As part of a remarkable push to market forest produce from the tribal belt of central India, the Tribal Affairs Ministry plans to bottle mahua from Chhattisgarh and mainstream its sale all over the country. Other produce like amla and tamarind will also be incorporated into jams and candies, but these may not be immediately successful, since they would have to do battle with established brands. But bottled mahua is a unique product and its success is guaranteed. Bihar, next door and in the throes of prohibition, should be feeling quite upset about this.
The decision to market mahua reverses the tide of history. Country liquor was marginalised in colonial times in favour of a class of dodgy produce with a patently dodgy name — Indian Made Foreign Liquor. While Job Charnock was a noted fan of arrack, the empire that came later took a dim view of it. Empires exist in order to collect taxes, and it is easier to tax factories than stills in people’s homes. And therefore, country liquor was banished to the fringe.
However, it has persisted in subcultures across the country, rejoicing in the names of the fruits, like santra, from which these beverages are made. Besides, recipes from times past linger in the collective memory of some old families and communities. The central ministry has done the right thing by the people of Bastar, from where most of the mahua to be bottled will be sourced. Perhaps some of the states where old traditions of brewing and distilling remain can take a cue. Indian companies have recently focused on premium products suitable for the international market. Country liquors, professionally bottled, would add to the bouquet. Apart from offering Indians a healthier alternative to cheap IMFL, they could create a brand new segment in the export market.