The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute. In addition, five trillion plastic bags are used every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away. One can imagine the level of pollution caused by our usage of plastic. On the contrary, products made of biodegradable materials such as bamboo, jute, and leaves are great substitutes. Indeed, humans have been using them for thousands of years before the invention of plastic. However, the use of traditional biodegradable materials has diminished due to the rise in plastic usage. This has pushed artists working with traditional biodegradable materials, towards unemployment. In an interview with bamboo artist Aldrin Debbarma, Adivasi Awaaz creator, Sarika Debbarma explores the issue of unemployment plaguing the Bamboo artists, due to the usage of plastic.
Our dependence on plastic is pushing traditional artists towards unemployment. Today, bamboo art has become a niche profession that only a small number of people take up. In Tripura, where traditionally all adults knew how to make household items with bamboo, only a few experts remain and even these few artisans are slowing becoming unemployed due to the decreasing demand. I interviewed Aldrin Debbarma, an expert bamboo artist, who is struggling to find work. Aldrin trained as an artist in 2019 and became very adept at making bamboo products such as flasks, baskets, and containers. Initially, he got many clients and was very successful. However, in the past year, clientele has dropped. According to Aldrin, high making costs, and the lack of good quality bamboo, along with the dependence on plastic products, are major reasons behind it.
Question: What are the challenges you face as a bamboo artist?
Aldrin: Bamboo products cannot be mass produced like plastic items. I take orders from clients and make them according to their demand. Nowadays due to online shopping sites, people have more options so very few orders are coming our way. Being full time bamboo artist is no longer profitable.
Question: Why is there less demand for bamboo products?
Aldrin: Earlier our markets were popular places for shopping. We could display our products and people could buy them. Now that markets have become global, most people buy plastic products as they are much cheaper compared to bamboo products. For instance, a good quality bamboo water flask costs Rs.1200 to produce. By the time it reaches the retail market, the price goes up to Rs. 2000 and above. In the same market, customers can buy flasks made of other material for Rs. 500.
Question: What changes have you seen in bamboo culture in the state?
Aldrin: Nowadays good quality bamboo is scarce. There are two factors behind it. Firstly, farmers in the state are replacing traditional plants/trees such as bamboo and mango with the more profitable rubber. Secondly, in a bid to earn money fast, people are cutting and selling bamboo that hasn't reached maturity. Immature bamboo break easily and so the product doesn't last long thereby dissuading clients from buying them again. If someone is spending Rs. 2000 on a product, they expect it to last many years.
Question: What steps do you think the government should take to make bamboo art popular?
Aldrin: We need a system where we get good quality bamboo at affordable rates so that the final product is more saleable. In addition, there can be public awareness campaigns so that more people replace plastic with bamboo. There are many items made of bamboo that can be used at homes, which people are not aware of.
Question: What is the future of bamboo artists in the state?
Aldrin: All the people who joined the profession alongside me have quit it, barring one. The situation is very bleak. Till the time good quality bamboo is cultivated, people cannot join the industry. It is a vicious cycle. Plastic usage leads to low demand which makes farmers shift their cropping. This results in low bamboo production that raises its costs and makes it economically unviable.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.