KUMARGHAT, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Changing rainfall patterns are slashing bamboo production in northeast India, leading to losses of jobs and businesses.
Erratic rainfall and dry spells have led bamboo to flower more frequently, then die back afterward, local people say. That has hurt families who are dependent on the grass for their livelihoods and even for food.
Savita Datta, 37, a former bamboo artisan from Unakoti district in India’s Tripura state, once split bamboo into sticks to supply incense factories. She and her husband earned a profit of 15,000 to 20,000 rupees ($240 to $320) every month, she said.
But starting in 2007 bamboo growers began reporting a record drop in production. As the supply of raw material fell, prices began to rise, climbing from about 15 rupees ($0.25) per bamboo cane to as much as 50 rupees ($0.80).
After struggling for a year, Savita and Ramapada finally had to shut down their business. She now works as a domestic servant and he pulls a rickshaw for a living.
“Some farmers said that all their bamboo plants had died because of sudden flowering, while others said that their bamboo shoots were not growing well due to heat and excessive rain,” Savita recalls
Amol Dutta, a manager at People’s Cooperative Society, a state government initiative that promotes rural entrepreneurs, estimates that at least 18 bamboo-stick-making units have closed in the past five years in North Tripura district alone. Those still in business have either moved their base elsewhere or are planning to do so.
Anuj Chakravarty, a resident of Emrapasa village in North Tripura, has been selling bamboo furniture for the past 20 years. Last year he relocated his business to Mumbai.
“A thousand bamboos (bought at bulk rate) now cost over 4,000 rupees, which is more than triple the price we paid even five or six years ago. At this rate, we can’t run a business. So we decided to move out,” he said.
Besides offering a bigger clientele, Mumbai has another attraction, says Chakravarty: cheaper bamboo imported from China.
“Local suppliers gave us more varieties in raw material and design,” he admits. “With Chinese bamboos, you don’t get that. But they are two or three times cheaper.”
DECLINE OF THE BAMBOO HUB
The decline in bamboo production, and the import of cheaper Chinese products are signs of difficulty for a region of India that has traditionally been known as the country’s bamboo hub. Almost 56 percent of India’s bamboo production comes from the eight hill states of the northeast.
People here not only grow the grass for money, but rely on it extensively for sustenance too: tender shoots are eaten as a delicacy, while mature bamboo branches are used to build fences, houses, furniture and household goods such as baskets, grain containers and cutlery.
Pannalal Dhar, 47, of Sonamara village, has been growing the plant all his life. But this year, for the first time, Dhar was unable to re-fence his house because he was unable to harvest a single branch. The same is true of all 52 families in Sonamara.
“Earlier, I harvested bamboos that were as fat as a log. People bought them to use as pillars in their huts. Now all I get is sickly, thin bamboos that are useless,” says Dhar, pointing at the bare patch of land by his pond that until recently was his bamboo field.
According to Dhar, the decline is partly due to the bamboo’s natural cycle of flowering and dying, but it has been worsened by irregular rain and dry spells. Bamboo shoots require warm but moist soil to flourish, and the monsoon used to be predictable, with gentle rain followed by fierce rainfall for three or four weeks.
But for the past six or seven years, it has rained very hard from the onset of the monsoon in early June, followed by dry spells that last for weeks.
“Normally, before the monsoon, I would build a mud bank around the bamboo plants. This would trap moisture and help the shoots grow even when the sun came out. But now the showers are so severe, the mud banks are getting washed (away) quickly. The tender shoots are getting exposed to the sun,” Dhar said.
The climate in northeast India has been changing fast. According to a report by the government of India, average annual rainfall in the region, which was 2,450 mm a year, is now decreasing at a rate of 11 mm per decade.
Bamboo plants in northeast India usually flower only about every five decades. After flowering, the bamboo dies back, but a dramatic side effect of the blossoming plants is a huge increase in the local population of rats, which feed on the flowers and then go on to destroy other crops, further jeopardizing the residents’ livelihoods.
Suhagmani Deb, an 81-year-old bamboo farmer in Kumarghat, says that in her lifetime she has seen bamboo plants flower only three times, but the last two occasions have been in the past six years.
The recent flowerings have been irregular, occurring in different parts of the region at different times, and have seriously disrupted the bamboo supply. The region’s only paper-producing factory, the Cachar Paper Mill in Hailakandi, Assam, is one of the larger businesses affected. With an annual production capacity of 100,000 tonnes, it requires up to 350 tonnes of bamboo daily. Shortages of bamboo have stopped operations at the mill at least five times this year after the states of Mizoram and Tripura failed to provide their anticipated supply.
Lalnan Puii, a senior official in Mizoram’s department of agriculture, says that since the large-scale flowering in 2007-2008, bamboo production has fallen by half. Changes in climatic conditions have worsened the crisis, he adds.
“The gap in production should have been filled by now. But there are too many dry spells these days which is affecting the growth of the bamboo,” Puii says.
He adds that the government is trying to help farmers by exempting them from income tax and excise duties, and subsidising their electricity. It has also banned the sale of bamboo shoots.
While these measures are designed to help large farmers, small growers have few reasons to be hopeful. Some, like Deb, are already planning to stop farming bamboo, and feel increasingly uncertain about the future.
“Nobody knows if the weather will be normal again in the coming days. So how do I know everything will be alright again?” she asks.
Stella Paul is a multimedia journalist based in Hyderabad, India.