Apple industry in J&K in throes of crisis
The government’s NAFED procurement scheme meets with poor response from growers.
It is half past eleven in the morning, the roadside pull-offs in Shopian district are empty. Thousands of lorriers ferrying the apple harvest out of the state have vanished. There is hardly any hustle in the local fruit Mandi.
The bullet shots that rang out in two dusty villages of the district on October 14 and October 16 killing a trucker and an apple trader have sent shock waves through the area. “Things are going downhill. That is all I can tell you", says an apple grower who declined to be named in this report for fear of reprisal.
As soon as the harvesting season began in the area from the first week of September, unidentified militants plastered the walls in a clutch of villges with posters threatening fruit growers with dire consequences if they harvest their crop.
The growers, most of them burdened by huge debts, ignored the militant threats even amid reports of an attack on a fruit trader inside his house in Sopore town, some 50 kms north of Srinagar, on September 5.
The farmers went ahead with harvesting the Kulo - a variety of apples which ripens earlier than the common and mostly grown Delicious variety.
As the harvesting season reached its peak in October, things suddenly spiralled out of control, with the recent killings aimed at bullying the farmers into submission.
In Shirmal and Pinjoora village of the district, where these killings took place, many youth have been picked up by the police for questioning.
Almost after 24 hours, police claimed to have identified the assailaints and put up posters carrying their pictures at multiple places in Shopian town, asking the local people to share any information they might have about them.
The police identified the attackers as Syed Naveed Mushtaq alias Naveed Babu and Rahil Magray, both local militants.
Javed Ahmd, a young orchadist from the area, says that fear pervades the entire area and the growers largly steer clear of plucking the fruit. “The harvesting season has peaked after mid October. The fruit is ripe and may rot on the trees if not plucked in the next few weeks", said Ahmad.
The memories of last year's unseasonal snowfall that spelt doom for apple trees in southern Kashmir still haunt the orchadists, who believe that if they fail to harvest the produce in a couple of weeks, any thing from bad to worse is possible.
" Last year it snowed on November 3 and caused a huge devastation. Almost 40-45 percent of the crop was lost. We need to complete the harvesting process by the second week of November", said another orchadist who too did not wish to be named.
Even the growers who have harvested their crop find themselves in a quandary. They don't know how to sell the produce or move it out of the Valley. “ I have harvested 70 percent of my crop. It is packed in cartons and lying in my field. I don't understand how to transport or sell it", said a prominent apple grower living at the tail end of the district.
Farmers complain that the transporters are charging exorbitant fares as there is a scarcity of trucks in the area. The transportation charges to Delhi during this season used to be Rs 40 to 50 per apple carton, which have now shot up to between Rs 130 and Rs 150.
A transporter said that after the recent attacks, the non-local truckers were not inclined to come to the area. “The local drivers have either stopped work or charge more", he said, adding that it has now become a very difficult affair.
After the militant threats, the government announced that it would procure the fruit through the National Agriculture Cooperative Marketing Federation of India( NAFED) and set up its centres at Sopore, Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag and Srinagar districts.
However, the response to the NAFED from the growers seems poor. A NAFED official, on condition of anonymity, said that it had so far procured around thirty thousand boxes of apple from Shopian area. "A total number of 12000 fruit growers have registered with us in Shopain district", he said.
Many farmers and local traders say that they have already taken huge amounts of money in advance from the traders outside the Valley and are therefore bound to send them the supplies.
While the Valley is reeling under continuous lockdown, its apple industry has been caught in the throes of its worst crisis yet.