Excise lobby blocks neera flow
By Sowmya Aji | Published: 07th October 2013 09:51 AM |
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s plan to introduce neera and throw open a $2 billion domestic and export market for coconut farmers has got stuck. His detractors are blaming the excise lobby for it.
Farmers’ hopes had skyrocketed after Siddaramaiah announced in his 2013-14 budget that the Excise Act would be amended to permit the tapping of neera (coconut flower sap). Currently, it is allowed only in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. The budget also spoke of aid to form coconut producers companies and of marketing neera byproducts like coconut palm jaggery and coconut palm sugar, both nutritious alternatives to sugar. The export market just for coconut palm sugar, according to the Coconut Development Board, is $1.3 billion.
But the Excise Department, reportedly at the behest of distillers and brewery owners, is dragging its feet on permitting the tapping of neera. Excise Minister and Siddaramaiah’s close aide Satish L Jarkiholi has publicly stated that he has no objection to neera tapping, but the Excise Department does not even want to comment.
A top official said: ‘’It is a policy decision and we do not want to say anything.’’
A finance official told Express: ‘’The Excise Department has not made any plans to permit neera tapping or even worked out what the impact is on its revenues.’’ The excise sector’s fear is that easy availability of neera, which turns into fermented toddy if left opened, will result in a slide for the Indian Made Liquor, which currently has a monopoly in the cheap liquor market.
‘’The government is suffocated by the excise lobby. Siddaramaiah might want to fulfil the dream of his mentor, former Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha president M D Nanjundaswamy who fought for neera. He has the capability to do it and help farmers earn income. But he has the excise lobby sitting on both his shoulders trying to stop it, so I don’t know if he can do it,’’ farmer leader Kodihalli Chandrashekar told Express. The Karnataka Breweries and Distillers Association denies that it has any hand in the delay in introducing neera.
‘’Neera has been announced in the budget. The department has not consulted us on this issue. We have not agreed or disagreed to anything. The rules have to be framed by the department and they are taking time,’’ administrative secretary Shivalingaiah said.
The Horticulture Department, which is the nodal agency for neera, is waiting, after completing all groundwork, for the neera policy to be introduced.
‘’We have formulated the policy and sought the Excise Department’s concurrence. Till we get it, we cannot go ahead with the manufacture of neera, as the Excise Act amendment is necessary,’’ joint director K B Dundi told Express.
The matter is political also, as Siddaramaiah’s other mentor, now foe, former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda led a massive padayatra in 2001 demanding permission to tap neera. Gowda’s party, the JD(S), is still milking the issue for all its worth. But no government since has wanted to displease the powerful liquor lobby and also take on the moralists who preach against easy availability of toddy.
‘’We have suggested that neera, with its tremendous nutritional value, be marketed as a health drink and priced high enough to ensure that it is not misused as toddy. The benefits of neera manufacture will be enormous for farmers,’’ Dundi said.
He gave figures, which tell that story: On an average, coconut farmers in Karnataka have 150 coconut trees per hectare and each tree gives about three litres of neera per day. If the trees are tapped for six months, the farmer gets `16.2 lakh per hectare at `20 per litre. “We already have the manufacturing techniques in place at our centre at Thumbe in Dakshina Kannada. If the policy is cleared, units can be set up in all the 11 coconut growing districts,’’ Dundi said.