Image: PTI/ Representational
A bumper apple production in Kashmir this season has failed to cheer up growers as their produce is being sold at nearly 30 per cent lower rates than last year.
Faced with huge losses, apple farmers have now sought government intervention.
The Kashmiri apple hogged the headlines in September after an uproar over frequent disruption in its transportation from the orchards in the valley to markets outside the Union territory, including Azadpur Mandi, Asia's largest wholesale market.
Kashmir produces about 75 per cent of the total apple crop in the country and is considered the backbone of its economy, contributing about 8.2 per cent to Jammu and Kashmir's GDP.
"The rates of apple coming from Kashmir this season are down by about 30 per cent compared to 2021, and there is no doubt the growers are suffering huge losses. It is very difficult for them to overcome the losses without government support," Chamber of Azadpur Fruit and Vegetable Traders president Metha Ram Kriplani told PTI.
Kriplani, who is also a member of the Delhi Agricultural Marketing Board and president of the Kashmir Apple Merchants Association, listed several reasons for this.
"There was a quality bumper crop this season, but the expenses like packaging and transportation charges have almost doubled compared to last year. The rates are directly linked to the supply and demand, and since the supply is more, the product rate is down by about 30 per cent," he said.
Grower-cum-trader Bashir Ahmad Baba, a resident of Chrar-e-Sharief in central Kashmir's Budgam district, said hopes of a good return for the produce this season have dashed, and most of the growers and traders were apprehensive of their financial wellbeing.
"The frequent closure of the Srinagar-Jammu national highway due to landslides during the peak harvesting season and the stranding of fruit-laden trucks for days together have had its impact as we were late to the mandis," Baba said.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration shifted the senior superintendent of police, Srinagar-Jammu national highway, in September after political parties slammed it for alleged failure to facilitate smooth movement of fruit-laden trucks from Kashmir to outside markets.
Chief Secretary A K Mehta visited the landslide-prone areas on the highway several times to ensure that debris was removed immediately and fruit-laden trucks cleared on priority.
Baba said the expenses on each apple box weighing 16 kg is over Rs 500, which includes packaging, freight charges and use of pesticides and fertilizers but "we are only getting an average of Rs 400 per box".
More than half of Kashmir's population is directly or indirectly linked to the horticulture industry, which is said to be worth Rs 10,000 crore. The annual production of apple is around 21 lakh metric tonnes. It is cultivated over an area of 1.45 lakh hectares of land.
"The government has to come forward and rescue us, otherwise it is very difficult to overcome the huge losses given the prevailing conditions," Baba, who is also the Budgam district president of the Kashmir valley fruit growers and dealers union, said.
Supporting Baba’s demand, Kriplani said the central government has to pay full attention to the horticulture industry in Jammu and Kashmir which has a lot of potential to generate employment across the country.
"It is our humanitarian and religious duty to safeguard them (growers)… The government can provide subsidies on the products used in packaging, provide good quality cardboards, fix transportation charges and abolish tax on trucks transporting fruit. If there is a decline in expenses, farmers and those linked with the (apple) trade can be saved from distress," he said.
Kriplani advocated a waiver of interest on bank loans and also soft loans for farmers, saying, "The situation is such that they might lose a huge chunk of their capital this season and may not be able to pay back their monthly installments on loans." He said the chamber was ready to share its experience, including organising regular workshops in the Valley, to modernise the horticulture sector.
Kriplani, a frequent visitor to Kashmir over the past many decades, suggested construction of macadamised roads covering all orchards for fruit transportation, setting up of controlled atmosphere (CA) cold stores at the village level and encouraging farmers to install the latest machinery for grading.
Advocating a duty on apples imported from Iran via Afghanistan to avoid taxes, he said it was the government's job to ensure that farmers in the country can sell their produce at right costs.
"Kashmiri apples are also exported to different countries, including Bangladesh. The government should take measures to include the product in duty-free items after taking up the issue with the governments concerned," he added.
Truck drivers Shabir Ahmad Dar and Bashir Ahmad, who had reached the Azadpur Mandi from the valley to unload their fruit-laden vehicles, said the disruption of traffic on the highway forced the growers to hold back their produce.
"The apple from both plains and hilly areas reached the markets in bulk together. Usually, the apple from plains of the valley comes before those from the hilly areas, especially Himachal Pradesh, which has also recorded a good crop this season," Ahmad said, adding that the markets failed to stabilise after the initial jerk.
He said all controlled atmosphere (CA) cold stores in the valley are packed and "we are expecting that the transportation of the apple will continue for the next four months".
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