Despite bumper crops, Kashmir’s apple farmers stare at losses

Zenaira Bakhsh

After more than a week of waiting, the fruit growers across Kashmir came on the roads to protest against the halting of trucks on the Srinagar-Jammu highway on Monday. In a viral video on social media platforms, fruit growers could be seen burning down boxes of freshly harvested apples in protest.

About 8,000 trucks carrying apples were stranded on the highway for the past two weeks, as per the Kashmiri fruit growers. Truckloads of apples were rotting on the highway, triggering anger among fruit growers over the losses. While the trucks were finally allowed to move on Monday evening, the farmers are yet to evaluate the loss caused by the packaged apples being left unattended in trucks, covered under plastic sheets.

Mir Mohammad Amin, a 55-year-old fruit grower from south Kashmir’s Shopian, produces over 4,000 boxes of apples every year on his five hectares of land. This year, however, the quality and quantity of apples were better and doubled.

Expecting a fair price for his apples, he loaded several trucks to begin this year’s trade. On reaching the highway, however, his trucks were stopped where they remained stranded for about eight days. “Each truck suffered a minimum loss of Rs 4 lakh. Growing apples costs around Rs 500 per box,” he said, adding that each truck consisted of at least 1,200 boxes of apples. “The loss is too big,” he lamented.

The 295 kilometers long highway connecting Kashmir with India has been witnessing shooting stones due to regular roadworks, forcing the suspension of all vehicular traffic. The situation has been worsened by the regular movement of Army vehicles that are prioritized over other vehicles carrying perishable items including apples.

“Our fruits should reach the mandis (fruit markets) across India while they are still fresh because this causes us huge losses,” Amin said. “The high-quality apples turn into C-grade apples.”

Bashir Ahmad Basheer, the president of Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers Cum Dealers Union, an apex body of the fruit growers across Kashmir, concurred. He told National Herald that when fruit-laden trucks get stranded on the highway for days, it leads to degradation of the quality of apples, resulting in a reduction in their prices.

Due to the worsening condition of the national highway, Basheer said that the authorities had earlier decided to allow one-way traffic on alternate days. However, he said that on days when the vehicular movement from Srinagar to Jammu was allowed, the Army convoys would start passing, leading to the fruit-laden trucks remaining halted on roads for long.

“Fruits cannot be kept in the trucks for long due to the trucks being covered by plastic sheets for protection. The fruits start to rot due to the heat. By the time the trucks reach the destination, the fruits are completely scabbed,” he said.

Another problem faced by the fruit growers has been the import of Iranian apples to Kashmir, he said. “Iranian apples are cheaper as they are imported illegally and hence not charged with import prices,” he said. “There is no major difference in the taste between Iranian and Kashmiri apples, so people prefer the former over our apples.”

First highlighted in September 2021, the fruit growers from the Valley met Union Agriculture Minister Narender Singh Tomar and said that a certain “unchecked” market intrusion is going to crush the backbone of the Kashmir economy if not tackled on time.

Basheer said that about 80 percent of the Kashmiri population was involved with apple farming directly or indirectly, therefore, if the situation continues, the economy would be badly affected. “These apples feed our families and provide employment to thousands of people,” he said.

According to official figures, the area under cultivation of fruits in J&K increased from 2.21 lakh hectares in 2001 to 3.33 lakh hectares in two decades, registering an increase of 1.22 lakh hectares.

Ejaz Ayoub, an economic researcher at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) said that apples contribute about 7 percent to Jammu and Kashmir’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period.

“It is around Rs 12,000 crore annual income. The number of people who depend directly on this industry is huge,” said Ayoub, referring to the recent economic survey of J&K that says that about 35 lakh Kashmiris are directly or indirectly dependent on apples.

Being one of the biggest sources of revenue, Ayoub said that a large number of Kashmiri households depend on apple farming. “These farmers take loans from the regional J&K bank through apple finance. If these farmers don’t get the money in time, they won’t be able to repay the EMIs,” he said.

Any economic system around the world needs access to markets and raw materials, said Ayoub, adding that access has three ways including air, train, and roads. While export through the air is expensive, due to the unavailability of trains, roads are the only way of export left for the farmers.

“If a truck of apples doesn’t reach in time, the value of the truck which was initially in lakhs will now be zero and the apples are to be thrown away. That’s why it is critical for the apple economy to have a smooth and seamless movement of goods from the source to the destination,” he said.

The Srinagar-Jammu highway, said Ayoub, is the weakest link where “things turn into a nightmare”.

While prioritizing the Army vehicles, the time-sensitive apple trucks lose time, often resulting in the rotting of apples, leading to the apples either being thrown away or the reduction in price to half. The Army as an institution needs to understand the importance of apples to the economy of Kashmir, said Ayoub.

“Either the farmers or the Army should be allowed to travel from Mughal road or farmers should be provided a way to travel by air through subsidised rates,” he said.

“Apple, saffron, and walnuts are our products and our buyers are outside; if these don’t reach them sooner, their livelihoods will end,” he said.—KMS

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