While many parts of India are considering Prohibition, Assam is nursing its drink. In August, the Assam government announced that country liquor produced in the state could be bottled, branded and sold in two flavours by private companies in Assam. In 2016 the state government had declared traditional brews made by various tribes as “heritage liquors” that could be bottled and retailed within the the state.

“We have introduced a new policy to check the quality and introduced certain parameters,” said Rajesh Prasad, Commissioner and Secretary of Assam’s Excise Department. Under the new excise rules, that were tweaked earlier this year, the government can grant licenses to private firms, allowing them to make grain-based extra-neutral alcohol, otherwise known as country liquor. “We have fixed the amount of water,” added Prasad.

Four companies have applied for licenses to blend, bottle and brand the liquor. One of them is a Jorhat-based firm that will sell the liquor under the brand name “Rhino”. The liquor will be available in three variations: orange, pineapple or unflavoured. A 300 millilitre bottle will be sold at Rs 30 and the 600 ml bottle for Rs 55.

For those who cannot afford Indian Made Foreign Liquor (the paradoxical name for locally made whisky, gin and rum), country liquor will be a safe, cheap option, said a businessman involved in the state’s liquor industry, who asked to remain identified. But for historian Uttam Bathari, who is also linked to the Youth Association of Development and Empowerment Trust in Haflong, traditional brews are still safer. “If it is produced on a cooperative basis, it could benefit local people, especially local women, who are the keepers of this knowledge,” he said.

Country vs traditional liquor

There are subtle differences in the way the two kinds of liquors are defined and branded. While country liquor will be distilled mostly from grains such as rice and white barley, traditional liquor usually involves an organic process, where rice, herbs and other grains are fermented. One comes out of an industrial process of mass production. The other suggests a more intimate process – families or communities slowly brewing a “clean”or organic beverage.

Branded country liquor is marketed as the safer option for low income groups that cannot afford IMFL, even as it brings in more revenue for the state. Heritage liquors, it seems, will be sold as a sort of cultural artefact, aimed at tourists and the well-heeled getting a drink in one of Guwahati’s restaurants.

“More than revenue, we want to popularise the brand name of Assam,” Prasad agreed, “Like Goa has Feni. But when an outsider comes into Assam, he does not know what the traditional drink of the Dima Hasaos is, for instance. This is about branding the community’s name and practices.”

Both the country and the heritage liquor policies involved licensing private players to bottle and sell drinks commercially. “Earlier, everything was government controlled,” said Prasad, explaining the change in the country liquor rules. “Now any private entrepreneur will be able to produce it within regulatory parameters.”

The businessman from the state liquor industry described the hellish tender system under which country liquor was previously produced. The spirit would be bought from local distillers before it was blended. Much of it would be rectified spirit, a more impure form of the liquid than extra-neutral alcohol. “Liquor would be made in government warehouses, in really bad conditions,” said the businessman. “The water used to come from ponds. The government would also give out bottling contracts to private operators, but you had to do the blending and bottling in the government warehouse, which would be in really unhealthy conditions, and only on three-year contracts. Now you can do it in your own factory, with no time limit. You only have to renew the lease.”

Under the new system, private companies will blend and bottle the drink, which will be duly labelled and hologrammed. The water used will be demineralised, the same as Indian Made Foreign Liquor.

Meanwhile, brews that were categorised as heritage liquor include judima, a rice wine produced by the Dimasa tribe, xaj, made by the Ahoms, zou, a Bodo drink, and apong, a Mising rice beer, among others. According to Bathari, the excise department had been in touch with a cooperative in Haflong about the production of judima.

Judima from Assam. Photo credit: Blending Flavours/Facebook

“Ethnic people used to produce these liquors family wise,” said Prasad. “Now it can be produced on a commercial basis by any private enterprise. Only 25 per cent of the cakes (the discs of raw material that are fermented into wine or beer) must be bought from self-help groups within the community. The benefits have to go to the community.”

No country for toddy and mahua

Another state that has successfully cashed in on traditional liquor is Goa. In April 2016, Goa gave its local feni drink the tag of a “heritage spirit”, which the state differentiates from country liquors. Unlike Assam’s new legislation, which allows its local country/heritage liquors to be branded and sold only within the state, feni’s heritage spirit tag has opened up markets for it across the country.

Feni-Goa's heritage liquor. Photo credit: Rdx Goa Infotainment Channel/Facebook

But most states do not refine the distinctions between heritage liquor, country liquor and Indian Made Indian Liquor. In these states, regulations have gone the other way, to ban rather than to enable production.

When Bihar’s government imposed a ban on all country liquor on April 1, 2016, toddy sales shot up as an immediate reaction. The Pasi community of Dalits in Bihar, who are traditionally toddy-tappers, agitated against the state government’s liquor ban by deliberately drinking toddy in public places. The very next day, the Nitish Kumar government cracked down on protesters by extending the country liquor ban to the sale of taadi (toddy), and over the next few weeks, hundreds of toddy-tappers and vendors were arrested across the state. Later, the state’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar claimed he had in fact not banned toddy.

Toddy made with the sap of coconut flowers. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-3.0

The neighbouring state of Jharkhand produces two lakh metric tonnes of mahua per year, but 85 per cent of it goes into making illegal liquor, since there has been a ban on distillation for at least three decades. In 2015, the state government classified mahua flowers as a “stimulating item”, triggering protests from the Jharkhand State Mahua Flower traders association. The protesters claimed the ban on mahua would rob 25 lakh families, involved in picking mahua, of their their livelihood. As of now, neither mahua daru, toddy nor hadiya (rice beer) are illegal in Jharkhand, but certain NGOs and tribal women’s groups have demanded a ban on these local drinks to counter the problem of alcoholism.

Mahua is the base for homemade liquor among many tribal communities in Chhattisgarh too – it is called mel in Durwa, kal in most Koitoor dialects and dadango in Abujmarh. In summer, tribes in Bastar make small quantities of suram – a dark wine-like drink made from mahua flowers. Besides these, they make landa, a fermented rice beer, toddy and even liquors made from mango, berries and tendu leaves.

A Indian woman of the Gothikoya or Muria Gond tribe from Maoist insurgency-hit Chhattisgarh state prepares homebrewed liquor known as 'Ippa Saara' from mahua seeds at her temporary abode inside the forest terrain of Khammam district, about 450 km from Hyderabad. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

Brewing these drinks is illegal almost everywhere in Chhattisgarh. But, keeping in mind the significance of traditional liquor in local religion and culture, the state government allows Adivasi homes in Bastar to possess a maximum of five litres of liquor for consumption, not sale.

“In the remoter villages these traditions are secure and the drink, healthy,” said Madhu Ramnath, a Bastar-based anthropologist. In villages more exposed to main roads, according to Ramnath, Adivasi youth also have access to foreign liquor which they find fashionable.

“Local women have protested against foreign liquor shops,” said Ramnath. More recently women from tribal communities in Chhattisgarh have also risen against men in their own community for consuming excessive amounts of mahua drinks, reporting them to the police.

Jambulachi, peruchi and mavachi

Feni’s special recognition in Goa also has sections of the East Indian community in coastal Maharashtra feeling short-changed. A fishing and agricultural community, the East Indians adopted Christianity under Portuguese rule in the 1500s and pride themselves on being the original inhabitants of Mumbai. The community has brewed a variety of traditional fruit-based liquors for generations, but unlike feni, these homemade drinks have been illegal in Maharashtra since the 1950s.

East Indian liquors are typically named after the key ingredient involved: jambulachi, for instance, is made from jambul or blackberry, peruchi is made from peru or guava and mavachi is made from mava or condensed milk. “We also make khimad, a liquor distilled from the very first bottle of any other freshly-brewed alcohol, with added spices,” said Herbert Barretto, president of the Maharashtra East Indian Christian Federation.

“By making our drinks illegal, the government stole the livelihoods of many neighbourhood aunties who used to brew and sell liquor,” said Barretto, whose federation is planning to nudge the state government to recognise East Indian liquor the way Goa has recognised feni. “What we make is not hooch – it’s good alcohol.”

Cultural consumption

In proscribing the production of local alchohol, governments often seem to ignore the cultures in which they are made and consumed. “Drinking has a different connotation in adivasi society, especially in the smaller and less affected villages,” said Ramnath. “It has social, religious and ceremonial implications, the gods also being offered mahua on most occasions. Also, the fact that men and women drink together – no stag parties like our non-tribal heroes in the city – there is a certain decorum maintained while drinking.”

Yet the customary drinking practices of native Indian communities and tribal groups have been under threat periodically right from 19th century. As early as 1878, the Bombay Abkari Act (followed by the Mhowra Act of 1892) opened up debates about the right of the state to control traditional liquors. They imposed a heavy tax on toddy and banned the drink made from the mahua fruit.

Traditionally, such legislation has spelt huge revenues for the government through excise, and profits for private commercial liquor manufacturers. In 1991, when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the chief minister, the state had made toddy tax-free. Unsurprisingly, then, Yadav was among the most vocal in slamming the Nitish Kumar government for extending the liquor ban to toddy, branding it an anti-Pasi move.

For the poor, and for the communities traditionally brewing these natural liquors, these legislations mean a loss of livelihood as well as an infringement of their customs and culture.