The numbers that make up the booming toddy business in Kerala tell the story of clique that works with near impunity, exploiting coconut farmers, toddy tappers and drinkers.
The large gap between daily production and demand for toddy has created a multi-million dollar business that straddles the State like a colossus. It has left the coconut farmer in penury. A large portion of the toddy tappers are yoked to the traditional system and toddy drinkers are at the mercy of chemical compounds that pass for natural toddy.
To begin with, there is no means to exactly know how much toddy is tapped and sold though the Excise Department claims Kerala produces around 8.35 lakh litres of toddy a day and consumes 7.21 lakh litres.
However, its critics say that the State consumes at least two lakh litres more of toddy a day than it produces, leaving abundant scope for unscrupulous elements to make a brisk business. If the two lakh-litre production gap is considered, spurious toddy is worth Rs. 1.20 crore a day given the average price of Rs. 60 a litre.
A division bench of the High Court of Kerala observed in September last year that a ban on toddy sales could be considered in Kerala, which hardly produced any toddy. The court observation was that with little production, spurious mixes were being sold under the label of toddy.
The view has been backed by the committee appointed by the State government in January this year on toddy and neera, the sweet sap from coconut flowers. The committee says in its May report: greedy licensees and scarcity of toddy production have led to adulteration of natural toddy.
The committee, headed by the excise commissioner Anil Xavier, also says that there is no provision to test whether a sample of toddy is natural or synthetic. Conventional tests only record the volume of ethyl alcohol and presence of poisonous elements in the sample.
An excise official said that manufacturing synthetic toddy is simple and the product can be made for less than Rs. five a litre. The scope for adulteration and manufacture of synthetic toddy is made easier by the fact that toddy shops across Kerala, except in Kannur, receive the bulk of their supplies from Chittoor taluk in Palakkad.
Excise Department figures for the previous years show that Palakkad accounts for more than 60 per cent of the trees licensed for toddy tapping in the State. Of the 5.04 lakh trees licensed, Palakkad accounts for 3.41 lakh trees. However, the number of trees being tapped for toddy in Chittoor taluk has come down to 2.34 lakh during the current year.
This lopsided system has hurt the farmers. Sunny George, a farmer in Kannur, says that a farmer may get up to Rs. 30 a litre of toddy if the price is fixed around Rs. 100. However, under the current system of pricing the farmer may end up getting less than Rs. 20.
Remuneration for coconut farmers is much better in Chittoor taluk where the lease rate for a high-yielding tree can be as high as Rs. 350 a month. The rates start at Rs. 150 per month in most cases.
Toddy tappers, especially the unregistered ones, are an exploited lot. There is no agreement on the number of toddy tappers in the State. The Excise Department claims that there are around 40,000 hands employed in toddy business. However, RTI information from the department says that there are only 29,465 toddy tappers in the State with Malappuram having no toddy tappers at all, says Babu Joseph, coconut farmer and member of the committee appointed by the government to study neera’s prospects and problems afflicting toddy business.
Thiruvananthapuram has the lowest number of tappers (414) while in Palakkad there are only 5,796 tappers to tap 3.41 lakh trees. Mr. Joseph says that the excise manual prescribes one tapper for 15 trees and the proportion in Palakkad will not stand scrutiny as the district would need a total of at least 36,000 tappers. This implies that a large number of unregistered toddy tappers are employed on low wages.
The retail price of toddy is intriguing too. A litre of the drink costs Rs. 54 in Kollam district, which gets the bulk of its supplies from Palakkad. The price of toddy in Pathanathitta is Rs. 60, in Alappuzha 51, in Kottayam and Ernakulam 60. Mr. Joseph says that tapping, packing and transporting toddy from Palakkad to Kollam will easily take the price of toddy to between Rs. 80 and 100 a litre. How does a business model like this work, he asks.