Modernisation proposals for toddy sector in Kerala gather dust

Modernisation proposals for toddy sector in Kerala gather dust
A worker taking toddy from a coconut tree. Photo: Jins Micheal/Manorama

This is the third and final part of the series, "Tapping Toddy's Taint." Read first & second part here: Fermenting greed in toddy bottles | Saccharin, silicone paste, ganja: Miracle ingredients that turn water into toddy

Unadulterated toddy is a unique selling proposition of Kerala tourism. The hardest part, however, is to get the original, pure drink.

The tourism sector could massively benefit if it could provide pure toddy in hygienic conditions. Only a few tourism centres could boast of having shops that serve unadulterated toddy and food in hygienic environs.

Goa has been promoting Feni as that State's "heritage spirit." Marketing toddy, along with value-added products, have a huge potential. Coconut climbing and tapping could be showcased for tourists to tap the potential of responsible tourism.

The truth, sadly, is different. Toddy is being sold in unhygienic conditions, and many people stay away from the drink, fearing adulteration, a fact well-known in the State.

Several previous governments had mulled over setting up "Toddy Parlours", a concept that still remains on paper. Governments in the past had announced plans to introduce toddy as "Kerala's Own Drink," besides marketing branded value-added toddy products.

Excise Minister M V Govindan

A P Udayabhanu Commission, constituted by the K Karunakaran government three decades ago, was the first to recommend modernisation to promote toddy and toddy shops. Though the succeeding United Democratic Front and Left Democratic Front governments, too, subscribed to the commission's recommendations, many of them are yet to be implemented.

The first Pinarayi Vijayan government had announced a plan to modernise toddy shops with the setting up of the Toddy Board. However, even the formation of the Board itself is now shrouded in uncertainty. Though announced, a Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) initiative to promote unadulterated pure toddy, too, failed to take off.

Understaffed Excise Dept

Though reports speak of rampant corruption in the Excise Department, it has been facing a shortage of officials in several districts. Adequate number of officials are not appointed for conducting raids to find illegal spirit and for the "Vimukthi" mission, a Kerala government initiative to keep people, especially the youth, away from drugs.

Currently, 150 posts of excise inspectors are lying vacant in the State.

Despite having the most number of toddy shops, distilleries and check-posts, officials are not appointed in Palakkad on priority.

Govt warns of crackdown on corruption

"The government's aim is to produce and supply unadulterated toddy. Toddy has to be tapped. But in some places, especially in Palakkad, toddy is artificially made. Officials colluding with such people are detrimental to the traditional toddy sector. The government will act against the corrupt officials with an iron fist," M V Govindan, Excise Minister, made the government's intent clear.

"The suspension of 14 excise officials, including a deputy commissioner, was part of the government's move to weed out corruption. Another 13 officials, including a deputy commissioner, were placed under suspension in connection with the Anakkapara hooch case a few months ago. Such a similar circumstance shouldn't have repeated.

Permits for transporting toddy are being issued online from this financial year. Those who collect money for issuing permits will not be tolerated. The toddy sector will undergo a change once the Toddy Board is established," the minister added.

How to win trust of tourists

"Toddy could be declared as Kerala's official drink. But who will guarantee that tourists will get unadulterated toddy? The government should declare that the toddy served is pure. At least the tour operator should know the coconut tree from which the toddy was tapped. It will be difficult, going by the present system of handling toddy," Santosh George Kulangara, Member, Kerala State Planning Commission, said Santosh George Kulangara, Member, Kerala State Planning Commission, underlining the current scenario.

Santosh George Kulangara

"To ensure unadulterated toddy, all should be allowed to produce toddy. No entrepreneur in the tourism sector will serve bad food to his guests. It should be remembered that if any foreign tourist posts his/her bad experience of having adulterated toddy, it will taint the image of the entire country.

Tourists won't be visiting any place to get sozzled, but they would like to taste local liquor. Ethiopia has a wine called Tej, which is served accompanied by music and dance in buildings constructed according to their architecture. In contrast, liquor is served in Kerala in the most dirty circumstances. Human rights seem to evade tipplers in Kerala," Santosh, who is a renowned globetrotter, added.

Goan, Lankan models

M R Narayanan

"There is no doubt that tourists will appreciate an unadulterated, pure toddy. Developing the toddy tapping sector by lifting strict restrictions that pave the way for corruption and taking the private sector into confidence will ensure good quality toddy. This would require amendments to the abkari (Excise) rules. Under the current circumstances, we cannot serve guests the toddy now available with confidence. Sri Lanka has been marketing canned liquor with less alcohol content. In India, we have Goan feni as an example. The focus should be on making available pure products," said M R Narayanan, Secretary, Confederation of Tourism Industry, Kerala.

Greed, the bane of the sector

Thousands of people, including tappers, workers in shops and licencees are dependent on the toddy sector. Yet, greed has made some fix their eyes on quick money at the cost of a sector that has an immense potential.

The government decided to establish the Kerala Toddy Industry Development Board (Toddy Board) to organize, develop and encourage the toddy industry. Though the Toddy Board Bill was introduced in 2021 the government did not go ahead with framing the rules nor did it adopt any steps to make it a reality.

The AITUC, the trade union arm of CPI, had raised the issue in public. The organisation's general secretary K P Rajendran conveyed to CPM the outfit's opposition to the delay in forming the Board. With the CPI's affiliate organisation itself voicing its opposition, the minister for excise announced that the Toddy Board will be set up this year itself, in a U-turn from his earlier statement that it would not be established this year.

As per the current plans the Toddy Board would have the following tasks:

Preserve excess toddy after each season

Plant high-yielding coconut and palm trees

Construct permanent structures for toddy shops

Directly run shops as required

Open modern toddy shops in tourism sector

Impart training to those in the toddy industry

Open information centres

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