With its enormous utility in the construction sector, ecotourism, carbon sequestration, handicrafts, and livelihood generation, wood in India is irreplaceable
The world of plants and trees — along with water and air — is the greatest life-sustaining gift on the Earth for mankind. The wood has been intimately travelling with humans through various civilisations and runs like an artery in human history. More than 15,000 years ago, our forefathers realised the versatility of wood, and as the human civilisations grew, they used wood for making spears, hunting tools, axe handles, huts and boats. Wood has long been used as a building material, with evidence showing houses built over 10,000 years ago used wood as a primary component of construction. Europe's neolithic long house — a long, narrow timber dwelling built in 6000 BC — is an excellent example in this regard. The Indian civilisation grew in the midst of sylvan surroundings and, as people realised the value of trees, they started special relationships with trees and forests. However, as the population grew and the use of modern science, especially during the last 200 years, increased, there has been a steady decline of forests. Presently, with deforestation, there is more focus now on planting trees and replacing wood as construction material. These days, in most of the government buildings, wooden door and window shutters are being replaced by steel and other synthetic materials.
The question is can wood really be replaced? The answer is: It cannot be. At best, it can be substituted. Wood is an integral part of the Indian economy — both in the rural as well as urban areas. Wood plays a key role in reducing carbon emissions by sequestering carbon dioxide. Thus, it plays a great role in mitigating climate change. Wood is a renewable and recyclable natural resource and is good for health as it provides natural insulation. Further, it is an organic, cost-effective, and anisotropic energy-efficient material. A house purely made of wood produces 40 per cent less emission than a house made of concrete. Growing wood is sustainable in the long term as, with the help of sun, carbon dioxide and water, trees can produce wood forever. Growing trees is as good as laying the foundation of an open bank. Researchers have shown that spending time in wooden buildings makes us feel good as the construction material, being natural, affects indoor air quality, maintains moisture balance, and brings comfort and acoustics.
In the Indian context, it is necessary that instead of harping too much on alternatives and substitutes, we should work on growing more trees so that the farmers and landowners' incomes can be substantially increased — not only by selling timber but also by using the ambience of trees for ecotourism. Moreover, wood provides livelihood to lakhs of wood artisans, carpenters and thousands of wood traders and middlemen. India exported wooden handicrafts worth over USD 420 million during 2019-2021 to 180 countries. It is estimated that around 500 million people in India are dependent on forests, out of which 300 million are directly dependent.
Demand and supply scenario is the best way to judge the future growth of any commodity or sector. Experts have estimated that the increase in roundwood consumption in India by 2030 will go up from 59 million cum in 2021 to 97.8 million cum. However, the production is only 48 million cum, out of which the recorded production from government forests is only three million cum; the rest is from private woodlots and agro-forestry plantations.
It is, therefore, necessary that wood production is attempted on private lands in order to increase farmers' income as we have substantial wastelands that can be used for woodlots. This writer had already suggested the environment minister regarding creation of a separate National Agro-Forestry Board at the Centre; a separate department within state Forest Ministries, to be headed by a senior forest officer; and posting of dedicated trained staff at all levels so that legal and other hiccups for the farmers are cleared and agro-forestry can leapfrog to its potential.
At the same time, research focus should be strengthened. The scientists at Institute of Wood Science and Technology (IWST) and Indian Plywood Research and Training Institute (IPRITI) are the two organisations working on wood research. For value addition, transparent wood has been fabricated by IWST by using poplar wood veneer and water-soluble polymer. As it exhibits high haze and light diffusing properties, it can be used in high-end products. The scientists at Forest Research Institute have developed solar powered wood seasoning techniques for value addition of wood at cheaper rates. Bamboo boards, Bamboo timber, fancy Bamboo bottles and other handicrafts have been developed by the IWST as well as by the Tripura Forest Department with huge orders in the pipeline.
As the scope of increasing the GDP of the country through growing wood and creating employment is immense, the Government of India and state governments need to act fast. The manpower in the wood sector needs to be developed for innovative product design and research as well as for training the wood artisans. For this, first the Indian Institute of Plywood Research and Training Institute should be merged with Indian Institute of Wood Science and Technology (as both are located in Bangalore) to ensure better and consolidated utilisation of resources. The unified IWST under the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education should be given sufficient funds and autonomy to spread the network of research in different zones of the country.
The writer is Chairman of the Centre for Resource Management and Environment. Views expressed are personal