Maharashtra urged to scrap permits for grain-based distilleries


There is no law to scrap the licences, says Principal Secretary

There is a clutch of politicians and their family, among others, holding licences and enjoying subsidies under a now-defunct policy. Maharashtra's ‘Grain-based distillery and integrated unit financial relief 2007' was discontinued last year, said Chief Minister Ashok Chavan recently, adding, “There is no policy.”

Rolled out in June 2007, the grain-based liquor policy aimed to “encourage” production of liquor from food grain in the light of the rising demand for spirit – used for industrial purposes and potable liquor. For the purpose, the use of “poor quality jowar” was stipulated; the crop often gets spoilt due to the vagaries of nature. The argument being, farmers who often suffer losses when their jowar is ruined would get better prices for their produce.

The State stopped the policy on August 20, 2009. However, distilleries sanctioned before this date and starting production within two years of sanction were entitled for subsidies. It also stayed the issuing of new licences when faced with opposition. However, the Chavan government now is dragging its feet on cancelling the old licences, doled out during the government of his political rival Vilasrao Deshmukh, whose son is one of the factory owners.

“You can't just scrap the licences. Where is the law?” C.S. Sangeet Rao, Principal Secretary, Transport and Excise told The Hindu.

The issue flared up when Chetan Kamble, an activist, filed a petition before the Bombay High Court in December 2009 against the grant of huge subsidies to liquor manufacturers, many of whom are powerful politicians. During one hearing, the court asked the government to state what it considered essential – food grain or wine. What followed was a widespread moral outcry against the use of a staple grain for liquor and against the likely effects of the policy on food security.

Food-deficit State

“Maharashtra is a food-deficit State. The State produced 9.3 million tonnes of food grains in 2008-2009 while it annually needs 15 million tonnes. This year 20,000 villages in the State have been declared as scarcity-hit,” points out social worker Dr. Abhay Bang in a recent letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, signed by many activists.

Jowar is the staple in Vidarbha and Marathwada, backward regions where manufacturers enjoy greater subsidies. Activists have questioned the logic of diverting this grain to produce alcohol in a State where “36 per cent children are malnourished and farmers are committing suicide.” Rural India has already seen its food security destroyed by a policy-driven shift from food crops to cash crops.

Official estimates say that you need one tonne of jowar or grain (bajra/maize) to manufacture 650 bulk litre of spirit. “If 20 factories were to produce 20 crore litres of spirit, the quantity of jowar utilised would not be more than five lakh metric tonnes. The total yield of jowar in 2008 was 33.52 lakh metric tonnes,” a Home department note states.

Implications unforeseen

The amount of grain diverted is a small percentage of the output, but its implications on food security are unforeseen. It is this apprehension that led the government to pull back the scheme in August 2009, says Mr. Kamble.

The storm though has not passed. Mr. Kamble says around eight factories (sanctioned prior to August 2009) have already started production. Rejecting the government's claim of using only poor quality grain, Dr. Bang says there is no compulsion on the companies to pick up only spoilt grain.

Plus, the government's contention about the farmer benefiting from a hike in grain prices is not entirely sound. “Definitely no,” says Baban Ghadge, a farmer from Satara. “They say farmers will get good prices, but will the dealers give good prices? The farmer is always the one to be cheated. Will he know if the grain being purchased is for manufacturing liquor or for other purposes? I have sold my jowar at Rs. 600 a quintal. Is that a rate?”

Some farmers' lobbies supported the scheme, says Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti (VJAS). However, he asks, “Farmers will benefit, but at what cost? On one side they say alcoholism is a major reason for suicides and on the other hand they want to encourage liquor use.”

The fate of jowar thus hangs in the balance. The court too in its final order did not intervene on the grounds of it being a policy matter.

Main beneficiaries

Meanwhile, the ones who made hay, “the main beneficiaries of this policy, introduced very quietly, [were] the 36 factories, most of which are owned by the close relatives of political leaders,” Dr. Bang's letter says.

Information gathered by Mr. Kamble under the Right to Information Act, throws up many well-known names. Rajya Sabha MP Govindrao Adik is the chairperson of Belapur Industries Ltd, Ahmednagar. His son Avinash Adik is one of its directors.

Another licensed distillery is Dhaval Pratapsingh Mohite-Patil Agro Industries Ltd, Solapur. Dhaval Pratapsingh is the son of Pratapsingh Mohite Patil, nephew and brother of the former State Deputy CM Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil respectively. The family wields considerable clout in western Maharashtra.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Gopinath Munde's daughter Pankaja Palwe and her husband Charudatta Palwe are both among directors of Radico N.V. Distilleries Maharashtra Limited, Aurangabad.

The directors of Vitthal Distilleries in Solapur are NCP MLA Babanrao Shinde's sons, Vikram Shinde and Ranjit Shinde.

The political connection runs way down to Hyderabad with the sons-in-law of P.V. Narasimha Rao owning Pioneer Distilleries in Nanded district.

Mr. Kamble's petition lists Union Minister Vilasrao Deshmuk's son Amit Deshmukh as one of the stakeholders. Deshmukh Sr. was the Chief Minister in 2007, when the policy came into being.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 11:01:24 PM |

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