The apple cart of Kashmir is facing an existential dilemma with nothing but its unrivalled quality acting as the only ray of hope
By Tooba Towfiq and Zaid bin Shabir | Kashmir Observer
IN a dusky alcove of his orchard, Javed Ahmad sits with uncertainty and regret. An apple-grower, his orchard in Shopian’s Herpora misses the usual mirth of annual apple-picking. He is one among the many farmers who had trusted the promise of prosperity and shifted from paddy-cultivation to apple cultivation back-in-the-day. To his dismay, the globally cherished quality fruit of his toil, now rots with little returns.
However, Javed’s is not an isolated story. With rates plummeting, apple-growers across Kashmir are suffering helplessly at the hands of forces beyond their control.
When over 8000 fruit-laden trucks leaked out rotten fruit on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, Mandis back in South Kashmir decided to shut in protest. Politics prevailed as soon as the issue was flagged as political parties started issuing statements against government’s negligence. The former Chief Minister and People’s Democratic Party’s President Mehbooba Mufti went on to join protestors in South Kashmir and called out “economic terrorism” that growers were being subjected to at the hand of the government’s “deliberate design”.
Since early September, a peak month of apple harvesting, there has been a frequent halting of apple-laden trucks leaving Kashmir for different parts of the country on the arterial Srinagar-Jammu National Highway. Despite assurances from the government, which includes removing SSP traffic, national highways for the delay in the movement of trucks, transportation is still a problem.
“Government should’ve ensured the free movement of transport carrying perishable fruit as our economy depends on it”, says Mir Mohammad Amin, who heads Shopian’s Apple Mandi. According to Mohammad Amin, the prolonged halting of apple-laden trucks has led to losses in crores for fruit-growers. “Why is all their focus on tourism when the Apple industry contributes over 10% to Kashmir’s GSDP?”, Amin adds.
Apple production accounts for over 78% of India’s total annual output of apples and is also an employment generator for over 3.5 million people. Around 3.31 lakh hectare of land is under the fruit cultivation in Jammu and Kashmir, of which around 1.67 lakh hectares is under apple cultivation.
The losses incurred at the beginning of the harvest season have kept disgruntling the cultivators as prices refuse to go up in markets across India.
While many have dismissed the case by putting the blame on highway hassles, there’s more that’s furthering the rot in Kashmir’s prized orchards.
Beyond Highway Hassles
According to local apple-growers, this year, the fruit ripened early which preponed harvest. This created a clash in the market for Kashmir’s apples with those from Himachal.
“In Himachal, fruit-growers are Kingmakers”, continues Amin, who laments the lack of attention from the government’s end towards Shopian’s quality apples. Incidentally, Himachal is close to polls, as assembly elections are set to happen in the month of November.
“The delay in supply eventually led to a surplus as well as a clash in the market when all trucks reached markets around India, all at once”, explained Amin, as he clarified the huge dip in the price per box.
This is not all. According to local growers, this year, Kashmir’s apple production was a bumper crop, while the demand remained the same, if not lower.
“I was producing 1000 boxes of apples every year but the weather ensured that the quality and quantity of apples were better. However, the bumper crop didn’t yield any profit for us. Instead, due to low demand and higher produce, we’re facing losses. The prices of Kashmiri apples have declined from Rs 1,200 per box to Rs 600-800. I’ve personally suffered 30% loss this year compared to the previous year,” says Parvez Sultan, who owns an apple orchard in Baramulla’s Binner village.
Yet, the apple cart is overflowing profitlessly for more reasons than these.
Cost, Chaos and Climate Change
The much-talked-about bumper crop isn’t the only reason why Kashmiri apples are overflowing in markets. “Climate factors have not only preponed pruning but also rushed harvesting this year”, says Mir Iqbal, a professional turned businessman who has leveraged his apple venture by shifting to online business.
Typically, Kashmir would receive snowfall in the months of December with November being a dry month. However, the past few years have seen a change in climate patterns with snow dates shifting to November. This is especially true of colder regions like Shopian, where an untimely October snowfall had destroyed apple orchards last year and a brief spell of October snow kept the fears looming. Over the last four years, the region has seen late October and early November snowfall.
The sword of this inauspicious untimely snow had held farmers hostage this year as well. Surrendering to the climate uncertainty, many had hurried their harvest. This too had led to a proliferation of huge produce in the markets.
“This is a perishable crop and farmers have no cold storage of their own. They cannot store these apples for more than one month at their home. Besides that, a farmer has to pay his debts. So, he’s forced to sell these apples at any rate even if the business means a loss,” adds Iqbal.
The uncertainty isn’t restricted to the colder months. Apple anxiety grips growers throughout the year. This year, weather events kept farmers restless. The first five months of 2022 witnessed a rain deficit of over 38% with above-normal temperatures. Drought-like situation worried farmers for the want of irrigation for their orchards. Hailstorms in the month of May destroyed cherry as well as Apple crop in north as well as south Kashmir. However, sufficient rain and conducive weather conditions in the following months ensured that the crop matured well.
However, the crop matured prematurely. “The harvest season began 15 days earlier compared to last year”, says Mohammad Amin. According to Amin, the bumper crop could still have been better in quality, if it had rained in September. “In September, rain is crucial for enhancing the colour of apples. However, this year, the deficiency of rainfall has impacted the quality”, he said.
Other local growers add that early leaf fall also prompted premature harvest which set the wrong market perception for Kashmiri apples this year.
All these factors, beyond the farmer’s control, have contributed to abysmal rates that the farmers are getting this year.
Newcomers, Old Brokers
Following the hurdles post abrogation of Article 370 and the pandemic, Kashmir’s apple industry found another hurdle in the form of a competitor — the Iranian Apple. Orchardists insist that in terms of quality, Iran’s apple is a poor competitor. It is their cheaper price on account of being duty-free that has made them dominate the market.
However, many farmers dismiss the overestimation of this rivalry. According to Basharat Ali, a researcher whose family is associated with apple cultivation, “Kashmir’s apple has its own market and these rivalries are an overestimation”. He adds that the discussion is futile as, “these are things beyond our immediate control”. For Basharat, it is the middlemen at Mandis, the agents, brokers and representatives who are equally responsible and need to be questioned.
“What’s the breakdown of the 12-15% tax they charge per box?” Basharat complains. “If the mandi presidents across Kashmir truly represent apple-growers, why haven’t they reduced this miscellaneous tax in the face of such a crisis?”, he adds.
Another Baramulla based orchardist, Parvez Sultan, voices similar concerns.
“Who decides the price? It’s the agents and brokers at the Mandis”, says Parvez Sultan, who owns an orchard in Baramulla’s Binner Village. “The price per box has dropped significantly, while the rates of pesticides, packaging and transport have increased”, he adds as he explains his loss of over 30% this season.
Growers across fruit Mandis in South and North Kashmir complain that instead of being facilitators between growers and buyers across India; these mandi middlemen have become the ringmasters of the fruit business. According to them, they hold a monopoly over the entire process, especially the rates of produce, pesticides and packaging.
Some apple-growers complain that it is also the entry of big players in the market that needs to be called out.
“The government and the horticulture department need to step-in. They need to regulate the prices”, says Parvez Sultan, “We feel orphaned.”
This is the dominant mood in the orchards of Kashmir. The challenges that apple-growers face seem perennial at the moment. This has currently demoted the status of apple business and apple orchards to that of a liability. Farmers stare at an uncertain future, helpless due to challenges beyond their control. The apple cart of Kashmir is facing an existential dilemma with nothing but its unrivalled quality acting as the only ray of hope.