Tribal world is intertwined with mahua but it still suffers from false colonial notions of being a lowly toxic liquor
A rustic hum brimmed my ears as I stepped into the courtyard of Shuku Mandi, a resident of a small Santhal village in West Bengal. He greeted me with a broad smile and promptly offered a glass full of mahua liquor. “We have a new member in our family. The women in the family and neighbourhood are singing the traditional songs of the name-giving ceremony,” he answered, anticipating my curiosity.
Sipping the freshly brewed mahua spirit, which is essential on such social occasions, I was reminded of how the tribal world is intertwined with mahua. Though my experience was in a small Santhal village of West Bengal, this is true for all Adivasi villages in central and adjoining India.
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Gond, Santhal, Baiga, Munda, Ho, Orao and all other communities spread in at least 12 states have a strong connection with mahua. Say, for example, for a Gondi Adivasi, the social rituals of Tonda (birth), Manda (wedding) and Konda (death) will cease without mahua.
Milieu of an Adivasi society is broken without it. What used to be a cultural identity for them now perishes as a lowly booze, associated with adulteration, lack of morality, danger and what not. This relegation was not normal but planned — just another ploy by the British to exploit Indians.
Till around the late 1800s, brewing mahua liquor was just another household chore for indigenous families. The British Raj saw this as an untapped opportunity to generate revenue.
They deemed it a low-quality toxicant, labelled it as a threat to public health and morality and with two successive acts — Bombay Abkari Act, 1878 and Mhowra Act, 1892 — they banned not only the production of mahua, but also collection and storage of mahua flowers. Thus, they succeeded in controlling the production of local spirit and gathered revenue from alcohol imported from Britain and Germany.
That colonial hangover still continues. Practitioners and scholars who are aware of the history of mahua, its cultural importance and economic significance for the Adivasis see huge potential in it and call for a change in policy.
In India, current excise policies categorise liquor as Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), Imported Liquor (IL) and Country Liquor (CL). CL is bound by the antiquated laws of 1878 and 1892, which forbid non-Adivasis from consuming or producing it and restrict Adivasis from producing it within a certain limit. The introduction of a new category as ‘heritage liquor’ and careful articulation of the policy can do wonders to actualise its potential.
After perishing for centuries, it seems that mahua is slowly regaining its space.
In 2022, the excise and tribal affairs ministry of the Madhya Pradesh (MP) government issued a notification for the production of mahua liquor as ‘heritage liquor’. As a first step, they tested the market, serving it without charge to customers in hotels and bars run by MP Tourism Corporation.
It was commercially launched in May 2023. Aniruddha Mookerjee, advisor for heritage liquor, MP government, said the right to commercially distil mahua spirit has been given only to the Scheduled Tribe Self Help Groups in the state.
Fifty per cent of these groups must comprise women. In two districts of MP, Alirajpur and Dindori, Bhilala tribe of village Kavcha and Gond tribe of Bhaka Mal village are producing this artisanal spirit in small batches under the brand names Mond and Mohulo, respectively.
This policy initiative of the MP government is remarkable as it provides credence to the age-old skill of the tribes, helps to monetise it and rightfully gives the right to do so only to tribes who have been traditionally distilling it. “A positive air needs to be created around mahua to bring it out from its false association with hooch, poisoning and death — the MP government’s policy move is a bold step in that direction,” he added.
In 2018, entrepreneurs Desmond Nazareth and Conrad Braganza introduced a brand of mahua spirit as an ode to India’s heartland and inspired by tribal lore and tradition; however, it was launched as an IMFL. Because of policy regulations, the Andhra Pradesh government permitted their venture to manufacture mahua spirit as a non-country liquor.
The entrepreneurs sourced food-grade mahua flowers from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, MP and Odisha, started working directly with tribal groups and paid them a premium price compared to the fluctuating but low market rate. The product, DesmondJi is gaining popularity, but because of strict policy regulations, it is currently only available in Goa and Karnataka and this year in Maharashtra.
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“From the very beginning of our Mahua journey, we have been vocal for a policy change to create the ‘state heritage liquor’ and when the MP government did the same, it seemed our effort is of some use,” Desmond said, grinning widely. Their ‘forest to bottle’ mahua spirit will be introduced abroad soon, with preparations for the same in progress.
But it is not like that mahua is absolutely unknown to the world outside India. Back in 2021, an alcoholic drink under the brand name ‘Mah’ was introduced in France. Produced in France using flowers sourced from India, the distillation technique indigenous to India was only supplemented by practices experts follow in spirit-making in France, making the mahua drink a global player.
“We strive to build an economy around mahua that will support the Indian Adivasis, attributing the credit where it’s due,” said Rahul Srivastava, one of the brains behind ‘Mah’.
All these initiatives were marked by a very special event recently — National Mahua Conclave — the first of its kind organised by the MP government on September 30, 2023. It took the mahua cause further by encouraging entrepreneurs and connecting tribal flower collectors with prospective buyers.
They diversified into other mahua flower-derived products too, which will also help to rectify the false notion of mahua as a lowly toxic liquor.
However, the positive outcome of such efforts was felt in limited pockets in the tribal belt of central India. For example, in the villages of West Bengal, Adivasis still carry the baggage of a colonial mindset around mahua. The price of mahua flowers is also falling here, primarily because of the availability of cheaper adulterated liquor.
This has gotten to the point where mahua tree owners are hesitant to keep their Madhuca indica trees. Economic distress is breaking the cultural values of not harming this sacred tree. In her seventies, Mongol Hansda, a Santhal from Jharkhand, put it very bluntly, “If the deity can’t satiate your hunger, what’s the point in worshipping her”.
The mahua cause has definitely started taking the first baby steps to get its pride back, but it’s still a long way to go. And for that to happen, uniformity in the legal framework across India is a must.
Excise policies that govern mahua flowers are still archaic and ambiguous. Different states follow different sets of rules that create room for further confusion for inter-state and intra-state movement and use of mahua flowers. As a result, everyone, from naive tribal flower collectors to entrepreneurs, experiences difficulty while trying to get into a new venture.
The policy needs to be changed not only to smooth the ease of doing business but also to protect the tribals from being cheated and safeguard their interest, dignity and rights. The time for mahua has come; the legal framework needs to evolve to accommodate and catalyse the opportunity.
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