In what promises to unleash a billion-dollar coconut tree-based industry in the State, a committee set up by the government four months ago, in its interim report, has recommended licensing neera production.

Experts in the Kerala Agricultural University and the Coconut Development Board said this decision could pave the way for tapping at least one lakh trees, yielding business worth Rs 5,000 crore.

So far, neera, the unfermented sap from coconut flowers, was classified as toddy, and its production governed by the excise department under the Abkari Act. Though neera is not an alcoholic beverage, farmers are not allowed to extract this health drink. The interim report of the committee, headed by State Excise Commissioner Anil Xavier, is learnt to have asked the government to remove neera from the purview of excise rules governed by the Abkari Act.

The committee, meanwhile, sought more time to submit a full report as it felt that the issues under examination needed more deliberations to reach a consensus among panel members. A copy of the interim report, soon to be submitted to the government, is with The Hindu.

The panel’s recommendation that the Act need not be amended to allow neera production and its sale is a major departure from previous perception that the Abkari Act should be amended to legalise neera business.

The Abkari Act governs the sale of liquor in the State, including toddy, and defines toddy as either the fermented or the unfermented sap from coconut flowers.

Farmers’ groups have been insisting for long that neera is the sweet nectar of coconut trees, called madhura kallu, a health drink that has found wide acceptability and comes into the Indian market, including some stores in Thiruvananthapuram, from countries such as Sri Lanka. Even the neighbouring Karnataka State has started tapping neera and the product is set to enter the Kerala market soon, sources said.

Now, the government-appointed committee has made a proposal to tap neera, process it and package it so that it does not ferment and has sufficient shelf-life in that condition.

The committee is of the opinion that the Department of Excise should supervise neera production so that permits to tap neera are not misused. And, neera tapping should be done only by Coconut Producer Societies registered with the Coconut Development Board.

“It would be sufficient for Coconut Producer Societies to apply for permission from the excise department to tap neera from demarcated coconut trees”, said the interim report, which also felt that there should be no fee or tax imposed on trees selected for neera tapping.

Tapping, packaging and marketing of neera should be carried out at the levels of the producer society and at the federation respectively.

The panel’s logic is that allowing neera production ahead of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement coming into effect on April 1, 2014, will enrich coconut farmers and bring extra revenue to the government.

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