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About a decade ago, a team led by Ravi Mokashi Punekar, a product designer and professor at IIT-Guwahati’s Department of Design, had constructed a furniture range made entirely of bamboo for local hospitals.
Subsequently, they had displayed prototypes in an exhibition, hoping to attract the authorities’ interest, but that didn’t happen, and the project had to be put on the back-burner.
Today, as India battles the COVID-19 epidemic, the professor and his team have brought the project back to life.
“The Northeast has more than 140 species of bamboo. Seeing that people here have integrated bamboo in their everyday life, and there are skilled craftspeople as well, why not explore it for situations like the present epidemic? When public health centres are set up, the government issues grants to purchase beds and wheelchairs, but those may deteriorate in a few years due to lack of maintenance and upkeep. Replacements are hard to come by, but bamboo is a really effective one. Additionally, it is sustainable and can also help local craftsmen get employment,” says Profesor Punekar.
The current range of furniture being designed by the institute includes beds, examination tables for patients, wheelchairs, screens between beds, IV fluid stands and computer tables, amongst others. This equipment will be particularly useful for isolation and quarantine centres that can house large numbers of people.
The Benefits of Bamboo
Aside from being a biodegradable and eco-friendly material, bamboo grows very fast—some species even grow four feet in a day. It is a very resource-efficient and has a high tensile and compressive strength. Finally, it does not require advanced energy-intensive machinery to make it usable for construction, unlike say wood or steel.
“In Assam, we have Bhaluka and Jati species of bamboo available for furniture making. There is one particular variety in Tripura called Kankais, which is ideal for furniture making. We had explored making school benches using this variety,” he informs.
Add all these qualities together, alongside the mass availability of the raw material and skilled workforce, one can make furniture in quick time during a public health emergency.
“We have not collaborated with any manufacturers yet, but there are a few local entrepreneurs who have shown an interest and are ready to take it on if orders for bamboo furniture come in,” he says.
Apart from its durability, Professor Punekar believes that using bamboo to create furniture at a time when the economy is in a tailspin, will create new jobs for local skilled craftsmen.
Bamboo is generally low maintenance, although there are a few things one could do to keep it clean and ensure that there is no exposure to excessive amounts of water and sunlight.
“With a little bit of care and regular treatment, furniture made from bamboo can last for ages. Yes, sometimes chemical treatment is required because bamboo can get infected with termites. But if you treat it with boric acid and borax or smoke it, the problem gets resolved. Unfortunately, manufactures make what sells, and bamboo has not been adapted for mass-scale community use,yet. We are working to change that,” says Professor Punekar.
Bamboo is there for the taking, but the question remains whether authorities are listening.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)