K Vijayachandran

Poison strikes Kerala toddy industry normally during Onam or Diwali: This time it chose the Id, and to strike at Malappuram, killing 26 and sending a few hundreds to flood its rural hospitals. There was, then, the usual media hype and plenty of angry statements by political parties and anti-liquor NGOs. TV Channels were competing to broadcast their own instant recipes for making the poisonous brew, with plenty of water for volume, spirit for the kick, whitish chemicals for colour, and then a little toddy for making up the taste and smell of a Gods’ own drink.

Some channels had broadcasted even regional variations in the recipe and the the step by step process of manufacturing and bottling of the poisonous brew, to the great satisfaction of the idle curiosity of our elite classes, who look down on toddy like plague. Their campaign was so very convincing and effective that, toddy shops all over the state, other than those managed by toddy worker cooperatives, were under compulsion of close down. According to newspaper reports, millions of liters of toddy, tapped during the week after the poisoning, were poured out into canals and rivers. Tens of thousands of toddy tappers and workers as well as employees of toddy shops, who had nothing to do with toddy poisoning have lost their livelihood. Beneficiaries were  the manufacturers of India Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and their selling agents, Kerala State Beverages Corporation, as pointed out by the Director of Bharatheeya Vichara Kendra, Shri P. Parameswaran.

Such assaults on local brewing industry are more than a century old. The Travancore Abkari Act, which is now applicable to the whole of Kerala, had marked the beginnings of State intervention against the local toddy industry and in favor of European brewers and distillers. From the website of excise department, we get glimpses of its history: “Excise Department is one of the oldest Departments in the State. It’s establishment dates back to the reign of Maharajas of Travancore. Excise Department, at that time, was a comprehensive name given collectively to the Governmental agencies for the administration of the collection of revenue from Salt, Tobacco, Abkari and Customs. The work was supervised and controlled by the “Piravagai” Department attached to the Huzur Cutchery. The Division Peishkars supervised the collection of revenue and administered the laws and regulations. The management of the Department was vested in the Dewan. In 1083 ME (1907-08), Excise Department was reorganized. The State of Travancore, for the purpose of Excise administration was then divided in 4 Division. Each Division was subdivided into Circles and the Circles were divided into Ranges. Each Division was under the command of an Assistant Excise Commissioner. The Administrative Head of the Excise Department was the Excise Commissioner. Even after the reorganization of the State of Kerala in 1956, the same system of administration is retained.”

Toddy industry was regulated by auctioning the license to tap palm trees and then processing and selling the products. These licenses were auctioned off every year, village or region-wise. This crude system of taxation served a dual purpose. On one hand, it helped to maximize Government revenues for the licensees were under economic compulsion to extract maximum surpluses every year. And, on the other hand, it served as a built-in disincentive for investments in technology and skill development. It had immensely suited the feudal environment supported by caste system, and the local industry was greatly handicapped to compete with the brewing and distilling industry of the West.

Local industry could not play its legitimate and natural role in the burgeoning hospitality industry around, and was condemned to stagnate and degenerate: And, that was our all round experience. Same or similar fate had befallen on the indigenous brewing and distilling industries of most third world countries. However, Sri Lanka, from where the toddy industry had migrated to Kerala, seems to be an exception: Coconut Arrack is marketed as its national drink through their star hotels and national airlines. Despite the massive propaganda in support of prohibition and abstinence, liquor continues to be a part of history and culture of local communities, and that is the global trend.

The archaic Abkari act and its bureaucratic enforcement have turned out to be a big joke and big civil nuisance, and successive Governments had promised to replace them with something more modern and civilized. Traditionally there are declarations on Abkari policy, every year, like the ceremonial speech of the Governor, but hardly anything gets implemented. A committee was promised in the first policy declaration by the present LDF Government in 2007-08, for drafting a new Abkari Act based on new policy perceptions. The Committee got setup only during the next policy year: recommendations  and the Lalithambika committee is under consideration by Government for the past two years. Despite the latest toddy tragedy, LDF Government is silent on its implementation.

This report has reportedly taken into account the more recent experience of managing the industry with the help of toddy worker cooperative at the shop as well as range and district level. But, it is feared that this report also will have the same fate as that of the quarter century old Udayabhanu Commission report which had recommended re-organization of the toddy with toddy worker cooperative playing a central role.

In fact, election manifesto of LDF had promised in 2006, to implement the recommendations of Udayabhanu commission. On the strength of these, trade unions in toddy sector were demanding a state-wide network of toddy worker cooperatives, to be promoted by Kerala Government, jointly with the Toddy Workers’ Welfare Fund Board. The network was supposed to consist of:

* A thousand primary cooperative toddy farms, each two hectares on the average, with 350 high yielding variety trees, 300 liter per day of toddy output and engaging about fifty workers and other employees. These will be similar to the ones, that have already come up in some areas of Palghat district, but equipped with modern facilities for the cleaning, treating, testing, bottling and refrigerated storing of palm toddy.

* Each cooperative farm may operate two or three restaurants or toddy parlors as part of the hospitality industry in the neighborhood, selling clean wholesome toddy and serving the best of Kerala foods. Bottled toddy supplied by these primary cooperatives could be sold through other restaurants in the locality as well.

* Fifty or sixty primary cooperatives could jointly establish regional centers in each district, for organizing support services as well as for the manufacture and marketing of byproducts like arrack, treacle, vinegar, jaggery, nira, fruit syrup and other food items.

  • A state level apex society will serve as the top level policy making body and will organize training schools for toddy tappers, attend to other HRD requirements of the industry, and set up and manage an appropriate R&D institution.

The proposed cooperative network, with strength of around sixty thousand, could reach an annual turnover of around Rs. 1000 Crore within five years and the toddy workers do have the organizational discipline, skills, financial resources to promote such cooperative ventures, with the help and involvement of the State Government. This will need a new legal and administrative framework, consistent with the new requirements. And,  Abkari laws inherited from British days, which have only blocked the natural growth of indigenous industry and brought miseries to the local population, should go lock, stock and barrel. And the question need to be asked, why Abkari police should continue to exist even in twenty first century?

Even a cursory look at the website maintained by exercise department will reveal the low levels of its performance and efficiency. Statistics are hardly seen updated after 2003, and there is no information on the so called Abkari policy of last two years. The website claims that, in 2003 the department had conducted 168708 raids, registered 5970 cases, arrested 3620 persons, and destroyed some three million liters of wash. Anybody who has witnessed such farcical raids and arrests will have a good laugh on hearing about such achievements. Excise department have neither equipment nor standards for detecting adulteration or judging the quality of products, it is supposed to handle. State Beverages Cooperation has taken over the bulk of its taxation responsibilities, with regard to IMFL. Reforms have changed the content and direction of the enforcement of relevant central laws. Everybody knows that our excise department is a primitive police force, far less intelligent and more ill-equipped compared to the regular police. Its major function and undeclared objectives relate to the protection of liquor mafia and its interests.

Toddy industry now serves as the staple food for the corrupt excise establishment and once the industry is liberated from its stranglehold, the regulation and enforcement functions could be mostly delegated to local governments which need to be developed and equipped for the purpose, as in more civilized countries. Centralized policy making and decentralized administration are the essential components of modern efficient management. Not only with regard to tax collection but also with regard to quality of surveillance, local governments could do a far better job, compared to the highly centralized bureaucratic administration like our excise department.

Active involvement of local governments and elected representatives of people at local level in the enforcement of Abkari laws could substantially improve the quality and efficacy of their administration. Consensus at the local level is a far better process for granting licenses for liquor shops in specific localities, compared to the current practice of direct regulation by ministers’ offices and the State Government. The barbaric taxation system of auctioning the annual licenses needs to be done away with, for the healthy development of the local industry. Tax could be collected more effectively by local governments, and then shared with the State Government, based on state level laws and norms. Law enforcement and tax collection could be made far more transparent, efficient and qualitatively on par with developed countries. Kerala, unlike its sister states, is ready for such democratic reforms: The scare-crow type Abkari administration that breeds corruption and in-inefficiencies at every level need to be replaced by a more democratic and responsive one.

That sort of sweeping reforms are, in fact, long overdue and that is the only way to end the visitations of toddy poisoning, and to salvage the ailing toddy industry. Successful experience and track-records of toddy worker cooperatives in Kasargod, Kannur and Kozhikode districts and selected ranges in Ernakulam district has demonstrated the feasibility of such sweeping reforms that were promised in the LDF election manifesto of 2006. However, there are plenty of double talks and noises in political circles, and it is yet to be seen whether LDF really delivers these promises.


EOD: Sept 12th 2010