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From ban to brand, Indian govt now champions mahua liquor. But Chhattisgarh isn’t cashing in

In a dramatic move, the Indian government adopted a positive attitude towards the indigenous tribal produce mahua. But Bijapur’s finest is yet to become a brand.

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The Mahua tree is a versatile source of diverse products ranging from vegetable butter, medicinal extracts, syrups, purees, and liquor. An integral part of livelihood in many regions of India, its flowers and seeds are picked from the forests by tribal pickers. In the second in a series on the One District One Product initiative, we examine the allied ODOFP Scheme under the Ministry of Food Processing Industries and look at Bijapur, Chhattisgarh’s forest economy.

The Agriculture and Processed Foods Export Development Authority shipped a consignment of dehydrated mahua flowers from the Korba district of Chhattisgarh to Paris in 2021, introducing India’s most famous kacchi sharab (country liquor) to global audiences for the first time. Earlier this year, Madhya Pradesh declared mahua a heritage liquor, while Maharashtra in a first amended the Bombay Mahua Flower Rules 1950, making collection, sale and transport of mahua flowers legal. The Tribal Co-operative Marketing Development Federation, a Ministry of Tribal Affairs-run co-operative tied up with IIT-Delhi to produce Mahua Nutra, a health beverage made by blending unfermented mahua flowers with pomegranate and guava juices in Jharkhand, and also launched mahua cookies blended with millet flour in Madhya Pradesh.

These mark a dramatic, welcome change in government attitudes and policy towards an indigenous tribal product that was once seen as a ‘dangerous blight’ that had to be obliterated. Government policy on mahua has completely changed now – from an outright ban to a celebration of India’s country liquor. In the mysterious ways of the economy, mahua moved from being a restricted crop to one that is actively promoted by governments across India.

Mahua or oil-nut (Madhuca longifolia) is a tree that grows wild in tropical forests across large parts of central and southern India. It is used by forest-dwelling tribal communities to make a variety of products ranging from jams to syrups and medicinal extracts. Mahua is a pungent, potent drink that is usually brewed in unorganised, small-scale backyard stills. As a locally produced alcoholic drink, it contributes little to excise revenue and is frequently enhanced with other dangerous chemicals to give it an extra ‘kick’— a practice that has led to several tragic country liquor-related deaths.

Also read: How Kondagoan became the top-performing district in Chhattisgarh during Covid crisis

Bijapur’s woes

The district of Bijapur in Chhattisgarh is one of India’s leading producers of the mahua flower and seed. A sparsely populated, heavily forested district in the Bastar region, it has a population of less than 2.5 lakh people, half of whom are uneducated, and 80 per cent of whom are tribal. Poor and backward, Bijapur has over 3 lakh hectares of forest land covering most of the district. In 2020, its forest-produce pickers – organised into self-help groups called Van Dhan Vikas Kendras – collected over 900 tonne of dried mahua flowers, and almost 500 tonne of mahua seeds.

Yet there are no registered MSME food processing companies or formal organised entities involved in the production of mahua liquor or value-added mahua products in Bijapur. Almost all the mahua liquor consumed in the district is brewed for domestic consumption in local vends. This has everything to do with old state policies and rigid restrictions, combined with once-frequent raids on vends by the Excise Department.

The Indian government uses a broad head “Minor Forest Produce” to describe a combination of miscellaneous, sundry items comprising “non-timber forest products of plant origin,” that resist easy classification. This vague term covers everything ranging from forest wax, honey, bamboo to medicinal plants that are collected (not harvested) by forest-dwelling communities. Mahua flower and seed, which is not cultivated but rather picked off from the forests of Chhattisgarh, fall under this category and are regulated by a plethora of rules and laws.

In Bijapur, enormous amounts of mahua are collected by forest gatherers and sold at a fixed Minimum Support Price (MSP) of around Rs 30 per kg to the Chhattisgarh State Minor Forest Produce (Trading & Development) Co-operative Federation with less than 5 per cent of the district’s mahua being processed at source.

Also read: China loves Guntur chillis — How the Andhra district produced a spicy global product

Economics of mahua

The complexity of mahua commerce is worth noting. The state buys the entire produce from tribal gatherers through the Van Dhan Vikas Kendras. It is bought under a scheme with an unusually specific and bland name called the “Scheme for Marketing of Minor Forest Produce through Minimum Support Price and Value Chain Development.” It then sells it under auction (in states like Odisha) or to government-run cooperatives. The scheme and the specific MSP amount is run and decided by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, with state forest departments regulating the collection of mahua flowers from the forest and issuing permissions. The state excise department is also involved in monitoring the regulation of mahua if fermented.

More enterprising districts across India have realised the potential that mahua has. Maharashtra, Jharkhand, and Odisha have started promoting mahua, both as a liquor and as a value-added food product. However, stuck in bureaucratic red tape, and apathy from the district administration in creating processing units, Bijapur has failed to capitalise on its extensive mahua production.

Despite declaring mahua as its signature product under the ODOFP scheme under the PM Formalisation of Micro food processing Enterprises (FME) scheme, the administration’s reluctance to promote a country liquor has led to little growth in grass-root infrastructure. It is no wonder that the Director General of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Commerce, decided to contradict MoFPI’s selection of mahua as Bijapur’s signature product, and selected its pigeon peas, allotting mahua flower to Nuapada, Odisha instead.

It is private players and NGOs that have really worked towards branding mahua more than any single government intervention. Spirit brands like MahSpirit and DJ Mahua have created mahua blends that are emerging globally as niche liquor brands for discerning audiences. All of them use mahua from other parts of the country, not Bijapur.

This lack of government clarity­ on whether to promote liquor products or value-added products, to focus on Bijapur’s mahua or that of Korba and Nuapada, to regulate and restrict or to liberalise, are all strategic questions that need to be answered before serious steps can be taken. Despite tremendous potential, if marketed globally as an artisanal liquor, Bijapur’s tribal population has yet to see any benefits from the ODOFP scheme. You cannot walk into a liquor store in Delhi and walk out with a bottle of Bijapur’s finest. It hasn’t arrived yet.

District Bar Code is a series on the One District One Product scheme by the government of India. Read all the articles here.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a Director in the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog where he works on the evaluation of government schemes. Views are personal.

(Edited by Pranay Dutta Roy)

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