee at Rhino Bamboo Industry.
Most of the designers and entrepreneurs accept the bitter truth that their products are appreciated far more in the West, than their own country. Blame it on the unawareness of people, the market which undervalue bamboo, near-total lack of government initiative, babugiri... Also, this fast-growing species is still treated as a ‘tree’ under the Indian Forest  Act (1927). The upshot is rigid government controls on harvesting, transit and trade. Declaring it as a grass will not only allow forest-dwellers to cut and sell it easily but also would facilitate easier production and transportation.
Our country is a society in process...While there is truckload of reasons to believe the bamboo industry has a bleak future, there are also enough reasons to believe that slowly the best is being etched out of it. We do believe that with little ingenuity, serious initiatives from the government and genuine efforts from entrepreneurs, this poor man’s timber will soon be dubbed as green gold of the 21st century.

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