In the spring of 2019, apple growers were happy after seeing their flower-laden orchards — an indication of a bumper crop. But then came August 5, the apple harvest season. But it was overshadowed by a prolonged lockdown, imposed in the wake of Article 370 abrogation that lasted at least six months.
In the run-up to the August 5 decision last year, thousands of migrant labourers were asked by the administration to leave Kashmir days before and the ban on the movement of locals was made near absolute.
With people confined indoors and all the migrant workers having fled the Valley, apple harvest was delayed. The delay was aggravated by threats issued by militants to growers asking them to desist from apple harvest.
It was in October 2019 that fruit growers defied threats and started to harvest apple crop during night hours. For few weeks, the militant threats seemed to ring hollow. Non-local labourers and truckers had begun to return to Kashmir. But the sudden spurt in killing of non-local labourers in Shopian and Kulgam districts in South Kashmir brought the trade to standstill again. It started another wave of migration of labourers. Many truckers drove back to their states empty. Some of the apple varieties were left to rot on trees. Most of the truckers from Rajasthan and Punjab — comprising major transporters of apple from Kashmir — postponed their trips to the Valley.
If it was not enough, Kashmir witnessed an early snowfall on November 4 that devastated the apple orchards.
Kashmir’s biggest economy — Rs 8,000 crore apple industry — witnessed an unprecedented crisis. Kashmir produces 22 lakh metric ton of apple each year, which is over 70 per cent of the country’s total production.
Heavy snowfall crippled apple economy as some varieties of apple were yet to be harvested but more than that, according to official estimates, 30 to 35 per cent apple trees were damaged in the Kashmir region due to the snowfall. Apple orchards suffered heavy losses as trees were uprooted under the weight of heavy snow. Even vehicles carrying apples outside Kashmir were stuck on Srinagar-Jammu highway for weeks due to recurring damage to the under-construction road by landslides.
The Coronavirus pandemic and nationwide lockdown is the latest blow to Kashmir’s apple industry. It has disrupted supply chains as the growers, who had stored their crop in the cold storage across Kashmir to export it in March and April, have no buyers while they are paying the rent for the cold storage units.
For apple growers throughout Kashmir, the Coronavirus couldn’t have hit at a worse time.
In normal times, market mechanisms and supply chains enable export of apple without any problem. But the lockdown has pushed the industry to a grinding halt as farmers say they are not finding market for their produce.
“Fruit mandis are closed and even if we take our produce to sell, there is no place to sell it. There is no mechanism in place,” says Mushtaq Ahmad Malik, a fruit grower from Shopian.
Because of the delay in harvesting and subsequent heavy snowfall last year, Malik says, most of the growers kept their apple produce in cold storage units. “April is an excellent time to export it and sell it in the wider market which is closed right now. We don’t know what to do,” he says adding that over 40 million boxes are lying in the cold storage units across Kashmir and it wouldn’t be consumed by Kashmiris alone.
Last year farmers who kept their produce in the cold storage are now unable to transport it and thus millions of apple boxes are lying in cold storage across the Valley. Director of Horticulture Kashmir, Ejaz Ahmad Bhat, says it is true that 34000 MTs of apple is lying in the cold storage. He, however, says the government is issuing passes to the growers to export their produce and they unload them at the Azadpore and other mandis. He said more than 30 trucks are moving out of the Valley every day.
But there is no demand. “We are trying to push fruit in the markets but there is almost no demand we are pushing at less costs. B Grade produce has already gone nil in value. Our growers want government interventions and discounts in storage costs,” he adds.
He says the government is facilitating movement of trucks laden with apple produce but there is no market. “This is the same fruit which is stuck because of events followed after Article 370 abrogation. The government should intervene and banks should look into this,” he adds. “People are struggling outside to buy onions and tomatoes, who will ask for apple.”