Putting excise officials in charge of a panel to study rehabilitation of toddy business irks farmers’ representatives
Coconut farmers in the State are questioning successive State governments’ reluctance to modernise the lucrative toddy business, add value to toddy and permit tapping of neera, the non-alcoholic sap from coconut inflorescence.
Putting excise officials in charge of a recently constituted committee to study the rehabilitation of toddy business and approaches to tapping neera has irked farmers’ representatives. Questions have also been raised about the composition of the committee, which is allegedly loaded against the farmers.
One of the farmers claimed that value addition in toddy through derivatives or tapping neera could help them earn around Rs. 5,000 a year per tree against the current income of around Rs. 500. But will the Excise Department allow it to happen, he asked, because farmers figure nowhere in the scheme of things with the Abkari Act in place.
Even the convenor of the recently constituted committee on toddy and neera is the Excise Commissioner, head of a department that is least interested in letting go its hold over the toddy business.
Panel met only once
The committee, which is expected to submit its report on March 15, has met only once so far (on February 2). It was likely that the time limit for the committee would be extended, he said. But the delay is obvious, alleged the farmer.
However, Excise Commissioner Anil Xavier told The Hindu the department was “very serious” about its business and would give the farmers, political leaders, trade union representatives and scientists a thorough hearing at the committee’s next meeting. “There is no laxity on our part,” he said.
An entire day has been set aside for the meeting on March 7, said the Excise Commissioner, who pointed out that each of the representatives had been told to submit their opinion on allowing tapping of neera.
May seek more time
It is learnt that the committee was likely to seek more time, approximately six months, before it submits its final report, making the current deadline of March 15 the date for submitting an interim report.
Chairman of Kerala Toddy Workers’ Welfare Fund Board N. Azhakesan said he did not mind neera being tapped under the present organisational set-up and structure. The farmers, he said, were not an organised lot to take up tapping of neera.
Babu Joseph, the only farmers’ representative on the nine-member neera committee, asked why the trade unions appeared to be opposed to value addition in toddy or tapping neera.
He said revamping toddy business could enhance income and that even women could be involved in tapping neera.
They could even be part of the farmer producer companies, which he envisions as a future possibility.
‘Farmers will be losers’
He said neera tapping in Kerala could not be prevented any longer with States like Karnataka officially allowing its production and marketing.
These products are bound to reach Kerala eventually and Kerala farmers will be the losers. The business of selling toddy needed to undergo a makeover, said T. N. Ramesan, general secretary of Kerala State Chethuthozhilali Federation, that represents toddy tappers.
He said traditional means of earning an income, including coir production, had undergone changes over the years but toddy tapping and sales remained in the same mode after several centuries.
He wanted a move to keep profiteers and contractors out of the toddy business, which should be under government control.
Even allowing farmers to tap neera could turn into chaos, he said as he suggested that traditional toddy tappers should be given a big role in any future development in the business of neera and value addition in toddy.
He said merely tapping neera might not save coconut famers and toddy workers in the State. He blamed foreign liquor sellers and toddy contractors for the woes of traditional toddy tappers and coconut farmers in the State today.
He called for a Toddy Board, without the contractors in picture, to oversee the tapping of toddy and its sale in the State with emphasis on value addition and its own storage and distribution chain.
If Russia can have its vodka and the French their wines it was possible for Kerala to have its own brand of alcoholic drink from toddy, said Mr. Ramesan, who also called for diversification of business into production of sugar and jaggery from toddy.