Brewing Discontent

The Madhya Pradesh government’s failed attempt to reach Adivasis through mahua

A tribal woman collects mahua flowers in Odisha’s Bolangir district. Between late March and early May—mahua season—collecting the flowers becomes an important source of income for the Adivasi populations of several states in central India. STR/NurPhoto / Getty Images
24 November, 2018

On a cool night in April this year, Rambai lit a fire by her makeshift bed of straw mat and two woollen blankets. She was camping out in an arid field in the Umaria district of eastern Madhya Pradesh. She bobbed in and out of sleep, watching white buds slowly fall to the ground from a giant tree—an uneven patter, each quiet thud, separated by seconds, sometimes hours. As she did almost every day, she would wait here until the sun rose, well past its rising, perhaps into the afternoon. She would return home only after the flowers stop falling. 

In Umaria, it is not unusual for Adivasis like Rambai to spend hours outside in the summer, watching mahua flowers descend from their treetops. People burn narrow tracts of dried leaves beneath the trees so they can see the pristine white flowers more easily on the charred earth. Along these ashen patches, they camp out to guard the trees, so that someone else does not steal the flowers before they can pick them off the ground themselves. “I came here at midnight to watch for thieves,” Rambai explained, “This is my tree, because it is on my field. But if I don’t watch it, someone else will come take my flowers.”

Although collecting flowers by moonlight might seem a romantic scene, in Umaria it is labour, a livelihood. Between late March and early May—mahua season—collecting the flowers becomes an important source of income for the three main Adivasi groups in the region: the Baiga, the Gond and the Kol. Several Adivasis give up on their daily-wage jobs, and instead work from midnight to midday, collecting flowers and guarding their territory from other mahua gatherers. Traders’ warehouses in town fill up with mounds of mahua that grow taller and taller each day, as more mahua is brought in by Adivasis from the surrounding villages.

Approximately 42 percent of Umaria district is covered in forests, which continue to be a vital resource for Adivasis. The average Adivasi in Umaria earns a living through a combination of small-scale farming, daily-wage construction work, and the collection of non-timber forest produce. After tendu leaves, which are used to make beedis, mahua is their most lucrative non-timber forest produce. Although the forest department has not surveyed the population of mahua trees in Umaria, it is safe to say that there are plenty—the trees are not cultivated, but indigenous to the region. In 2017, Umaria pulled in the highest mahua flower collection in all of Madhya Pradesh, totalling 23,340.23 quintals in government purchases alone.

Unlike a regular flower, whose value depletes as quickly as it wilts, mahua’s value increases in its decay. The famed mahua liquor, popular across central and north India, is made by distilling a fermented concoction of flowers and water. Not just Madhya Pradesh, many states in central India—including Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—see a large mahua trade because of the liquor's popularity. But mahua is not simply liquor to the Adivasis, it is also a part of their cuisine, religious rituals and mythology. Although the production of mahua liquor is restricted in Madhya Pradesh (with a few provisions for certain groups of Adivasis), mahua persists as an important commodity and cultural symbol among Adivasis.

From time to time, the Madhya Pradesh government has tried to intervene in this space. Last year, the chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, wanted to bring prohibition to Madhya Pradesh. This would have meant a stronger crackdown on the thriving but unlicensed mahua liquor industry, which, in turn, would have strongly affected Adivasi incomes and lifestyles. But a projected loss in excise revenue seemingly changed Chouhan’s mind, as the government soon scrapped the plan.

The Chouhan government has also tried to woo the Adivasi vote through shoddily implemented policies that encourage the mahua trade. It has done little to tackle the Adivasis’ mahua-related problems—alcoholism, illegal liquor outfits, ignorance of state legislation and an exploitative private trade. The cheaper handmade mahua liquor remains a rival to country and foreign liquor served at government stores, and its production and consumption in Adivasi homes, commonplace. Despite the government’s lip service, Umaria’s Adivasis continue to benefit the least from the trade of mahua flowers, while also being persecuted at the hands of the law enforcement over mahua liquor. 

Beyond its tangible form, mahua lives even in Adivasi songs and folk tales. Amar Baiga, an Umaria native, narrated one for me: 

“For as long as mahua has been falling, Baigas have been collecting it,” said Samnibai, a Baiga ritual healer. Both the mahua flower and its liquor hold a sacred place in Adivasi cultures. The liquor is used in religious ceremonies, as prasad, and the tree is considered a source of life. According to Gond mythology, Lingodev, the Gond primordial deity, was born under the mahua tree, from a fallen flower. The Baigas and Kols use mahua leaves in rituals during the festival of Harchhat, and the liquor is fed to pregnant women and children as a tonic. When asked about the importance of mahua, an Adivasi asserted, “Mahua is our community’s tradition. You cannot separate us from it.”

Because mahua trees grow so widely in the area, and their blossoming is almost like clockwork, mahua flowers become an assured source of income, come drought or flood. Last year, Umaria received less than average rainfall and as a consequence, crop yields were low. While this year’s mahua blossom has been lower than previous years, it nonetheless helps Adivasis offset some of the losses they incurred during the monsoon. “Mahua is a kind of crop,” Santosh Baiga explained, “and it is cost effective. It doesn’t need seed or water or manure. All it needs is hard work.”

The hard work of collecting mahua in summer promises Adivasis up to Rs 400 a day, depending on how much a tree sheds and how much they manage to collect—over a two-week period, a tree can shed up to 15 kilograms. Although daily-wage construction work pays only marginally less than selling mahua, Adivasis are not always paid the amount they are promised. Mahua, because it can be taken to traders and sold immediately, holds the guarantee of hard cash. All members of a family take part in collecting mahua, making it a particularly profitable endeavour—more hands means more flowers, which means more money.

Because mahua season coincides with wedding season in Umaria, several Adivasis use mahua to pay for wedding festivities, from buying sweets to hiring jeeps for the groom’s party. In some cases, people might even use a barter system, and trade a sack of mahua for a sack of rice or salt. For children, too, mahua is a way to sweet fortune. Behind their parents’ backs, they collect flowers in small baskets, which they take to the market. When they sell their miniature collections, they buy ice cream and toffees with their spoils. 

But the life of mahua beyond these daily transactions grows more complex. Although mahua liquor is heavily restricted in Madhya Pradesh and other parts of India, the industry—unofficial, yet widely acknowledged—continues to flourish. Buyers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan come to Umaria to buy mahua flowers. “In India, mahua is used for one thing, and one thing alone—alcohol,” explained Narayan Goenka, one of the oldest mahua traders in Umaria. “There will always be buyers.”

A trader sells dried-up mahua flowers in Madhya Pradesh’s Ameliya village. Apart from the wholesale buyers from within and outside the state, Adivasis themselves buy mahua from the very traders they sell to. Vivek Muthuramalingam

Apart from wholesale buyers from within and outside the state, Adivasis themselves buy mahua from the very traders they sell to. Because mahua liquor is so ingrained in Adivasi culture, the community requires a steady supply of flowers through the year. In addition to distilling liquor, they also eat the flower in rotis, puris, laddus and kheer; press the fruit for oil; and feed dried remnants of petals to cattle. When they fall short of grain, mahua becomes a hearty staple, especially in the winter.

While it might be more cost-effective for Adivasis to store and use the mahua they collect, they are compelled to sell a large portion of it. Mahua can give them cash instantaneously, when they most need it. So when they want flowers to use in their own homes, they must return to the traders. The mahua they sold at Rs 20 to Rs 30 a kilogram is later bought at Rs 40 a kilogram. “We need money, so we sell the mahua. Then, later, we need mahua, so we have to buy it,” Jhulan, an elderly Baiga woman said. 

Mahua’s economic value endows it with political value. A Gond man, in his forties, sat atop a mahua tree early one morning in April. Using a saw, he tried to hack off a branch infected with a parasite known locally as banda. When I asked why he was chopping a tree, he looked down and shouted, “I am not cutting the tree, just one branch, don’t worry. But did you know the government is going to cut all the trees?”

The man was repeating a rumour that began nearly two years ago. Word spread that Chouhan’s government was going to cut mahua trees across the state. Almost immediately, Adivasis started to panic, worried that the government was actively attacking a crucial part of their lives. With by-elections scheduled for that year, and two years left for the assembly elections, in which 47 seats out of 230 are reserved for Adivasi candidates, this rumour posed obvious danger to Chouhan’s chances of retaining the Adivasi vote. 

On 18 April 2017, while visiting Umaria, Chouhan announced that the government had no plans to cut mahua trees, but would instead plant more to help the Adivasis. However, Umaria’s divisional forest officer, MS Bhagadiya, admitted that as of April 2018, mahua was only being grown along with all other indigenous trees as samples in the forest department’s nursery, not at scale. 

To further abate fears about the state-sanctioned felling of mahua trees, Chouhan announced that the government would institute a minimum support price for mahua flowers at the rate of Rs 30 per kilogram. This declaration was historic. It was the first time the government had offered a support price for mahua, which until then had only been traded privately, without any sanctions. Since then, the government has steadily involved itself in matters of mahua, opening up collection centres and holding auctions for wholesale buyers. As recently as April 2018, local newspapers carried half-page advertisements endorsed by Chouhan’s and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pictures, announcing the support price and encouraging people to sell their mahua to the government. 

However, many Adivasis I spoke to said they were not receiving the benefits of the policy. “The government has done a good thing by offering us a support price,” said a Kol man in his thirties, “but nobody actually follows it. For the few days that the chief minister was here, traders bought our mahua at Rs 30 a kilo, but after that they went back to lower prices.”

When asked why she did not sell mahua to the government collection centres, a middle-aged Kol woman said, “If only they were open! They opened last year for a few days and then they closed. This year, there’s no sign of them opening.” Kamlesh Dwivedi, a forest department official claimed, however, that the centres had opened this year on 15 April, though several villagers contended that they had found the centres shut. 

The government mahua-collection centres do not operate on timelines desired by most Adivasis. These centres require sellers to register with bank accounts so that payments can be made by cheque. Selling to a private trader, however, promises an immediate transaction. “We are poor people,” said the Kol man, “we can’t wait months for a cheque to arrive.” 

Since the government has begun to actively participate in Umaria’s mahua trade, the profitability of mahua for private players has been thrown into stark relief. In April 2018, the newspaper Nayi Duniya reported that because Adivasis were reticent about selling their mahua to the government centres, they sold it to private traders for Rs 10 to Rs 15 per kilogram. This same mahua was later sold by traders to the government at Rs 30 per kilogram. Later, the government auctioned off that mahua at Rs 10 to Rs 13 a kilo, again to private traders. The whole affair allegedly cost the government a loss of approximately Rs 7 crore. 

Mal Singh Bhayadiya, the district collector for Umaria, refused to comment on the matter. But a private trader who wished to remain anonymous insisted, “There is no scandal in that government sale. The government had purchased more mahua than it was able to store and so, it had to sell the goods before they became unusable.”

There have been rumours among some traders that the Madhya Pradesh government has opened cold storage facilities to store, and thereby monopolise, the mahua trade. But Dwivedi, who is in charge of collecting and counting mahua, said this is not entirely true. He said that in some areas, the government has rented private cold storage facilities to store mahua long-term. However, such facilities are few, and none have been rented in Umaria. “It’s quite difficult to maintain the government’s standards for mahua,” Dwivedi said. “Only mahua without any moisture or dirt is considered good stock—saleable. Because people burn the ground under trees, flowers often have ash on them. Also, because they are flowers, some moisture invariably remains, even after drying. It is very difficult to maintain those standards before the flowers are auctioned.” 

Although the causes and intention of the government’s depreciated mahua sale remain unclear, it seems that a scheme that promised to reward, according to advertisements, the “hard work” of forest produce collectors with “fair prices,” has ultimately rewarded a very different demographic.

While the Madhya Pradesh government’s promotion of the mahua trade through a support price might seem like a good welfare scheme for Adivasis, it also points to a contradiction within the official view on mahua. The manufacture and sale of country liquor in Madhya Pradesh is restricted to license-holders. Licensed country liquor is rectified spirit, typically made from molasses. At licensed country liquor shops, people can buy this bottled country liquor in flavours such as orange and masala. Liquor derived from mahua, which is not rectified, is not the kind of country liquor permitted by the excise department. “Earlier, licensed distilleries made country liquor from mahua but that proved very expensive, so now it is made primarily from molasses but also other ingredients such as rice,” SK Uranv, the district excise officer, told me.

Although mahua liquor is not illegal per se, Uranv confirmed that the excise department does not allow its manufacture except for some special reservations for certain Adivasi groups under the Madhya Pradesh Excise Act, 1915. When asked why the government sold mahua flowers in large quantities when the large scale manufacture of its liquor is prohibited, Uranv insisted that it is bought mainly to be used as cattle feed. “If people buy mahua to make liquor, they do so illegally.” According to a 2009 study published by the Centre for People’s Forestry, however, most of the mahua collected in India is used to make alcohol—it is a widely known fact, as Goenka had stated.

In recent years, the Madhya Pradesh government has also shown interest in banning alcohol across the state. There have been sporadic anti-liquor protests in the state, and elsewhere in central India. After Bihar was declared a dry state in 2016 and began cracking down on mahua production, Chouhan came under pressure from party members and protestors to follow suit. 

During his 2017 Narmada Yatra, Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced that Madhya Pradesh would see a phased shutting down of liquor shops as a first step towards statewide prohibition, creating panic among the Adivasi populations who feared a crackdown on mahua. PIB

During his 2017 Narmada Yatra, he announced that Madhya Pradesh would see a phased shutting down of liquor shops as a first step towards statewide prohibition. The rumours about mahua felling were exacerbated by this proclamation. The Madhya Pradesh government has since been inconsistent with its stance on prohibition. Although the government ordered the closing of liquor shops along the banks of the Narmada, Jayant Malaiya, Madhya Pradesh’s finance minister, reportedly said in February this year that the government would not be imposing blanket prohibition. Meanwhile, the ban in Bihar has increased mahua flower sales in Umaria, traders reported, with better prices and more customers. 

If Madhya Pradesh were to become a dry state, it would face huge revenue losses, which perhaps explains the government’s hesitance to follow through on prohibition. In 2017-2018, the state saw an excise income of Rs 8,223.38 crore. Mahua liquor, because it is already restricted, does not contribute to this revenue, but its trade would definitely suffer under complete prohibition, affecting everyone from big traders to Adivasis. Although several bodies (both governmental and non governmental) are promoting mahua as an excellent ingredient for skin care-products, a source of fuel, and even a possible cure for swine flu, the scientific study to back up some of those claims is insufficient. Moreover, in practice, these other uses of mahua have not achieved industrial-scale production. Any strand of profitability in the government’s recent decision to purchase mahua relies, ultimately, on the demand for its liquor.

“It might generally be a good thing to ban alcohol,” the Kol man in his thirties said, “but Adivasis can never give up alcohol. Mahua is a part of our culture.” Many Adivasis continue to make mahua alcohol, despite having been fined multiple times for it—it is, for many, a necessity. In the Kol woman's view, prohibition would bring about a harsher crackdown on mahua, which would severely affect Adivasi livelihoods. “If the government is going to ban alcohol, they should give our children jobs. We need to fill our stomachs.”

Apart from moral and religious reasons, arguments for prohibition in central India cite alcoholism as a key motive for demanding a ban. Ask a resident of Umaria if there is an alcohol problem in the area and they are likely to say yes. “Out of ten homes, at least seven will have a story of too much drink to tell,” Amar said of his village, Lorha, about 10 kilometres from Umaria town. 

Mahua, too, contributes to this social problem, as the liquor is cheap and easily accessible, though the consumption of other licensed liquors also play a significant part. In several Adivasi households in Umaria, alcoholism leads to regular domestic abuse. A 16-year-old Baiga girl ran away to a relative’s house in Bhopal because her father abused her when drunk on mahua. She returned 15 days later, but told me that she would run again if she needed to. Phaguni, a mother of four, has left her husband multiple times to return to her maternal village when he abused her. “But I have to come back,” she said, “otherwise, there will be no one to look after the children.” Santoshi, tired of the violence that mahua breeds, tried to reduce her own consumption and the consumption of her household. “It’s difficult,” she said, “it’s hard to get him to stop. That just leads to more fights.”

Perhaps the most frightening pattern in the mahua-driven alcoholic culture is that children as young as seven or eight are getting addicted. “Parents give their children mahua and egg when they are sick, and so the children get a taste of it,” Phaguni said. “Then they start stealing mahua from the pots around the house when parents aren’t looking and then there’s no turning back. Most children drop out of school, while some drink and go to school.” 

Umaria’s alcohol problem is not, however, limited to Adivasis. Across different castes, families have lost members to mahua and other alcohol abuse or poisoning. Shanti, who works as domestic help in middle-class houses in Umaria town, lost her son to long-term mahua abuse. One day, he drank spurious mahua and his body shut down. A similar thing, she said, happened in the house of a Brahmin high schoolteacher. “It happens everywhere,” she said. 

Despite the prevalence of alcohol production, consumption and abuse in the area, there have been no significant anti-liquor protests in Umaria. Anand Joshi, a local journalist, yoga teacher and social activist, led some protests under the Jan Abhiyan Parishad, a programme initiated in 1997 by the Congress government of Digvijaya Singh to encourage NGO and community organisation participation in achieving development goals. “It was maybe around seven or eight years ago. We went to some villages to talk about the ill effects of alcohol, but that programme didn’t last,” Joshi said. “We weren’t organised and there weren’t enough of us. We carried out the programme because there was government incentive. To be honest, nobody in Umaria really cares about the alcohol issue. It’s there, but we don’t really talk about it. Other than some religious organisations who sometimes promote quitting alcohol, there is no movement here.” The district collector, when prompted about the alcohol problem in the area, and whether prohibition might help curb it, did not agree. He said that as far as he has seen, there is no alcohol problem in Umaria.

The abundance of mahua liquor in Umaria is not hard to spot. It has its own maps and networks and half-disguises. A barely-lit road, along a stream that cuts through Umaria town, leads to Jwalamukhi temple. In the evening, motorcycles frequent this lane. People gather in small huddles on either side of the street. Nothing seems particularly out of place. But the people on this street are not all devotees and the conversations inside their huddles probably are not about the day’s events. “You can find some in that house,” a man whispered to the men around him while I was there in May. He was talking about kacchi daru, or mahua liquor. 

The Jwalamukhi area in Umaria town is notorious for its illicit mahua liquor business. According to one urban legend, some Jwalamukhi residents once hid pots of mahua liquor they had brewed in the tall grass by the stream so that the pots would be hard to locate, especially in the dark. But when the excise department raided the area, they found the pots and smashed them. Pungent mahua liquor bled into the stream, and its stench apparently plagued the town for days. 

A man from the Baiga tribe prepares mahua in the Chada village in Madhya Pradesh. Most Adivasis in the state make mahua in their homes, but not enough to run a formal business. Ephotocorp / Dinodia

Jwalamukhi’s economy is somewhat precarious. The neighbourhood is populated largely by Kols, most of whom make mahua in their homes, but do not make enough to run a formal business. “We come home exhausted at the end of the day so, of course, we want to drink,” said a Kol man who works as a construction labourer. “We make mahua for ourselves, and if a bottle or two is left over, we sell it. We usually don’t sell to people we don’t know.”

Their distillation process is hard to scale. In the most common method, flowers and water are put into a steel pot with two chambers, and placed on a wood fire. The top chamber has a spout with a thread that traps the alcohol and drips it into a bottle placed outside. Using this process, one house in Jwalamukhi makes four or five litres of mahua a week. If the family chooses not to sell any, the batch can last them for up to fifteen days. 

Customers from outside the neighbourhood learn through word of mouth which homes have liquor to sell—even then, they are not guaranteed to find any. Often, people do not sell liquor by the bottle to take away, but instead serve customers by the glass inside their homes. The entire operation is relatively informal. Still, Adivasis have gained a reputation of regularly running illegal mahua businesses, perhaps more so than other communities. 

In truth, there are several illegal mahua liquor outfits in the district. Many are run by non-Adivasis, a point that several Adivasis reiterate. Unmarked curtains and makeshift tin doors in residential neighbourhoods hide well-established mahua operations. Every so often, they are shut down by the police before opening up again in the very same spot. Some of these outfits might make their own liquor from flowers bought in the market. But often, these businesses collect bottles of mahua from different Adivasi households in the area, gathering enough to run a more formalised business of selling mahua. “If we sell a bottle or two to someone, how are we to know they will go sell it again?” the Kol man asked. “But they do. They buy two from us, two from the next house, and the next, and run a business.”

“We make mahua and we sell it. We’ll say it honestly. We need the money. We need to feed our children,” admitted a Kol woman who wished to remain anonymous for fear of the authorities. “But it’s only the Adivasis who get the bad name.” According to residents, the Umaria excise department conducts raids on Adivasi homes in Jwalamukhi, as well as rural areas in the district, five to ten times a month. “Sometimes the police finds mahua, sometimes they don’t,” the man said. “Sometimes they find less than five litres, maybe one or two litres, but they fudge the amount and file a case against us.” 

He was referring to the Madhya Pradesh Excise Act of 1915, which allows Adivasis in some areas up to 4.5 litres of self-manufactured mahua per person, 15 litres per household, and up to 45 litres per household on religious occasions. In practice, though, this law is a sprawling misconception. Across Umaria, Adivasis—and even most officials—are under the impression that they have been given a five-litre exemption by the government, because mahua liquor is a part of their cultural practices. However, the Act only extends this exemption to Adivasis in Scheduled Areas—areas recognised by the government as having predominantly tribal populations—and specifically only for personal use. There is no provision permitting Adivasis to sell the liquor they make.

The general ignorance about the specifics of the Act has left many Adivasis across Umaria feeling cheated—they believe the authorities wrongly fine them. It is a tenuous predicament. On the one hand, excise authorities are well within the law to fine Adivasis outside Scheduled Areas for possessing any amount of mahua liquor. However, Adivasis claim they are told by authorities that they have leeway under the law, and many report instances of false charges against them. “First they say we are allowed five litres. Then, even if we don’t have mahua, they come looking in our trunks and vessels, and say, ‘We will file a case against you, come what may,’” the Kol woman lamented. “If they find mahua, they file a case. If they don’t find mahua, they still insist on filing a case. If there are only women in the house and we try to argue with them, they threaten to call a female constable to beat us up … The police fines us one or two thousand rupees and then the court fine is extra.”

Even outside Umaria town, several Adivasis recount similar situations. Shivlal, a resident of Dongargaon village—which is not in a Scheduled Area—who makes and occasionally sells mahua, told me he has been fined by authorities for possessing less than five litres of mahua liquor. “They said I was allowed five litres but claimed that what was in my house was more than five litres,” he said. “They diluted what little I had with water and claimed it was more than five litres. They fined me Rs 1,000 and gave me a slip, and also took Rs 300 more.”

In fact, there is only one Scheduled Area in Umaria—Pali, a block of 105 villages that extends to the border with Shahdol district, southeast of Umaria. By law, this is the only area in Umaria where adivasis have an exemption to make mahua for personal use. But even in Pali, Adivasis complain of false charges. 

“We only fine Adivasis in Pali for selling mahua,” explained Uranv, the district excise officer. “They are allowed to make a certain amount to use themselves, but they cannot sell.”

The excise department’s raid process lies on a network of informers in villages across Umaria. When a complaint about a possible business comes in, authorities give money to their informer to go buy mahua liquor from the suspected house. On the currency note, they write a number. Once the informer successfully buys mahua, the excise authorities raid the house, and if they find the marked note in that house, their suspicions are confirmed and the owner is fined.

Samnu, a resident of Malachua village in Pali block, claimed that such raids do not always follow procedure. He has been part of social gatherings—Adivasis meeting and drinking mahua in someone’s home—that have been disbanded and fined by the excise department. “They fine people who sell but they fine us even if we aren’t selling.”

Samnu, like Shivlal and many others, believes the excise department is under pressure from licensed liquor store owners to curb mahua liquor sales and thereby encourage rectified country liquor. “They have spies all over,” Samnu said. “You saw that omelette seller there? He’s one of them.” 

When questioned about whether his department has made any attempts to educate people about the exact provisions of the Excise Act, Uranv said, “Whenever we go to conduct raids, our team explains to people that the five-litre exemption applies only in Pali, and only for personal use.” None of the Adivasis interviewed for this story could confirm this. 

The repression of mahua, Uranv admitted, carries a sizeable economic incentive. In 2017–18, Umaria’s excise department made Rs 23.63 crore in revenue. Mahua is the only unlicensed country liquor sold in the area, and so it is the only competition for licensed liquor. By limiting the sale of mahua, the excise department can push sales in government-licensed liquor stores, of which there are 25 in Umaria.

“We can’t afford to drink at the government shops,” the Kol man said. “A bottle of mahua”—up to a litre—“costs Rs 40 to Rs 80, but at the government shop a pauwa”—250 millilitres—“costs Rs 50 to Rs 100. It’s cheaper to make our own.” 

Most crackdowns on mahua have been on small sales, and in the last year, only two, according to Uranv, have been on outfits making more than 50 litres. “It is very difficult for us to manage the entire district,” Uranv said. “We act on a report only once we can verify the complaint with a note test. There are so many homes making mahua, but we are a very small team, just ten people. We cannot get to all of them.” 

If and when Madhya Pradesh is deemed a dry state, it is quite possible that mahua liquor production, like it has in Bihar, will be monitored even more closely, and Adivasis will face further indictment. Until that happens, though, Adivasis will probably continue to make and sell mahua liquor in this confused scenario—some believing they are breaking no rules, and others knowing they are flouting the law, but only so much as is permissible. 

A man carries to work a vessel with mahua liquor in a Chhattisgarh village. Mahua remains an integral part of Adivasi’s daily lives. Ishan Tankha

As Madhya Pradesh goes to vote, mahua could be an important issue for Adivasis. The BJP government’s inconsistency with regard to mahua has stirred up much uncertainty—the government continues to buy the flowers at a large scale, even as the liquor remains severely controlled, while also wavering repeatedly on statewide prohibition. It is hard to believe that the panic created over the past couple of years will not cost them.

“What would you do if there were no mahua?” I asked Samnibai, who pondered the question sipping on her tea. “I’d go mad,” she said, seriously. “I’d probably die.” 

“Yes, we’d die,” Jhulan echoed, “We’d die.” 

Both women began to cackle. They did not say what the joke was.