Mahua for Livelihoods

Back in 2013, when I was still a dreamy eyed development worker in Mandla, I had a crazy brainwave for transforming rural livelihoods in the tribal districts that I was working in. I got into trouble for that because in the Indian aid sector, one is supposed to be Gandhian and not Bacchanalian.

We had some Italians visit our field area for work. The gentlemen, having clandestinely tasted the alcoholic Mahua beverage, declared that the Mahua drink was “better than their Italian wine”. This got me thinking. The Indian Mahua drink had an untapped domestic and international market. As any straight-thinking development worker should, I asked the stakeholders themselves what they thought of my idea. I wished to know if they thought that it would be appropriate to collectively brew, package and sell Mahua based alcoholic drinks to which many women had responded, ‘अछा हो जायेगा मैडम’ (It will be good, Madam). A lady, without mincing words, stated, “शराब बनानेके लिए ही तोह महुआ बिन कर लाते हैं” (It is for the manufacture of alcohol that mahua is collected).

I quit Mandla a long time ago and have since discussed this idea with quite a few city dwellers. Nearly, everybody responded enthusiastically and asked why this had not been done before.

So, what is the Mahua all about?

The Mahua (Madhuca indica) tree is a deciduous tree, often found in Teak forests, that grows across India under dry tropical and sub-tropical climatic conditions. It provides important Non Wood Forest Products (NWFP) such as green manure, oil, oil cake, liquor (from flowers) and raw materials for several products. The tree can grow on a large range of soils right from the sandy loams to stiff clay and calcareous soils. As the tree is affected by neither heavy rains nor drought, it has great potential for agroforestry.

The Mahua trees bloom during the summers and the Mahua drink is prepared from the collected flowers. Women leave home as early as 4 a.m. in the morning to collect Mahua flowers from the forest. The flowers are never plucked. The flowers that have fallen of the trees are collected.

Sometimes entire families shift base from their village to the nearby forest in the summers to collect as much Mahua as possible. Mahua flower collection is highly competitive as everyone wants to collect a lot of flowers. Competition is not restricted to the human race. I had once heard of a woman who reported that she had mistakenly thought that there was a human collecting Mahua on the other side of the tree only to find that it was a bear feasting on the sweet Mahua flowers!

Tribal communities of Central India produce and consume their own alcohol made from the flowers of the Mahua tree. Men, women and on occasion, children enjoy the Mahua alcoholic drink that is called Mahuli or simply Mahua. Some researchers report that “women and children are also fond of these beverages but consume in small quantity and preferably during festivals or ceremonies”.

Various local alcoholic drinks meet upto 5-10% of the daily nutritional requirements, playing supplementary role in the nutrition of tribal people. The Mahua alcoholic beverage is also used to treat dysentery by Baiga, Gond, and Kol tribes. Under the PESA Act, 1996, a tribal can store upto 5 liters of alcohol. However they are not allowed to sell it as that is an offence under the Central Excise Act, 1944.

Drinking Mahua in Kanha #mahua #indianativespirit

A post shared by Tulleeho (@tulleeho) on

The Mahua drink is reportedly so delicious that Felix Padel, a visiting professor of anthropology at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) is of the opinion that ‘scotch and wine could face a tough competition in India if local varieties like mahua… are made available in their unadulterated form.’  This popularity and love for the Mahua among enthusiasts hints to the potential of business around the Mahua tree, that can help:

i. increase incomes of tribals;

ii. popularize Mahua drinks among and give legal access to the general public;

iii. set quality standards for Mahua beverage, and;

iv. combat deforestation.

Mahua and the Exploitation of tribals 

Alcohol production and consumption is the most important use of Mahua for tribal populations. However, tribals do not have storage equipment for these collected flowers which can lead to deterioration of the flowers’ quality. Tribals sell the flowers to traders for as low as INR 12 to 15 per kilo because they need the cash. The traders store these flowers. The tribals return from time to time to the same traders for buying the flowers that they had collected, when they need to brew alcohol. The tribal communities buy the flowers for as high as INR 20 to 30 per kilo. Sometimes the prices touch INR 40. Traders profit from the distress sale of mahua by tribals.

The dried intoxicating mahua 🙂

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Solution

This problem can be addressed by the creation of Producer Companies for the production and sale of the Mahua alcoholic drink. I suggest this under a Farmer Producer Company (FPC) because right now, the Indian government, under the auspices of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) and the Small Farmers Agri-business Consortium (SFAC), is trying to proliferate FPCs like mushrooms for anything and everything. The tribal communities could collectively produce, package and sell Mahua based alcoholic drinks. This will help popularize Mahua drinks among the public. As per the current laws, someone who is not a tribal cannot access the Mahua alcoholic beverage unless a tribal invites them to, since it is illegal for anyone to sell alcohol without a valid licence. If the beverage is produced, bottled and sold by a Producer Company, the product can be made available to the general public and it can possibly be exported.

Standards for the Mahua beverage

The Mahua beverage produced by the Producer Companies will have to adhere to strict standards of quality control without which the public will not warm up to Mahua. The commercialization of Mahua will lead to more research and development for this traditional alcoholic beverage of India. Studies are already on in the Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture, Lucknow and IIT, Delhi for process standardization in order to prepare good quality Mahua flower wine. This will also help curb adulteration malpractices such as mixing of sugar or urea with Mahua liquor that heavily compromises the quality of the final product. 

Combating deforestation

The Mahua tree is considered sacred by the tribal communities of Central India and is never hacked for wood. It is not uncommon to find a deforested hill with only Mahua trees scattered on it because the villagers cut away everything for firewood but not Mahua trees. Often, some or a large part of the land owned by tribal people consists of skeletal soils or lithosols as per FAO classification. This kind of soil is called barra zamin by the locals. Unaware that skeletal soils can be used for growing horticultural plants (they sometimes use it for cultivating kodo millet and red gram), they consider this land to be useless. They often refrain from reporting this land too. They simply claim that that it will be of no use in any government scheme as it is useless.

Planting Mahua trees on fallow lands owned by tribal people will help to bring that fallow land under cultivation which in turn can boost Mahua production. Mahua monocultures are not an answer to bring more land under forests but are an important option for agricultural land use. They will serve the purpose of carbon sequestration. Moreover, the Mahua leaves are economically important for rearing Tussar Silk caterpillars. This opens another important commercial activity from the same cultivated area. However, there is the threat of villagers clearing off existing Teak, Ghost trees, Flame of the forest trees, etc. in deciduous forests for planting Mahua. I have not dwelt much on this but this is definitely a possibility in case the Mahua starts raking in the moolah.

Mahua monocultures (in regions where they grow naturally) are a better alternative to growing non-edible crops for industrial purposes in rural wastelands. A big corporate, whom I will not name, had once come to Mandla for promotion of Jatropha. The tribals had been promised that the Jatropha would be bought back by the company for a good price. Many tribal families planted the Jatropha on their fallow lands. The seed stock/saplings were provided by the company itself. Here is the tragedy. No one came to buy the Jatropha. The plants occupied the fields for some years till one day another team came with a government scheme for mango plantations. The Jatropha plants were uprooted with the help of JCBs, paid for under the WADI programme and mangoes were planted in their place. I firmly think that no plant ought to be encouraged for plantation in lands of poor, tribal families unless it provides some edible product(s). Otherwise, if the plant does not generate the expected income, then the wasteland is wasted further. 

Official reactions

I had suggested this idea to the concerned district officials who had invited ideas for establishment of FPCs in Mandla. Although they were convinced by the commercial potential of the Mahua drink, they were also hilariously embarrassed. Not wanting to take the burden of promoting a perceived ‘social evil’, they hurriedly praised me for my ‘out-of-the-box’ idea but quickly stated that ‘it is not fit for the social sector’. The aid/development sector is referred to as the ‘social sector’ in India. A senior official later also explained to me how alcohol production and consumption was the most important use of Mahua for tribal populations and how traders profit from the distress sale of Mahua by tribals. At this point, I had casually and jovially asked him why he had disapproved my idea of a producer company for Mahua based alcoholic products to which he replied that he had liked it a lot but was not in a position to implement it. Their concerns are valid given that success stories such as Hiwre Bazar and Ralegan Siddhi started with alcohol prohibition.

Legal aspects and recent commercial developments surrounding alcohol sale and consumption in Madhya Pradesh and in the Republic of India

I choose to elaborate the legalities of this subject briefly because I had managed to rub a few people the wrong way by “suggesting something so anti-social”. The establishment of farmer producer companies for manufacture, packaging and sale of Mahua wine or any other local brew like rice beer, should not face any legal hindrances in India for the following reasons:

a) Prohibition is incorporated in the Constitution of India among the directive principles of state policy. Article 47 says: “The state shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people as among its primary duties and in particular, the state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” It must be noted that alcohol is not outright banned according to this Article and in point c), the reader can note that the Ministry of Food Processing is definitely not hindered by this Article 47.

b) The sale, consumption and purchase of alcohol are banned in the states of Gujarat , Mizoram , Nagaland , Manipur and the Union territory of Lakshadweep. There is no evidence of alcohol being banned in any other Indian states apart from these. In fact, in 2007, the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition Act was amended to legalize the manufacture of wine from guavas and grapes, demonstrating the government’s willingness to popularize local brews.

c) The Ministry of Food Processing had issued an Expression of Interest in 2008 to set up the National Wine Board at Pune in the State of Maharashtra as a separate not-for-profit company under Section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956.

d) The word ‘alcohol’ is not mentioned at all in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 .

e) Under the Fifth Schedule [Article 244(1)], Provisions as to the Administration and Control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes, Mandla district is a Scheduled Area in the State of Madhya Pradesh . In a Scheduled Area, a tribal household is allowed to store 5 liters of alcohol; however they are not permitted to sell it under any circumstances. Tribals already manufacture Mahua wine by their traditional methods. They can be directed towards making money out of their delicacy by selling it under the auspices of a producer company only.

f) The Madhya Pradesh government is acutely aware of the problem of tribals with regards to distress sale of Mahua flowers and their later repurchase by the same sellers at high prices. In order to protect the local community from exploitation by Mahua Traders, storage facility (godowns) of Mahua were planned and constructed under the Integrated Action Plan 2012 of Mandla. 10 Mahua godowns costing Rs. 100.00 Lacs were sanctioned to Forest Departments for constructions of godowns. 100 metric tons Mahua storage would be possible, 85 villages and 1200 Mahua collectors would be directly benefited. It is a matter of significance that the government has granted substantial sums for facilitating the storage of mahua given that ‘over 90% of harvested mahua flowers are used to produce country liquor’ .

Conclusion

With the liberalization and opening up of international wine market under the WTO regime, Govt. of India is trying to promote “Wines of India” and Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority has been entrusted to develop a strategy. The suggestion for large scale commercial production of tribal Mahua wine, under the auspices of a Farmer Producer Company, finds resonance with the policy of the Government of India with regards to wine. The implementation of this idea needs further elaboration without a doubt. Currently, FPCs are not known to do big business in India. FPCs for local brews like Mahua liquor, rice beer, guava wines, etc can change this scenario. If successful, the tribal belt will see great growth of income and our traditional brews will make it to the tables of the well-heeled. 

I welcome your comments, compliments and criticism.

 

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4 thoughts on “Mahua for Livelihoods

  1. Pingback: Mahua for Livelihoods | Buleria – WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  2. Pingback: Mahua flower based wines | 'Four Pursuits' Ventures

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