Social significance of toddy

KOZHIKODE, DEC. 30. The social and semiotic significance of sweet toddy in the life of the people of Kerala is being highlighted increasingly following the demand by coconut cultivators for tapping rights on trees owned by them.

Two issues seem to have gained centrestage in the entire debate of allowing coconut farmers to tap toddy from their palms _ the monopoly rights of tapper labour and the economics involved in the entire process vis-a-vis Government revenue earnings. The views of Gandhians on the issue are also being sought.

An important component in the argument _ elimination of the abkari lobby from the toddy trade seems to be gaining momentum too.

A supporter of the Farmer's Relief Forum (FRF) has appealed to Gandhians not to label the issue as a moral one. Considering the fact that Gandhiji himself had advocated `neera' (sweet toddy). The Gandhians ought to be in the forefront of the farmers' movement, opines a votary of cultivators' right to tap toddy.

Added to this is the dialogue ensuing for some time now, on the need to change the `food basket' of Keralites by including more items on the menu from ingredients available locally, including toddy (the unfermented drink, sans the intoxicant), in the context of the Government's new and widely-discussed Abkari policy in the offing.

A member of the Farmers Confederation (Famco) Samara Sahaya Samithy, Mr. Civic Chandran, was of the view that a change in the `food basket' of the Malayali would go a long way in not only creating a demand for local agriculture produce but would liberate the local people from having to depend on food from elsewhere.

``Tuber crops such as tapioca besides a host of varieties such as yam used to be the staple diet of the Malayali along with rice gruel and fish and here sweet toddy was an important item,'' he explains. It was only much later that rice became a prime item in the menu of the Keralite. The traditional food dishes were more suited to the health of the people here and the Kerala diet needs to be redefined and age-old food norms restored. Unfermented toddy was an unavoidable item on the menu, he adds.

Supporters of the farmers' movement cite the Karnataka example in which sweet toddy is sold in front of houses by women, and how it was being projected as a health drink minus the intoxicant. ``The taboo attached to toddy as an alcoholic drink has been eliminated in the process. What we visualise as toddy is the unfermented, non-intoxicant drink,'' Mr. Tommy Mathew of Elements, the Green Supermarket explains. It was only when it was allowed to ferment that the drink assumed a new angle.

Besides, unfermented toddy had its digestive and curative benefits. In Kerala, particularly in the central part of the State, toddy was very much part of the social life of the people, when members of the family, including women, consumed the drink.

Another aspect was that toddy was part of the food offered to deities in certain shrines in Kerala.

On the economics and employment potential, it is pointed out that decentralising the tapping process would generate eight times more employment opportunities and earn more revenue for the Government. Of the 10 lakh litres of toddy consumed in the State, only 2 lakh litres were tapped from coconut palms. The rest was spurious. The entire quantity needed for consumption could be got from the palms, thereby generating added revenue for the Government.

Mr. Tommy Mathew opines that alcoholism as a habit can be controlled by decentralising toddy tapping and adding a social element by involving the family.

The traditional methods of storing toddy in terracotta pots can delay fermentation and new techniques could be developed to bottle the drink. This could be exploited on the tourism front too, as there would be ready takers for this novel, indigenous drink.

Over and above all this was the much needed income the coconut farmer would earn by owning just four to six trees, at a time when coconut prices have crashed. Tapping was believed to relieve coconut palms from undue burden.

Natural vinegar, molasses and jaggery would be available in plenty in place of synthetic varieties.

FRF activists say the rights of farmers on their own trees were being suppressed through an out-of-date colonial abkari legislation passed more that a century back.

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