Vinoo Kaley was an architect turned artisan and activist. Over the last two decades Vinoo came to be known among social activists, across the country, as "the bamboo man". He was usually to be found working among traditional bamboo artisans, making and helping to design bamboo products that could be used even in modern urban life. At other times he was lobbying with bureaucrats, talking to students, scientists and other professionals.
Venu Bharati - a comprehensive volume on Bamboo was finalised by Vinoo Kaley just days before he died of a heart attack in June 1998. He was 52 years old. The book has now been lovingly produced by his colleagues and was released at Wardha on June 11. This book is an account of Vinoo's journey and his bond with Venu, one of the many Sanskrit names for bamboo. Here bamboo is the central point of a larger vision for a different, smarter, kind of development.
Bamboo is one of the world's best natural engineering materials. Its strength to weight ratio is better than that of teak wood and mild steel. Bamboo grows much faster than wood and requires relatively little water. It can also be recurrently harvested. Ample bamboo cover enriches the soil by arresting erosion and taming flash floods. It offers stakes to trees, fodder to animals and food to humans. This makes bamboo a key element in maintaining the ecological balance and ensuring sustainable food and livelihood security.
India is home to almost 45 per cent of the world's bamboo forests. But irrational and inefficient harvesting gives us ridiculously low yields. India produces 4.5 million tonnes of bamboo in about 8.96 million hectares of forest. China grows 11.6 million tones of bamboo in about 3.79 million hectares of forest. The uses to which the bamboo is put are also not optimal. For instance, Vinoo calculated that a tonne of bamboo creates upto 350 person days of work in the artisanal sector. By contrast it creates 12 person days in a paper mill which also needs large quantities of water and electricity. Vinoo's energy was focussed on expanding a bamboo sector" which would not only boost the traditional bamboo artisans but give livelihood to millions of others.
Bamboo can be used to produce many items of daily use that are currently made out of plastic or other less eco-friendly materials. Vinoo Kaley had made his home a living illustration of this with a mechanical door-bell, soap-dishes, utensil-racks, beds, tables and chairs - all made out of bamboo. Yet this is a tiny part of the potential for bamboo as an industry.
For example, bamboo mat-boards are an excellent substitute for plywood. This technology was originated by the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun and developed further by the Indian Plywood Industries Research and Training Institute, Bangalore. This technology is partly handicraft-based, thus generating employment.
Yet another kind of bamboo mats and grids can be used to build better, more long-lasting asphalt roads. These techniques have been successfully tested by two Mumbai based engineers, K. R. Datye and V. N. Gore. A similar bamboo grid can also be used as an alternative for wire-netting gabions which are used for flood control, soil erosion and slope stabilisation.
Shriniwas Khare, an industrialist in Mulshi taluk of Maharashtra, uses bamboo to manufacture natural fibre-reinforced plastic composites and products. The fibres are meshed together with suitable resins to produce a dense matrix of high strength comparable with metals. Yet it is relatively lightweight, water- proof and corrosion resistant. The result is posts for fencing and house construction, gratings for factories and panels for use in various kinds of furniture.
Venu Bharati is both a documentation of the various bamboo species of India and also an analysis of how and why this resource is being misused. India is perhaps the only country that uses almost 60 percent of its annual bamboo crop to make paper. This is a stark illustration of resource illiteracy, since there are many better sources of pulp for paper.
Vinoo spent almost 15 years lobbying against the government selling bamboo to big industry at absurdly low rates. The answer, he insisted, was a true free market in which industry is made to pay the actual cost of raw materials. Such a free market, Vinoo argued, would give a boost to alternative and dynamic technology shifts. By bringing paper to its real price, the free market would reduce paper consumption and encourage more recycling. If every bamboo stick was worth more, there would be a market incentive for afforestation and rejuvenation of wastelands by planting bamboo.
This aspect of Vinoo's appeal has got very little attention. But his clamour for greater attention to bamboo did have an impact. In Maharashtra, the government finally made larger quantities of bamboo available to craftsmen. Last year, the Ministry of Environment set up a Bamboo Cell which subsequently outlined an action plan for the development of the bamboo sector. Among other things, this plan calls for the setting up of a Bamboo Promotion Agency by 2001. But it offers little hope of any vital, strategic measures which will employ the market mechanism to boost bamboo cultivation and products. And this is perhaps the biggest obstacle to optimum utilisation of bamboo.
Even Vinoo's book raises a plethora of "how to" questions which are left unanswered. But then Vinoo never claimed to have all the answers. He worked in a poetic and lyrical manner to raise venu mitra - bamboo friends, across India - from the corridors of power, to remote villages and everywhere in-between. Vinoo had his own "logic" for this dogged persistence in the face of all odds. For he used to say: "A goods train won't move by my pushing it, or even by getting ten others to help in pushing it. But our action may inspire someone to get an engine!"
The original version of this article appeared in The Hindu's online edition, dated July 02, 2000. Venu Bharati is published by Aproop Nirman, B2 Pushpagandha, Dharmpeth, Nagpur - 440010.