The Pasi community of Bihar is popular in societal terms through their work which they engage in to earn a livelihood and are called toddy-tapping (process of extracting palm juice from palm tree). Toddy is the fermented version of palm tree juice. For millions of people in rural Bihar — where toddy, locally called ‘tadi’, is considered as the poor man’s beer. Those who climb palm trees to tap toddy mostly hail from the Pasi community, which are placed under the Scheduled Caste (They mainly include Paswan, Manjhi, Dusaadh)
The Pasi community took center stage in terms of existence after Nitish Kumar’s government passed legislation prohibiting consuming, storing, selling and manufacturing of liquor statewide. According to figures of Akhil Bharatiya Pasi Samaj (ABPS), a nationwide organisation of toddy-tappers, the population of Pasi community in Bihar is over 20 lakh.
Toddy-tappers in Pre and Post Liquor Ban times:
Here are few depositions of facts by those who are engaged in this profession.
Shivalak Mahato of Boariya village, 30 Km north of Muzaffarpur says, “I am a pasi by profession which involves risk as its extraction and sale are criminalised. Earlier, I used to earn Rs. 10-15 per bottle of tadi but after liquor ban its demand has witnessed a marginal increase. Now I charge 20-25 rupees per bottle. This rise in income is half-truth. To extract palm wine, we need to buy palm tree in every season from their respective owner. We used to buy each tree by paying a sum of Rs 50-100 but now that amount has skyrocketed to Rs 350-500.”
Adding further he stated- At age of 60, body doesn’t permit to climb height of 50 feet or more but in compulsion I do so because there’s nothing I can engage in to live my livelihood.
“Every day my job is to climb a palm tree twice (morning & evening) and extract palm wine. This is the sole source of my income which fulfills day to day need of my family. We face brutality of police in form of physical torture, money extortion, destruction of terracotta utensils and small hutments where we sell the palm tree sap, said Ravinder Paswan (37) of the same village. According to him, liquor ban is good step by Nitish government but its implementation has cost us dearly.
Lal Babu Paswan (43), a toddy-tapper since age of 15 is extracting palm wine expressed his displeasure on liquor ban and said, “On several occasions, I was traumatized by the police for selling tadi. Just have a look on my foot. Tying a knot around it to climb a 50-60 feet tall tree has swollen with a permanent scratch on them. I do not do this mere out of pleasure rather except this I don’t know any other work. Besides assault, the cost of palm tree has increased by 10 folds which is matter of loss to us.”
They (Police, Administration) say it is illegal to sell palm wine but our single question is- Without providing us an alternative income source, how could the government snatch our daily bread earning source?”
Ramnath Paswan (40) of Sandhadamber village in Motipur block of Muzaffarpur district fearless argued, “I don’t fear policemen when I climb a palm tree to extract the wine as I am convinced by the point that until and unless I am provided with any other occupation to earn money, I cannot forbid doing so.”
As matter of fact, the first arrest of a toddy tapper was made last year in Motihari of East Champaran district. Raza Sahni was convicted slapped 10-year jail term with a fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016.
Government’s promise to the Pasi Community:
After Bihar government’s decision to ban liquor, there was a statewide agitation the by Pasi community as their livelihood solely depends on its extraction and sale. The government promised to provide financial assistance to the community that largely depended on toddy business. The chief minister later clarified that toddy would be banned from the next financial year, i.e. 2017-18, and only after alternative livelihood arrangements for toddy-tappers are put in place.
Even Bihar State Milk Co-Operative Federation Ltd (Comfed) decided to set up Neera (Non-fermented palm drink) processing plant in four districts of Bihar namely- Hajipur, Nalanda, Gaya and Bhagalpur as they have high density of palm and date tree. It was aimed at commercial production of allied products such as ice cream, cake, cookies, jam, laddu, peda, barfi, gur, taal misri and halwa.
Besides all these development, ground reality in other parts of Bihar seems to be opposite and draconian. Bihar government has remained blind folded on present status of the Pasis who are the most weak and vulnerable socio-economically. Apart from their critical sustainability, this community is facing an additional problem of not receiving the benefit of people’s scheme like Indira Awas Yojna, Vridha Pension (Old age pension), Viklang pension (Disabled pension). They reside near a soaked up water canal without a proper path to walk. Hundreds of families are landless and are residing on government land.
There is a huge difference in lives of toddy tappers, before and after liquor ban. The time has become more tough and complex as source of earning is now a banned product. Selling palm wine has elevated the daily income but on the other hand purchase of palm tree by a Pasi for extraction of wine has become expensive than before with additional risk of police brutality. The gravity of the persisting challenge in front of the Pasi community needs a proper solution with uniform implementation statewide as their employment still involves great risk with their future in bleak.