Much before the trees in this belt — home to Himachal Pradesh’s (HP) best apple varieties — go to bloom this season, orchard owners of nearly a dozen panchayat villages in Shimla district’s Kotkhai area are a relaxed lot.
They have a reason to be so, unlike last year or in 2014, when hailstorms destroyed their crops. This time round, the growers of Baghi, Ratnari, Kalbog, Mahasu, Bakhol and Prem Nagar, besides Maraog in the adjacent apple-rich area of Chopal, are confident of tackling any impending calamity. It stems from their having installed anti-hail guns, a technology imported from New Zealand. Five such devices have already been successfully test-fired and declared fully functional to protect their fruits that are due for harvesting in July-August.
What makes these growers particularly happy is that the installation has taken place without any support or subsidy from the state government. It has been purely their own initiative, despite each device costing over Rs 1 crore. For them, the anti-hail guns are an innovative solution to protect their crop during the flowering and fruit setting season. Growers in Mahasu alone, which produces 20-25 lakh boxes of 20 kg apples each, suffered losses to the tune of Rs 80 crore last year due to hail. Orchards in Baghi, Ratnari and Kalbog were, likewise, at the receiving end in 2014 and 2016.
The HP government has been promoting a scheme providing 80 per cent subsidy on anti-hail nets to growers. But there have been no takers for it, as putting these nets on apple trees at the fruit-bearing stage is literally a tall order. The crop is, moreover, vulnerable to hail attacks even after that. The anti-hail guns, on the other hand, were first tried out in 2010-11, with the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government installing three of them in the Deorighat, Kathasu and Braionghat in Shimla district under a Rs 3.29-crore centrally-funded project. The entire equipment was imported from Newton Systems International, a US-based supplier of hail suppression devices. The guns, barring the one at Kathasu, were seen to have worked and turned saviour for growers of the villages concerned.
“The new Congress government, which assumed office in 2012-13, scrapped the project for political reasons. We made a representation and even met the horticulture minister Vidya Stokes, who comes from a pioneering horticultural family (her father-in-law Samuel Evans Stokes introduced apple cultivation in HP). But it was of no avail and so we decided to install the guns ourselves,” says Raj Kumar Binta, the pradhan of Baghi gram panchayat.
Like all crops, the fate of HP’s estimated Rs 3,500 crore apple economy is subject to the vagaries of the weather. Right from the time the trees start bearing flowers in April, to July-August when the fruits are ready for plucking, the single biggest worry for growers is the threat of hail.
While the apple growers of Baghi and Ratnari took the initiative to install anti-hail guns on their own in August last year, the ones in Mahasu, Bakhol and Prem Nagar got together in December to form a society for this purpose. The society — Balson Valley Vikas Samiti — was the brainchild of Balak Ram Chauhan, a retired Central government official who mobilised the growers of the three villages. “The device, infrastructure and site development costs came to Rs 1.02 crore. Initially, we were able to collect Rs 60 lakh as equal shares of all farmers. But since not everybody could foot in the extra amount, the gap had to be filled by the growers who were part of the society’s managing committee.
The necessary training for operating and handling the equipment was imparted to us by Mike Eggers Ltd, the supplier from New Zealand,” notes a visibly proud Chauhan.
The Balson Valley society and the Kalbog and Maraog panchayats installed their guns this year. Together with Baghi and Ratnari, that makes it a total of five devices installed by farmers themselves without any government support.
The anti-hail gun is a shockwave generator that disrupts the formation of hailstones in the atmosphere. The machine has a lower chamber where a mixture of acetylene gas and oxygen is ignited. As the resultant blast passes through the neck and into the cone, it develops into a whistling shockwave that travels at the speed of sound into and through the cloud formations above. What would otherwise have fallen as hailstones, instead, comes down as harmless raindrops or soft sleet. The gun is capable of firing, though an automated process, every four seconds during a storm as it approaches. The protected area of cloud formation – which can be prevented from developing into hail — for an individual machine is about 1.5 km around it.
“Five guns being installed by growers using their own money is a slap on this government’s face. I had submitted a Rs 320-crore project to install 300 such devices for protection of fruit and vegetable cultivation in hail-prone areas across the state. When we come to power, it will be revived,” claims Narinder Bragta, horticulture minister in the previous Bharatiya Janata Party regime.
The countries already using anti-hail gun technology include Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Austria and South Africa.
Jagdish Sharma, principal secretary (horticulture), defends the state government’s decision to favour anti-hail nets over gun technology. “We are currently implementing a World Bank-funded Rs 1,134 crore horticulture project that has a crop protection component. During the project’s drafting, the consultants felt that anti-hail nets are a globally accepted system, whereas there were doubts about the efficacy of guns,” he states, while adding that “the state government, however, has no problem if farmers decide to install these on their own and we are giving no-objection certificates for their import”.