Kochi: The project to sell bottled Neera or coconut palm nectar was launched amid much fanfare in Kerala a decade ago. It was touted that Neera sales would touch an annual turnover of Rs 50,000 crore as there would be many consumers once it is extracted, bottled and sold for Rs 20 in bottles or Tetra Paks from kiosks. But the nascent industry didn't take off as was expected owing to unfriendly regimes that had vested interests to promote the well-entrenched toddy industry in the state.
The government had exhorted the farmers to come forward and invest in Neera factories. But most of these factories that were started with share capital mobilised from farmers have now shut down. The company executives are in no situation to return the money to the farmers.
Twenty-nine companies had come forward in the state to produce Neera. All these companies jointly made an investment of Rs 103 crore. Of this, Rs 53 crore was mobilised from the farmers. Another Rs 17 crore was borrowed from the Kerala Financial Corporation (KFC). But the coconut farmers, who toiled hard for Neera, ended up in debt. Some of them later shifted to production and trading of coconut oil and rope.
What went against the beverage
If Neera could be sold in Tetra Pak, big soft drinks companies such as Parle were willing to take it up. But the agricultural department did not give its approval to obtain financial aid for setting up the plant to manufacture Tetra Paks. The application for this has been pending for two years.
Finance Minister Thomas Isaac had assured a loan of Rs 18 crore from KIIFB to set up the tetra pak plant, if the consortium of neera-producing companies obtained the approval. A central subsidy of Rs 6 crore could also be availed. The cost of setting up the plant is Rs 25 crore.
But it was unofficially conveyed from the agricultural department not to expect the necessary approval in this regard. The reason was simple - the ruling parties are not much interested in Neera, but in the toddy industry. They fear that the growth of Neera would hurt the toddy industry.
Neera easily ferments to become sweetened toddy. The toddy shop contractors do not have permission to sell this sweetened toddy. Sri Lanka and Philippines manufacture wine and vinegar from Neera, but that is also not possible here.
It was not the private entrepreneurs who ventured forth for Neera, but the coconut farmers. Company office-bearers were selected from among themselves. There are up to 120 directors in the most active 12 companies. Most of them are farmers, aged above 65. Their tragedy is that they are not able to face the farmers who had bought shares in their old age.