- The cultural and economic significance of mahua flowers among the tribal and local communities in eastern Jharkhand and bordering parts of West Bengal are on the decline.
- Mahua is losing its popularity and price in the market due to erratic rainfall affecting its quality and the demand for cheap, adulterated mahua liquor.
- Village elders worry about the loss of traditional knowledge of mahua liquor-making and the long-term health impacts of adulterated liquor consumption among the tribal youth.
- The views in this commentary are that of the author.
The end of March marks the mahua flowering season in the dry forest regions of central Indian highlands and adjoining Chota Nagpur Plateau (CNP); the air becomes thick with the sweet fragrance of the pale yellow mahua (Madhuca longifolia) flowers carpeting the ground below the canopy of trees.
Mongol Ghatual and his wife Purnima of Digardi village in the Purulia district of West Bengal on the eastern edge of the Plateau are busy collecting the flowers, a non-timber forest produce (NTFP) which is an important source of livelihood for them. Mongol owns four mahua trees. His cousins have a few more. Each mature tree produces around 60 to 80 kg of mahua flowers on an average.
The Ghatuals are unhappy that it is taking them an entire day to collect the flowers. “We used to start collecting flowers by four in the morning and by 10 or 11 am, we would be mostly done. But this year, it is past noon and we are still not done with it. This untimely rain is spoiling our mahua. We are toiling harder, but for less,” said Ghatual.
The rain clouds gather for yet another untimely shower. The slight drop in temperature and humidity make the flowers stay longer on the tree; they keep falling almost the entire day which is not the case usually. If the sun persists, the flowers start shedding early in the morning till around 10 am. This intermittent showering only adds to the labour of collectors like Ghatual.
The flowers need to be sun-dried for three to five days before storing for later use or for selling since moisture makes the flowers rot. Dried flowers are traded throughout the year. So, despite the impending rain, they spread the flowers on the ground to dry and keep a watch on them. This repetitive process of drying and gathering affects the quality of flowers. It also becomes labour intensive which cannot be compensated even if the flowers fetch a good price in the market.
“The rain drops on the flowers leave spots on them which will bring the price down. So, chances of getting a good price seem impossible this time,” Purnima added.
Mongol’s story resounds across the mahua-growing dry forest regions of eastern Chota Nagpur Plateau comprising eastern Jharkhand as well as Purulia and parts of Jhargram in the adjoining state of West Bengal. This region received untimely rain during the last mahua flowering season that falls between late March and April.
The region has been witnessing a gradual drop in the price of mahua but it plummeted last season. In 2021, the collectors sold dry flowers for around Rs. 65-70 for a kilo. In 2022, the price had dropped to Rs. 40-60 and in 2023, a kilo of mahua flowers fetched them just Rs. 20-22.
The poor quality of mahua due to rain is only a part of the story. The real problem, as the village elders suggest, is the adulteration of mahua liquor.
Adulterated liquor upsets mahua economy
Mahua flowers are a crucial source of income for the tribals and non-tribals alike here. Though mahua liquor is the main product, the locals consume the flowers in various forms such as a dark-brown sappy sweet dish called mohul shijha or a sweet delicacy laattha or they simply mix boiled flowers with pickle and have it with rice.
A major portion of mahua goes into brewing the liquor prominent in the tribal society and culture. No celebration, be it the birth of a child or marriage, is complete without mahua liquor being served. It is also a popular recreational beverage, making mahua brewing a significant livelihood option for many tribals.
Brewing mahua liquor with chemicals instead of natural ingredients for quick fermentation and easy returns, however, is proving to be a threat to the traditional craft. Sexagenarian Laal Singh Sardar, affectionately called Laal khura (uncle) in the village, said, “We used raanu (a combination of roots and barks of different plants) to initiate the fermentation of mahua flowers. Then jaggery replaced raanu. Now, it’s reduced to poor quality jaggery and some chemicals to brew the liquor. A few flowers are used but only for flavour.” Himan Paramanik, a paikar (middleman who buys dried flowers in bulk from the collectors) said that the brewers were buying very little mahua these days.
Mahua brewing is an art that’s losing its sheen
According to master brewer Hori Soren, mahua brewing is an art that needs to be developed with skill. He said only a skilled distiller can identify the bubbling sound of fermentation, all of which comes with the understanding of traditional knowledge that’s passed down through generations. He rued that the brewers of the current generation are no longer interested in learning this skill.
“The traditional process yields less quantity and takes seven to eight days to complete. With more jaggery and chemicals, the yield is more and quicker. No one looks for pure mahua anymore. Any booze that gives a quick high is what the customers seek,” said Shuku Mandi, a young distiller, without disclosing details about the chemicals used for brewing.
According to village elders, the consumption of authentic mahua liquor in limited quantities has no negative effect on health whereas adulterated ones are slow poison.
As a consequence of its declining demand, mahua trees, considered sacred in tribal culture, are threatened. Most of the trees are found in privately owned lands or in commons, maintained for agroforestry. A few villagers shared that they were considering selling the trees for timber. “If the deity can’t satiate our hunger, what’s the point in worshipping her,” said the elderly Mongol Hansda from Sirum village in eastern Jharkhand. The loss of mahua trees is feared to affect the local ecology and biodiversity.
Other states set example of reviving mahua economy
There is a lot that this region can learn from some other mahua-growing states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh which are coming up with newer ways to reap the economic potential of the flower. The Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to notify mahua spirit as “heritage liquor” in 2022 and to hand over the responsibility of its production to the artisanal tribal distillers was one such move to revive the industry that helped the tribals monetise the traditional knowledge they hold.
In addition to liquor, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have also introduced other value-added mahua products to non-tribal consumers to create a market outside tribal communities. The Chhattisgarh government is supporting and encouraging tribal women’s self-help groups to prepare and market edible products like mahua laddoos, cookies, halwa, etc.
Even after the progress made by different state governments, the legal framework that regulates mahua is still far from clear and supportive. The British had banned the collection and production of mahua back in the 1880s by way of Bombay Abkari Act, 1878 and Mhowra Act, 1892. While the ban was lifted in post-Independent India, mahua collection, storage, trade and brewing are restricted to various degrees in mahua-growing states like Jharkhand by state excise policies that changes from state to state.
Desmond Nazareth and Conrad Braganza, the mahua entrepreneurs who introduced mahua liquor commercially back in 2018, experienced these official obstacles up close. Different excise laws make the inter-state transport of mahua cumbersome and they had a tough time getting the raw material. They were permitted to manufacture mahua spirit only as Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) by the Andhra Pradesh government despite mahua being a local brew. They suggest that better, more transparent policies will help all stakeholders and the sustenance of this indigenous profession.
Abhijeet Dey is currently exploring the adivasi-mahua relationship as part of his Ph.D. (Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies) at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). Joydeep Chakraborty is a trained mountaineer who is working as a practitioner and independent researcher for the conservation of the Chota Nagpur Plateau and its biodiversity.
Banner image: A tribal woman collects mahua flowers at Sri Rampur village in Purulia district of West Bengal. Change in rainfall pattern makes mahua flower collection a tedious process. Photo by Joydeep Chakraborty.