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“If one drinks a glass of neera in the morning instead of tea, etc., he should not need anything else for breakfast,” Gandhi once said. Yet, the health food, neera, is not freely available to the hordes of fitness and wellness enthusiasts around, simply because of some archaic government rules that prevent coconut farmers from tapping the non-alcoholic drink.

Neera is the sap of the inflorescence of the coconut tree, which unlike toddy is consumed fresh and not fermented. While Tamil Nadu is the second largest of coconut farming states in the country after Kerala, the state government’s time-worn rules about tapping neera are depriving coconut farmers of a good source of income.

As much as 4.44 lakh hectares of land in Tamil Nadu is devoted to coconut farming, producing 52,140 lakh coconuts, marking a productivity of 11,560 nuts per hectare per year, according to official 2020-2021 figures. But the real value of this produce is not being realised because of a licence raj in neera tapping.

Tamil Nadu has issued as few as 13 licences for neera tapping compared to 204 licences in Kerala. Karnataka too has more flexible rules on neera tapping. Coconut farmers in Tamil Nadu who possess the licence to tap have produced around 9 lakh litres of neera, which earned revenue of Rs 13 Crore. But there is scope for so much more.

Tamil Nadu has 7,230 Coconut Producers Societies, 467 Coconut Producers Federations, and 29 Coconut Producers Companies registered with the Coconut Development Board. There are 5 crore Palmyra trees (including coconut palms) in the state, and about 3 lakh families depend on them for their livelihood, weaving baskets, mats, and ropes with the leaves and fibres. Of these, 11,000 people are engaged in harvesting and selling nungu (palm fruit) and neera.

Neera is the sap of the inflorescence of the coconut tree, which unlike toddy is consumed fresh and not fermented

Not just locally, even in the international market, there is great demand for coconut products. Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, which are leaders in this competitive market, promote a variety of coconut-based products, whereas India is still in the early stages of coconut processing. Despite being a major coconut grower, India is losing out on an opportunity to be a significant player in the international market.

Coconut neera has been one of the traditional nutritional drinks and a part of the food culture of India for several centuries. But over the last seven decades, controls have been imposed on neera tapping, because it is being confused with toddy, which is also extracted from the coconut tree and contains some amount of alcohol.

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The state government, however, has recently clarified that “neera is a non-alcoholic nutritious drink drawn from the unopened inflorescence of coconut trees by using Anti Fermentation Technology to arrest the fermentation.” The Government has also issued the “Tamil Nadu Neera Rules” permitting the tapping of neera from coconut trees, as well as the manufacture of other products from neera.

Coconut farming supports millions of farmers by providing food, nutrition, and livelihood. Coconut, a perennial crop, cultivated in Tamil Nadu is one of the major non-food crops in the country. Coconut farming is also one of the major agricultural activities in India, especially in southern states where it accounts for over 90%. However, the stringent licence system and neera tapping rules enacted in 2017 are holding back the coconut farmers. They are unable to take advantage of new modern technologies that enable the tapping of neera while preventing fermentation.

According to the Coconut Development Board, India imports around 20,000 tonnes of coconut palm sugar annually. If the cumbersome rules on neera tapping were eased, India could completely avoid this particular import as Indian coconut farmers can produce it domestically and even export it to other countries.

The Neera Rules, 2017 restricts the tapping of neera to a mere 5% of coconut trees. Only once a year do inspectors from the government department mark coconut trees for tapping of neera. In no way is this a sustainable practice. It only lets the untapped wealth of neera go to waste.

A stringent licence system and the neera tapping rules enacted in 2017 are holding back the coconut farmers

Interestingly, the Coconut Development Board, which falls under the Ministry of Agriculture of the union government, has advocated the need for removing the anomalies and issuing an amendment to the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act 1937 to exclude neera from the definition of toddy.

The CDB has said that it is “illogical and irrational” to include neera under Section 19 of the Act, explaining that Neera or Padani as stated in Section 11-B means juice drawn from a coconut, palmyra, date palm, or any other kind of palm tree into receptacles treated to prevent any fermentation. It therefore should not be categorised as Toddy under Section 19, as it contains “no alcohol”.

“It is a health drink. This simple amendment would help create around 2.40 lakh ‘Green Collar jobs’ and increase the State’s revenue by Rs 47,500 crore,” an official was quoted as saying by The Business Line newspaper in 2018.

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The rules should indeed be amended, and this should be classified as a “nutritious health drink”. Also, separate Rules for further processing neera into jaggery, syrup, and sugar should be added. Importantly, the ceiling fixed in the rules on the number of coconut trees that can be tapped needs to be removed. The percentage should be increased from 5% to 25%-30%.

Amending the rules will not only empower thousands of coconut farmers and help them enhance their agricultural income, it would also increase the state government’s revenue from the sale of neera and value-added products like coconut sugar.

A representation has been made to the Government of Tamil Nadu to bring changes in the Tamil Nadu Neera Rules, 2017 to help coconut farmers, and it is hoped that the implementation would be done speedily.

(The author is an economist and public policy expert)

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