December 23, 2017 12:28:31 am
Bamboo is woody and can grow up to towering heights. Taxonomically, however, it’s a grass. This scientific categorisation was at odds with bamboo’s legal status because a law dating back to the colonial era classified the plant as a tree. On Wednesday, the Lok Sabha amended Section 2(7) of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 which had led to bamboo being seen as timber. The significance of this amendment is not merely academic. Classifying bamboo as a grass will remove the forest department’s hold over the natural resource and open up a range of economic possibilities, including reducing dependence on bamboo imports.
The colonial-era definition of bamboo had an economic logic as well: Forests had to be protected because they were repositories of timber. Bamboo was slotted as a “forest produce” and placed in the same category as palm and other trees. After Independence, generations of foresters interpreted this provision to imply that bamboo being a tree was under the control of the forest department. The woody plant would find its way to markets largely through auctions held by the department. This monopoly has come in the way of India becoming a major player in the 60 billion dollar global bamboo market. India has 30 per cent of the world’s bamboo resources, but still imports the plant. According to a CII-India Development Foundation paper, “Industrialisation of the bamboo sector in India”, at 13 million tonnes (mt) a year, the country’s bamboo production is far short of the annual demand of 27 mt. India has nearly 14 million hectares of bamboo forests, but the country’s share of the bamboo market is a measly 4.5 per cent. In contrast, China with 6.7 million hectares of bamboo forests holds about 50 per cent of the global market.
In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that “felled bamboo” was not timber. And, the Forests Rights Act (FRA), 2006, classified bamboo as a “non-timber forest produce”. But both the apex court and the FRA stopped short of aligning bamboo with its taxonomic classification. Section 2(7) of the 1927 Act was never amended and this created confusion in implementing the court ruling and the FRA. Wednesday’s amendments could prove to be a game changer. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants. A pole of the plant can fully regenerate in three to five months, while other commercially-important woody plants take about five years to mature. Removing the colonial-era law could enable linking the bamboo sector with government initiatives such as Make in India. It will need some hand-holding like subsidies and bank loans schemes, though.
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