Across the world, taxonomists have classified bamboo as a grass. But under Indian law, it was treated as a tree. This definition has long given state forest departments monopolistic control over the valuable natural resource. On November 23, the central government loosened this grip by amending the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to ensure that bamboo will no longer be treated as a tree if grown outside reserved forest areas.

The government claimed that “the measure will go a long way in enhancing the agricultural income of farmers and tribals, especially in North East and Central India”. In reality, experts say that wood-based industries will derive greater benefits from the move than than tribals and forest dwellers.

This mismatch is because of a contraction between the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which gives forest dwellers complete rights to the bamboo growing on their traditional forestlands.

“The ordinance doesn’t address the most fundamental issue of the status of bamboo in forest areas, and the fact that from 2006 that has been the property of forest dwellers,” said Shankar Gopalakrishnan of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a federation of tribal right groups that advocates for implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

Driving the debate over the legal classification of bamboo is a long history of business interests, government control and India’s approach to forest conservation.

Precious resource

Bamboo is an important raw material for several industries, such as manufacturers of paper pulp and wood-based products. The biofuels industry is also increasingly looking to use bamboo as a raw material. In 2003, the now-disbanded Planning Commission estimated that the bamboo industry had the potential to be valued at Rs 48,000 crore annually by 2015.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927, defined bamboo as a tree, regardless of where it grew. The growing, cutting, transporting and selling of all tree species listed in the law are the monopoly of state forest departments. The act or its state variations also regulated bamboo grown outside designated forestlands.

Tribals and other forest dwellers directly dependent on forests have long asked for full rights to harvest and sell the fast-growing grass species that was denied to them by colonial forest law. Industry has also demanded the right to grow and harvest bamboo on both forestland and plantations. So far, tribals, and to a lesser extent industry, have been restrained in accessing bamboo by a cumbersome licensing system.

In 2006, in a move intended to radically alter control over bamboo, the Congress-led government passed the Forest Rights Act, which classified bamboo as “minor forest produce”. The act gave tribals and other forest-dwellers the right to grow the grass on their traditional forestlands, to harvest and sell it without the interference of forest departments.

But neither the Congress government nor the current one led by the Bhartiya Janata Party amended the Indian Forest Act, 1972, which continued to classify bamboo as a tree – and gave forest departments full control over the resource. This contradiction in the law perpetuated the monopolistic control of forest departments over bamboo.

There have been a few instances of tribal villages overcoming the impediments put up by state forest departments to sell their bamboo produce, most notably in Maharashtra, where some villages earn more than Rs 1 crore a year by auctioning bamboo. This prompted industry-backed contractors and the forest department to try to prevent the village from controlling bamboo sales.

In 2013, the Congress-led government drafted regulations to make it easier to transport forest produce, including bamboo. The regulations had to be adopted by states. Several bamboo-growing states have already done so. But industry representatives claimed it was not enough to ease business and demanded more changes to improve the supply of bamboo. Tribal villages too did not benefit much from these changes.

Who benefits?

With the government’s ordinance this month, bamboo grown outside reserved forest areas will no longer be subject to the strict regulatory control of forest departments. Wood-based industries can now start their own bamboo plantations or engage farmers to grow the resource for them. This could give a fillip to agro-forestry. Several parts of North Eastern states will gain from the legal change as large tracts of greens in the region are not demarcated as “reserved forests”.

But, contradicting the Forest Rights Act of 2006, Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan said that “bamboo grown in the forest areas shall continue to be governed by the provisions of Indian Forest Act, 1927”. This means that bamboo grown on forestlands will continue to be treated as a tree and stay under the control of state forest departments.

According to the Forest Survey of India’s 2011 report, only 6% of India’s bamboo stock – totalling 10.2 million tonnes – is grown outside forestlands. By contrast, 170 million tonnes of bamboo grows in recorded forest areas. With industry gaining easier access to bamboo outside forest areas, the prices of bamboo on forestlands owned by tribals and other forest dwellers will drop over time.

Not enough

The debate about permitting farmers and tribals to grow and harvest valuable tree species has long occupied environmental groups. Some have argued that letting industry buy timber directly from villagers, cutting out the state forest departments, would provide incomes to the poor and ease the pressure for timber on forests.

Industry representatives have welcomed the ordinance, “This was a long-awaited step,” said Sachin Raj Jain, convenor of the Network for Certification and Conservation of Forests, a non-profit supported by wood-based and paper industries and staffed by retired environment and forest officials. “I see the biofuel industry particularly poised to gain from it. This will help bring in investments into the handicrafts sector as well.”

In February, Jain’s organisation had submitted a report to the government in February recommending asking for other changes to make their business easier.

“Besides unlocking the potential for bamboo-based products and industries, as importantly, I see it as a precedent to help unlock some other tree species from such restrictions in future if we can create a sustainable supply chain for bamboo,” he said.

Despite this, environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta cautioned that the impact on wood-based industry may be limited. “Various states, particularly those in the south, have enacted their own laws equivalent to the Indian Forest Act, 1927,” he explained. “The subject falls in the concurrent list of the Constitution. Therefore, for each state one will have to legally assess how specific state law treats bamboo as a species and what restrictions they put on the trade and transport of the species.”

Tribal rights groups, on the other hand, believe the ordinance falls short. “In most of the country, forest officials continue to treat bamboo as the department’s property, illegally appropriating massive amounts of money that belong to the country’s poorest people,” said the Campaign for Survival and Dignity’s Shankar Gopalakrishnan. “By making a totally arbitrary distinction between forest and non-forest areas, the ordinance ensures this injustice will continue.”

As experts point out, the problems will persist until the government reconciles the discrepancy between the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006.