Fermenting greed in toddy bottles

Toddy vehicles
Vehicles carrying toddy wait on the National Highway in Alathoor, Palakkad for Excise clearance. The vehicles which start arriving from 4.30am distribute toddy across the State. Photo: Vibi Job/Manorama

Fourteen excise department officials, including a deputy commissioner, circle inspectors and sub-inspectors, were suspended from service after the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) confiscated Rs 10.23 lakh from an official and two contractors more than a week ago. The amount, VACB said, was meant to grease the palms of excise officials in other districts to get toddy shop permits renewed.

The VACB's finding, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. An investigation by Manorama correspondents laid bare a parallel, illegal business that runs into crores of rupees that harms the economic health of the State while adversely affecting those consuming the drink. This is the first article of the series.

The Chittur taluk in Palakkad could be termed as the toddy capital of Kerala. Pickup trucks speeding out of Chittur with toddy to other districts are a common sight. The VACB recently revealed what plays out behind the scenes.

Contractors pay five excise offices Rs 60 per litre of toddy that are transported to other districts. Many took the vigilance revelation with a pinch of salt since they felt it rather unfeasible for contractors to pay that much money for toddy that sells for Rs 100 to Rs 130 a litre in the market. Is it possible, they wondered.

The answer is simple: Toddy sold in shops is not always toddy.

"Businesses involve both good and evil: 90 per cent good, and the remaining evil. In toddy business, it's the reverse. It involves 10 per cent good, and 90 per cent evil. The worker, employer, politician, officials -- all are equally greedy. When greed rules, how can one conduct business by fair means," Soman Nair, the prime accused arrested for running a hooch unit at Anakkapara in Palakkad, left the sleuths of the Excise Vigilance Wing stumped with his question.

Nair was made an accused after the State Excise Enforcement wing seized 1,312 litres of spirit, 2,220 litres of spurious toddy and Rs 11 lakh from his house near a toddy godown at Anakkapara in Alathur range on June 27, 2021.

Following the arrest of Nair, 13 officials were placed under suspension, and 147 others were transferred. Such action, however, failed to act as a deterrent as is evident from the seizure of Rs 10.23 lakh within a year. Such incidents come to light thanks to a few officials who refuse to back such acts.

Representational image. File photo/Manorama

Rs 2 crore bribe for permit

The permit fee for transporting toddy out of Palakkad was hiked this financial year after a long period. The fee, which was Re 1 per litre, was increased to Rs 2. The amount thus collected goes to the State exchequer.

The vigilance has found that contractors pay Rs 12 a litre each (total Rs 60). to five excise offices to take toddy out of Palakkad. The amount adds up to almost Rs 2 crore a season which reaches the excise circle office at Chittur, two range offices in the taluk, district excise office and the intelligence wing squad.

The money thus exchanged was earlier called "cover", which now goes by the sobriquet, "santhoshappanam" or "happiness money."

Of the "santhoshappanam," 30 per cent is the senior district official's share, while the official ranked below him will get 20 per cent. The next in the line of officials will get a cut of 10 per cent, and the remaining 30 per cent is distributed among other employees. The Rs 10.23 lakh seized the other day was brought to distribute among officials.

The vigilance has also seized illegally collected cash -- or bribe money -- from the Excise Divisional Office in Kannur. Though it was recommended to suspend officials including the deputy commissioner, the department initiated action against only six officers. It has been alleged that the senior official's CPM links saved him.

Following the June 2021 hooch raid at Anakkapara in Palakkad, 13 officials, including a deputy commissioner, were suspended from service, besides transferring excise department staff en masse. Corruption later became rampant after a lull, and the senior officials had reportedly been ignoring intelligence alerts.

Toddy tapping. File photo/Manorama

14 months in Excise calendar

The shop owner should pay Rs 500 for testing the quality of toddy. Investigators said the amount shoots up to Rs 2,000 in Thrissur. The payments, however, do not end there.

If there is sale and distribution of hooch near the shop, the owner should grease the officials' palms with Rs 2,000 for conducting a raid. If the monthly 'cut' to officials is delayed, a surprise inspection will be conducted at the shop, and the inspectors should be paid Rs 1,500. The vigilance has also found that the 'festival allowance' for officer-grade employees is Rs 30,000.

Additionally, there is a fee for running the shop. If the shop is doing brisk business, the fee is Rs 1,000. Another Rs 1,000 is for certifying the purity of toddy sold. According to the 'excise calendar', a year has 14 months. Months, on which festivals such as Onam and Christmas fall, are considered additional months since festival allowances are also collected in these two months.

Incidentally, a share of the festival allowances goes to the police stations nearby and those in the borders, and to the highway patrol squads.

The intelligence and vigilance wings have collected information that excise offices in all districts get the monthly collection, though the permit 'cut' is confined only to Palakkad.  

Tally, the safe route

The corruption and alcoholic content in toddy increased post the 1996 ban of arrack in Kerala. Money has to be shelled out at each step, from numbering the coconut tree that has to be tapped to till the toddy reaches the end consumer. Even after pumping in money at every step, the business still remains lucrative.

There is, however, a secret to profitable business. The quantity of toddy being transported should tally with the number recorded in official documents. The tallying is made easy, thanks to the "santhoshappanam" mentioned earlier.

It is officially estimated that two litres of toddy could be tapped from one coconut tree. The tree tax is calculated based on this estimate, and it will be entered into the tapper's registration papers. At least 500 coconut trees should be tapped to get 1,000 litres of toddy.

According to estimates, the "chelichethu" method followed by tappers in Kerala will yield 30 litres from 10 trees, while the Tamil's "pandichethu" will return only 20 litres. Though these statistics will be recorded on paper, in reality the number of tappers and toddy tapped will be less.

("Chelichethu" and "pandichethu" refer to two different methods of tapping. "Chelichethu", practised more in Kerala, mud [cheli] is used to seal the pot/container in which toddy is collected. The sealing prevents the sap from flowing out, but makes it flow back into the inflorescence. The tree is tapped twice a day and the sap could be collected in the morning and evening using the "Chelichethu" method. "Pandichethu" is more prevalent in Tamil Nadu, in which the tapper taps the tree in the evening and collects the sap the next morning).  

The quality checking of toddy opens up yet another scope for corruption. Toddy should be checked for purity at regular intervals. The sample provided for testing will not be from those kept for sale. Unadulterated toddy will be kept aside for testing purposes to receive favourable results. The official concerned can wash his hands of saying adulteration was not found on testing.

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