Can a ban on toddy curb Kerala's alcoholism?

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Toddy, the traditional beverage of Malayali that even played a role in promoting tourism in Alappuzha district, has of late courted trouble.

Last week the Kerala High Court wondered why the state should not ban it, considering the complaints regarding it being mixed with intoxicants.

While no one can dispute the intention behind the ruling, can a ban on toddy really halt the rising alcoholism among people in the state?

The state banned the sale of arrack in 1996, but studies as well as records of the excise and finance departments reveal that in the years after the ban on arrack, alcoholism actually increased among Keralites and has reached an all time high now.

Experts point out that the revenue from toddy sales over a year is peanuts compared to revenue earned in a single day from the sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL).

While toddy fetched Rs 20 crore in 2011-12, outlets of the Beverages Corporation across the state made as much as Rs 25.71 crore on Thiruvonam Day alone this year.

In fact the revenue earned was even higher on the days preceding and following Thiruvonam, recording a sale of Rs 42.28 crore and Rs 32.16 crore respectively.

Also, the sale of foreign liquor through Bevco outlets was around `100.15 crore over just three days of the season.

Considering this, it is absurd to expect a ban on toddy to make any significant impact on the drinking habits of Keralites, say those fighting to save the traditional occupation of the toddy tappers.

V.S. Sunilkumar, MLA, who is also president of the Enamavu- Peringottukara Kallu Chethu Thozhilali Union in Thrissur, contends that it is not the tapper who adds illicit spirit to the toddy, but the contractor who operates hand in glove with the excise department.

“Instead of putting a stop to this, it is unfortunate that a traditional occupation is being targeted, ” he regrets, pointing out that at stake is the livelihood of about one lakh toddy tappers and around 4000 toddy shop owners.

Neera can be more profitable: KAU

The Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) could come to the rescue of farmers and toddy tappers if toddy is banned in the state as it has developed technology to extract non-alcoholic ‘neera’ from coconut trees.

“The government needs to spell out its policy on neera as it’s the only stumbling block to its launch,” says Dr. Jayapraksh Naik, associate director of the university’s Regional Agriculture Research Station at Pilicode, who has succeeded in developing the technology to extract neera.

Scientists explain that the coconut inflorescence sap in its purest form is not alcoholic and contains several ingredients that are good for health.

But as it quickly ferments and turns alcoholic, the challenge is to arrest the fermentation using organic methods.

A team of Kerala Agricultural University scientists managed to find the key to prevent the fermentation and allow the product extracted this way to be preserved for a week under refrigeration.

Not only would this drink be non-alcoholic, but tapping neera could also fetch a farmer bigger returns than toddy tapping, they say.

“A farmer who gets Rs 250 for every coconut tree used for toddy tapping, can earn upto Rs 1500 if he uses it to tap neera instead. Toddy tappers too can easily switch to neera tapping,” says Dr Naik.

‘Enforcement should be stricter’

* 50 lakh workers earn their daily bread from toddy business in our state which has to be protected by the state government. Commissions appointed by the govt had not recommended any ban on the less alcoholic toddy. The sale of illegal liquor has increased in the state because of the unholy nexus prevailing between the contractors and Excise officials. The enforcement force should take stern steps so as to curb down the flow of illicit liquor - P.K. Gurudasan, MLA and former excise minister

* It’s the failure of the government to check illicit toddy that led to the high court observations. What we need is not a ban on toddy, but a commitment from the government to sell only genuine toddy. We have also seen that the arrack ban earlier led to suicides among workers engaged in the trade and the same may happen if toddy is banned.Vellapally Natesan, SNDP Yogam general secretary

* There is not enough toddy in the state to sell even for one hour. What is being sold in toddy shops these days is toddy mixed with intoxicants and this has forced the high court to seek the ban on the beverage. The Catholic Church stands for banning all liquors, including toddy. But the government should take steps to rehabilitate the toddy workers who will go jobless in the event of a ban.
Charlie Paul, president, KCBC Madhyavirudha Samithi

What they say...

* It doesn’t make sense for the state government to impose a ban on toddy, a healthy and traditional drink, as it did on arrack in 1996. –– K. Achuthan Chittoor MLA

* If the ban on toddy is introduced we will lose a drink that has been around for generations and is steeped in our culture. –– T.D. Ramakrishnan Writer

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