Is it a tree? Is it a shrub? Is it a weed? No, it is a grass silly! This modified version of the ‘Is it a plane, is it a bird?’ joke sits well on the predicament of that the Central government finds itself in with regard to Bamboo in our country. A nearly eight decade old legislation viz. the Indian Forests Act (1927) classifies a scientifically recognised grass as a tree. It is a blunder, a costly one. With 1500 documented uses including as a building material, as medicine and even fibre, Bamboo is one of the most useful plants available to mankind. Apart from this mindboggling range of products, Bamboo has other properties which make it invaluable to us:

  1. It has a short growth cycle which makes it highly renewable (the commercially important species mature in 4- 5 years as opposed to 10-20 years for trees)
  2. Different parts of the plant have different uses and are obtained at different stages of its growth thus rendering the plant useful during its entire life span
  3. Bamboo shoots of some species are edible and have high nutritional value
  4. The plant improves the environment in many significant ways including acting as an atmospheric and soil purifier.
  5. It is hardy, light and flexible, thus a good substitute for wood. Many cultures regard it has a miracle plant with even our very own Rig Veda invoking the Gods to – Bestow upon us a hundred Bamboo clumps’.

Unfortunately the perception of Bamboo as poor man’s timber became widespread as it was used as a substitute for wood for daily use items by those who did not have access to timber. The government it seems took the phrase literally in clubbing together Bamboo with trees and thus effectively subjecting it to the highly restrictive Forest Laws. As a result the poor man’s timber was no longer freely available to the poor man himself. The harvesting, trade and transit regulations have adversely affected the forest dependent communities most, especially those who were involved in traditional Bamboo handicrafts making. Ironically the Indian Forest Policy of 1952 clearly subjugated the interests of the forest dependent communities to its own interests and to that of the industry. The objective was to retain State monopoly in collection and distribution of forest produce like Bamboo, to secure a steady source of revenue and to provide subsidised raw materials for the industry. Bamboo came to be used mostly in the paper and pulp industry. It was only with the issue of the New Forest Policy 1988 that the first right of the forest dependent communities including tribals, been recognised on minor forest produce. There have been two important developments since- the timber ban of 1996 and the passing of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act 2006. While the first was instituted by the Honourable Supreme Court to conserve forests and prevent their exploitation for commercial purposes, the legislative action that came nearly a decade later was in line with the second major objective of the New Forest Policy- securing the requirements of forest dependent communities.

The only glitch is Bamboo is effectively excluded from the provisions of the new act, because though the Supreme Court has clearly stated in its ruling that Bamboo is to be treated as a grass, the IFA has not been amended. Further in 10 out of the 27 states where two or more commercially important species of bamboo are grown, IFA is the primary legislation i.e. these states follow the definitional pattern of the IFA while framing their rules and laws. Forests being a concurrent subject, both central and state governments are empowered to legislate. Not only are the legislations flawed the institutions executing them leave much to be desired. The inherent non-participatory nature of the forest management system and the inequitable forest tenure system apart even in states where the Joint Forestry Management System has been put in place, Bamboo has been excluded from being managed by the people. The multitude of laws and the complexity makes it hard for a small grower to fathom exactly what rights he has with regard to Bamboo. The Forest Department has been reluctant to give up its claim on Bamboo resources on which it has hitherto had extensive monopoly, with the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Science and Technology being involved in a rather public dispute over who has control over Bamboo. What we really need is to recognise the people’s control over the Bamboo resources in this country, not only over the Bamboo grown in the government forests but also to grow Bamboo on their own land without the government’s intervention. Many studies have revealed that the productivity of Bamboo on private lands is much higher than on government lands. In-fact the low average productivity in India i.e. 1.5 Million Tonnes/ ha which is one fifth of that in China is largely the result of poor management of the resource by the concerned government department.

Bamboo is not an ordinary grass, its erratic flowering patterns make regeneration difficult thus harvesting and cultivation techniques have to be scientific. Private plantations with intensive care thus yield the best results. However to argue for the government turning its back completely on Bamboo is foolhardy. Despite its widespread availability, the markets in India are largely for low value traditional Bamboo goods. If the poor people have to extract the maximum out of a market based system for Bamboo, the initial investment in Research and Development, discovery of markets and dissemination of information for these products will have to come from the government. It must also ensure that the provisions of the latest act are implemented properly, as nearly 147 million people live in the vicinity of forests and out of which 34 million tribals depend on NTFPs for their livelihood requirement. While Acts like NREGA are at best short term solutions to the unemployment problems, only the development of people friendly sectors like this would ensure livelihood security for the poor in the long run. Not only is bamboo useful from the equity point of view it is also makes economic sense both for the rural poor and the government itself. The use of Bamboo in public goods alone it has been calculated will save nearly Rupees 7,000 crore annually on purchases of wood and wooden products! With the idea of a Green Economy taking root, it is safe to assume that Bamboo is a material of the future.


  • Amend Indian Forests Act (1927): IFA is the primary legislation on Forests and it wrongly classifies Bamboo as a tree. Bamboo is a scientifically recognized grass. Including it under the list of trees leads to the inaccurate classification of felled Bamboo as ‘timber’ whether it originates from government or private land. It is hence subject to not only the Central but also the State Forest Laws. The Forest Department enjoys a monopoly over harvest, transit and trade of Bamboo as forest produce. This regulatory framework has throttled a viable Bamboo economy and denied livelihood opportunities to 50 mn people1
  • Ministry of Environment and Forests should declare Bamboo a grass: To back the legislative amendment and better implementation the MoEF should issue clear directives to its officials as well as for the benefit of the general public regarding the change of status of Bamboo. The onus of proof of a forest offence in case of bamboo originating from government forests should in all cases lie with the Forest Department
  • Bamboo to be clearly classified as Non-Timber Forest Produce and regulations in cutting, transport and use of bamboo should be made uniform: Bamboo should be considered a NTFP when collected from govt. forest land. Bamboo from private lands whether forests or plantations should be out of the ambit of forest laws, both Central & State governments. Under a ‘New Bamboo Policy’ a common system should be devised for regulation of Bamboo from government land with goals of conservation and regeneration being central rather than revenue concerns of the government in accordance with the Forest Policy 1988
  • Orientation of People on Tribal Right Act in relation to NTFP harvesting and tenure rights & inclusion of Bamboo forests in Joint Forest Management Programme: Once Bamboo is classified as a NTFP it will come under the Recognition of Forest Rights Act 20062 . This Act has to be amended to clearly state that Forest dependent communities can trade in Bamboo collected from government forests without any restriction to ensure that these communities use it not only for subsistence but participate fully in a market economy. With the aim of preventing overuse and unscientific felling the JFM programme should be strengthened with the legal backing of the 2006 Act and scientific input from the Forest Department/ NGOs
  • Creation of a Bamboo Board on the lines of Tea/ Coffee Board: The National Mission on Bamboo Applications under the Department of Science & Technology should be converted into an independent Board. The administration will be solely responsible for the task of promoting Bamboo which will ensure better performance as it will be a justification for the existence of the Board itself.

1Estimated no. of people who can be employed when the Bamboo industry realises its expected potential size of Rs 26, 000 cr by 2015 (Planning Commission estimate, 2003)

2 Forest Dwellers including Scheduled Tribes have the right to ‘collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce. The word dispose is not assumed to mean either trade or transit.


  • Government to declare it a horticulture crop: As a horticulture crop Bamboo will be promoted through the initiative of the government to promote allied sectors in Agriculture. It will also to a large extent remove the stigma of Bamboo being a poor man’s timber or an inferior good. Bamboo has the potential to be a cash crop and only when the growers recognize this potential can these opportunities be leveraged.
  • Farm grown Bamboo trade & transit rules need to be abolished: With Laws on Private forests in 10 important states where commercially important species are found, and 27 including these 10 where rules are framed in accordance with the Indian Forests Act 1927 merely changing the definition of Bamboo will not be enough. State Forests Laws should explicitly exclude Bamboo.
  • Include Bamboo as a plantation crop wherever separate laws exist: While excluding Bamboo from the Forest Acts wherever specific rules with regard to plantation crops exist, Bamboo should be included in that list, in order that it may enjoy a wider commercial appeal. Since it has been shown in various studies that intensive management under plantation conditions greatly improves productivity and profitability and with existing land ceiling and usage restrictions1 this will not be possible Bamboo should be exempt from them.
  • Public Investment in relevant areas: Despite even existing opportunities captured by the Demand- Supply gap private players have not been any concerted efforts to take advantage of them. Decades of negligence means little has been done to bring about production patterns and practices which are sustainable and market friendly since state monopoly control has been the norm. The state has to play a facilitating role by roping in Design Institutes, Financial institutions and NGOs in order to fill in the informational deficiencies. This will go a long way in crowding in private investment not just from large companies capable of undertaking R&D activities but also small growers who are not able to do so. Existing depots for distributing Bamboo to poor people should be converted into hubs for disseminating information and training. This should be a continuous process and not a stop gap arrangement.
  • North-East converted into Special Bamboo Zone: There is immense potential for Bamboo products in the NE region which has abundant bamboo resources which has long been recognized as an essential item for sustenance. If both the supply and demand can be augmented a vibrant bamboo economy can flourish here. There are already existing plywood factories and Paper mills which shut down due to the timber felling ban which represent existing capacity and a labour force which is familiar with the use and usefulness of Bamboo. Additionally though the dominant species Melocanna bacciefera is harvester friendly2 it is also inflicted by the problem of gregarious flowering on a mass scale not observed anywhere in India. This calls for special and much required attention being paid to this region.

1The policy of Food sufficiency restricts changes in land usage where food crops are concerned. While Bamboo shoots have nutritional properties for commercial plantation purposes this change is necessary

2 This is a non-clump forming variety which is easier to harvest than clump forming which require a special method like the horse- shoe method used in Kerala to ensure young clumps are preserved