Toddy as 'health drink' to stay

Thiruvananthapuram, Oct 6 (IANS) A Kerala High Court observation that the government should consider banning toddy had ruffled feathers in a state where many consider it a "health drink". With the court now reluctantly accepting that a ban was not feasible, it's cheers once again.

The Kerala High Court had last month asked the state government to consider banning toddy but reversed this on Thursday, with the government assuring it would ensure the supply of quality toddy.

The Indian Union Muslim League, the second biggest party in the ruling front, had welcomed the court's initial observation while all other political parties took a different stand.

One reason why the court's observation caused distress was that many consider toddy or "natural alcohol" a "health drink".

Toddy has an alcohol content of just 8.1 per cent, and is preferred by women in central Kerala districts.

Toddy is tapped by professionals from either coconut or palm trees and then sold to the shops before travelling to the hands of tipplers.

A 750 ml bottle of toddy costs around Rs.45.

The state has 5,200 shops that sell toddy and in the current fiscal 4,100 shops have been opened after the tendering process was completed.

"I have been drinking fresh toddy for the past three decades from the coconut or palm trees in my home. This is no taboo at all and in fact it's a real refreshing drink," said a 65-year-old housewife in Kottayam.

A household which gives a coconut tree for toddy tapping is paid an annual amount fixed by negotiations between the tapper and owner.

But this is not the same for palm trees, as the owner of the tree gets the full quantity of toddy collected.

"We have two palm trees and in each tree there are four bunches which are tapped. Every third day we get around 20 litres of toddy. On some days we heat the toddy and convert it into a sweet dish," said Kurian John in Kottayam.

The toddy tappers, numbering thousands, mostly come from the Hindu Ezhava community.

In response to a judge's remark that the state should seriously consider banning toddy, Excise Minister K. Babu hit back last week, by saying that it is for the people to decide what they drink.

The state government came out in support of Babu and said that it has no plans to ban toddy.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the ban could affect the livelihood of thousands.

On Thursday, Justice S. Sirijagan came down heavily on politicians and said the government reacted to the court's observation without understanding the spirit in which it was made.

"If that be the case and if the people can drink what they want, then what's the need for the Akbari laws?" asked Justice Sirijagan.

Babu, who made the court re-think its ban observation, said that his department will ensure that no spurious toddy is sold in the shops.

"We are doing our job," Babu said.

(Sanu George can be contacted at sanu.g@ians.in)