The milky white sap, collected in earthen pots hanging from the leaning unopened flower buds of coconut palms, has miles to go before filling the glasses of tipplers in faraway toddy shops.
For nearly three decades, the coconut plantations of Chittur, a taluka in Kerala’s Palakkad district, have been supplying this traditional beverage from the fermented sap of their trees to the state’s 4,616 toddy vends. The sector, according to the Kerala Toddy Workers Welfare Fund Board, employs 29,019 people. That includes 21,015 “tappers” — the ones who climb up daily to retrieve the pots filled with the sap — and 8,004 employees in shops. Besides, there are 900-odd unregistered tappers and workers.
Kerala now produces an estimated 3 lakh litres per day of toddy, with Chittur taluka alone accounting for 2.60 lakh litres. “We have issued permits to tap 175,383 coconut trees in Palakkad, out of which 26,290 are meant for supplying toddy to the district. The balance 149,093 trees are for supplying to the other 11 districts. Each tree yields an average 1.5 litres daily,” informs an official from the state’s excise department, which regulates the toddy business under the Kerala Abkari Act.
Palakkad, more so Chittur, emerged as a toddy tapping hub in the early 1990s. “The coconut trees elsewhere were infected with fungal diseases, making them unfit for tapping. The tappers, mostly from central Kerala, then started scouting for trees that took them to villages in Palakkad. As Chittur had large plantation tracts, we all moved there,” explains A.K. Madhavan, general secretary of the toddy tappers union, affiliated to the CPIM-backed Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
Toddy tapped from Chittur’s coconut trees are now ferried daily in barrels by mini-trucks, leaving early morning for supplying to shops across the state. The shop-owners from other districts, too, have taken the trees from these farms on lease. The tappers, mainly from Kottayam and Alappuzha districts, are accommodated at makeshift sheds in the plantations.
Toddy is tapped from the unopened buds of palm flowers. The tappers beat these using deer femur bones, with the tail-end of the buds chiseled away and tied with coconut leaves to prevent flowering. They also apply mud on the bud mouth. After the buds are beaten, thrice daily, they start dripping the white sap, which, on fermentation, becomes toddy. The collection is done by placing pots at the end of the bud.
A tapper typically does about ten trees at a time, collecting the toddy early in the morning to ensure that the fermented drink is supplied as fresh as possible to shops, without turning too sour and acidic. The tapper climbs to tap in the noon and evening, too, even though collection happens only in the morning. During the peak production season, he can get up to 25-30 litres from tapping ten trees daily. For every litre retailing at Rs 120 and upwards, the tapper gets Rs 24-26. From the rest, the shop-owner also has to pay employees, tree lease charges and state excise duty.
“My father and uncles were in this profession. I, too, have been in it for the last three decades and earn Rs 20,000-30,000 per month. It has been enough to buy 13 cents of land, build a house and educate my children,” says, P N Babu, 57. A native of Changanassery in Kottayam district, he is among the many to have made Chittur his workplace.
But regular income and other benefits — bonus, provident fund, gratuity and monthly pension of Rs 2,000 for tappers with 10 years’ service, and Rs 5,000 if they have worked for 30 years — aren’t enough to attract the younger generation. “There is a social stigma to being a chethukaran (toddy tapper). It’s not easy to find a bride, even if we may be making more than our peers working in the Gulf (West Asia). I had to take a break from this profession to get married,” notes T N Manoj. The 34-year-old from Vaikom in Kottayam, who been a tapper for 11 year, is relatively lucky. T S Sujith, 30, who taps at Kozhinjampara in Palakkad, has been searching in vain for a match for over two years.
Coconut farmers are also benefiting from leasing out their trees, with the going rate for each ranging from Rs 350 to Rs 650 per month. Each acre would have 60-70 trees, but the tappers choose only the ones that may give at least one litre daily. They tap each set of trees for six months and another batch after that.
But the sector has seen better days. “The young consumers want Indian Made Foreign Liquor, even as the average age of tappers is going up. This business is facing extinction,” admits Ajith Babu, general secretary of the Kerala Toddy Shop Owners Association.
Excise Minister T P Ramakrishnan feels that the way forward is to promote toddy as a health drink, and also chilled, canned, sweetened and other value-added products from it. “We want to exploit its potential as a niche indigenous drink, by setting up modern toddy parlours at tourist destinations”, he adds.