After the Mahagathbandhan’s defeat in the Kurhani Assembly bypolls, there has been a renewed demand to lift the ban on the sale and consumption of toddy, a natural intoxicant beverage extracted from various species of palm tree – that serves a source of income for lakhs of people in Bihar.
Toddy is an alcoholic drink made by the fermentation of the flower sap from a coconut palm or other fruits. It is white and sweet with a characteristic flavour and contains between 4 and 6% alcohol.
As per estimates, livelihood of around 20 lakh people belonging to various socially backward communities like Paswan, Manjhi and Dusadh in Bihar is dependent on toddy sale.
The sale of toddy was banned with the prohibition of liquor in the state in 2016.
Some political leaders have long been demanding to lift ban on the sale of toddy, but the chorus gain momentum of the Grand Alliance led by ruling Janata Dal United (JDU) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) lost by-election in Kurhani last week.
A section of Mahagathbandhan leaders believe that backward communities did not favour JDU’s Manoj Kushwaha in the Kurhani bypoll as a mark of protest the liquor ban.
Leaders like former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi and MP Chirag Paswan have argued that the prohibition has put the income of Pasi community under enormous pressure and people of these communities have been subjected to police harassment.
Latest to join the growing chorus is RJD legislator Amar Paswan. “I do support CM Nitish Kumar’s decision of banning liquor in the state but we have to ensure that people who have been associated with the profession of toddy making are not impacted adversely,” he said and called for a review of the alliance’s defeat in Kurhani.
“If we say that toddy is bad, we are essentially saying that the materials used to prepare toddy like mangoes, lichi and apple are also bad. Toddy is nature’s gift to us and we should again have a discussion over the ban,” MLA Paswan argued.
Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) founder and former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi demanded that toddy be de-categorised as an alcoholic drink. “In my opinion, toddy should not be banned. It is a natural juice, and it should not be in the category of alcohol. This ban has affected the livelihood of lakhs of people even outside of the Pasi community. They face police action due to this ban,” he argued.
Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) leader Chirag Paswan, who hails from the Pasi community, held a press conference on Monday to raise a similar demand. “Nitish Kumar himself introduced liquor shops in every panchayat after his 2005 win. Why did you open these shops if you were going to ban liquor in 2016? The Pasi community has been in the profession of making toddy for generations. It should be kept out of the alcohol category,” he said.
Paswan, who supported the BJP in the Kurhani bypoll, also demanded that the government should give compensation to the farmers who injure himself or lose their life after falling from palm tree while collecting the juice.
Bihar imposed complete prohibition on sale of alcoholic substances in the state in April 2016, drawing its inspiration from Article 47 of the Indian Constitution, which directs the state to endeavour to prohibit the consumption of intoxicating drinks and drugs that are injurious to health.
Last week, Bihar Congress Legislative Party leader Ajit Sharma demanded the Nitish-Tejashwi government to roll back the liquor prohibition law, arguing that its enforcement is very poor.
Protests against the ban on toddy sale are growing in the state. In the last week of November, hundreds of members from the Pasi community held a demonstration in state capital Patna, demanding that toddy be kept outside the purview of the liquor prohibition law. Stones were pelted and police responded with lathi-charge.
RJD leader Anil Sahni who disqualification necessitated the byelection in Kurhani has blamed chief minister Nitish Kumar for the alliance’s defeat, listing a ban on toddy sale as one of the possible factors.
In his defence, CM Kumar has said that his government is encouraging toddy farmers to make ‘neera’, a non-intoxicant beverage prepared by using the same palm tree juice that is used for making today.
Experts believe that the rehabilitation of toddy manufacturers to other profession through up-skilling and re-skilling is the best-case scenario but needs tremendous government efforts.
“Many Pasi families have traditionally been dependent on toddy sale for their income. The beverage is considered less harmful compared to spirit liquor. Due to this ban, people linked to this profession face regular police harassment and live under fear,” said Prof. Navan Chaudhary, who teaches economics at Patna University.
“In my view, the production of ‘neera’ should be encouraged because it has no alcoholic effect. Chief minister Nitish Kumar has also emphasized on this aspect… These people must be provided alternative source of income,” he told The New Indian over phone.