Aizawl: The recent seizure of Mizoram-made grape wines by the State Excise Department in Aizawl has sparked outrage among netizens, who are accusing Chief Minister Zoramthanga-led Mizo National Front (MNF) government of causing inconvenience to local farmers, whom it had helped grow grapes for years.
The seizure also elicited strong reactions from grape grower societies in Champhai district. They have demanded immediate return of the seized wine bottles and their free sale in the market before they launch an agitation.
Fulfilling its pre-poll promises, the Mizo National Front (MNF) government had passed “The Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition) Bill, 2019” in the state legislature in 2019, replacing the 4-year old “Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition & Control) or MLPC Act, 2014” introduced by the erstwhile Congress government that allowed opening of wine shops in the state.
State Excise Minister K. Beichhua clarified that the government did not target the locally-processed grape wine alone, but had to seize as per law. He said the wine bottles were found among branded liquor and foreign beer when the raid was conducted.
Last Friday, excise officials had raided some stores in Aizawl and seized huge quantities of locally-manufactured grape wines known as ‘Champwine’ among branded liquor and foreign beer.
Beichhua said the raid was conducted on specific inputs regarding branded liquor, Korean-made soju and foreign liquor being sold in the stores. “We have acted as per Mizoram Liquor Prohibition Act, 2019, which prohibits sale, consumption and manufacture of alcohol. We have no choice but to seize the locally-made grape wine as it has alcohol content and the wine bottles were found among branded liquor,” he said.
He, however, said the government would take steps to ensure that the grape growers face no difficulties in earning income from their plantations as the government is concerned about the welfare of farmers.
On Saturday, Champhai Grape Growers’ Society (CGGS) and Hnahlan Grape Growers and Processing Cooperative Society had passed resolutions, demanding the state government to return the seized Champwine bottles in full.
Among others, the society also demanded that the state government allow them to sell the wine freely before they launch an agitation.
According to Champhai Grape Growers’ Society (CGGS) general secretary C. Zohmingliana, since around 2004-2005 when the MNF was in power, several families in Champhai and Hnahlan areas have been planting Bangalore Blue varieties of grapes with assistance from National Horticulture Board and the state government. Some families have started the plantation much before this. Bangalore Blue can’t be consumed as fruits, but is good for making red port and sacramental wines.
The general public and politicians have also reacted sharply to the seizure of locally manufactured wines.
Lone BJP MLA BD Chakma was among the first politicians to react. In a Facebook post, the legislator from Tuichawng constituency said he did not understand the state government’s liquor policy as the same wine that was seized was served to a visiting Union minister during a felicitation programme he had attended recently.
The new liquor law sought to prohibit import, export, transport, manufacture, possession, sale and consumption of alcohol in the state barring three autonomous district councils in the southern part of the state. It came into effect in May 2019.
Although the new prohibition rules were notified by the state government, they were cancelled in December 2019.
Beichhuah said rules of the new liquor law drafted based on the assessment of a study committee, involving officials, NGOs and churches headed by Deputy Chief Minister Tawnluia, have been approved by the cabinet and they would soon be notified.
Grapes are locally grown and grape wines are processed in Champhai district in the eastern part of the state.
The Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition Act, 1995, came into force from February 1997, imposing a complete ban on alcohol until the new liquor law allowing opening of wine shop was introduced by the erstwhile Congress government in 2014. The previous MNF government had given licences to societies to set up wineries in Champhai and Hnahlan in 2007 under special provision.
Zohmingliana of Champhai Grape Growers’ Society said the societies began processing wines since 2010. They were initially sold only in the local market but later additionally started selling to a Guwahati-based manufacturing unit 2019 when the Zoramthanga government introduced a new law imposing total prohibition.
“Frankly speaking, the locally processed wines were sold on compassionate grounds or understanding from the government till date,” he said.
He said that the wineries, if closed, would hugely affect hundreds of families, who are completely dependent on grapes for their livelihood.
A political analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, told EastMojo that the recent seizure of locally-manufactured grape wine exposed the absence of proper rules for processing locally-produced wines.
He said the vendors have been selling grape wines clandestinely for years as they could not renew their licence due to the imposition of the total prohibition law. He said that the wineries in Champhai and Hnahlan areas have also been facing crisis for years in the import of Extra Neutral Alcohol (ENA) required for processing wine due to the absence of proper laws.
He said a special provision to enable the growers to at least export their processed wines was required even if selling them within the state was not possible.
Meanwhile, Zohmingliana said there are currently over 1.12 lakh litres of non-fortified grape juice in their winery and over 2,700 litres of processed wines. He said the grape farmers are now in a fix as harvest session starts in July.
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