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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Erratic weather, labour shortage, market trouble upsets Himachal applecart

An above-normal snowfall this past winter had raised hopes of a bumper crop among fruit growers. What followed over next few months, however, were frequent spells of hailstorms and thundershowers accompanied by gusty winds.

Written by Gagandeep Singh Dhillon | Shimla | Updated: June 24, 2020 2:14:36 am
himachal pradesh apple, himachal pradesh apple farming, shimla apple production, apple tariffs, india news Even as the production this year is likely to be below average, there’s more trouble waiting for the apple growers.

Erratic weather during spring and summer combined with circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic have left apple growers in Himachal Pradesh staring at multiple hurdles ahead of the harvest season, which begins next month.

An above-normal snowfall this past winter had raised hopes of a bumper crop among fruit growers. What followed over next few months, however, were frequent spells of hailstorms and thundershowers accompanied by gusty winds. Even as the production this year is likely to be below average, there’s more trouble waiting for the apple growers — a shortage of labourers and uncertainty over supplying apples to Delhi, the biggest market for the fruit and also a Covid hotspot with most number of coronavirus cases in the country after Maharashtra.

“Low production this time can actually be called a blessing in disguise because we are reliant on labourers from Nepal who are missing this year. Families having small orchards close to motorable roads may be able to manage the heavy manual work of picking and loading. But for others, it seems impossible. Due to the tough terrain, only Nepali labourers are able to do this kind of work,” said Ankush Chauhan, who grows apples on 45 to 50 bighas in Tikkar panchayat in Rohru.

Chauhan, however, said that over the past few years, labourers from Jharkhand and the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh have started working in some orchards, “and they may be able to help us to some extent”.

Earlier this month, at a meeting with apple growers in Shimla, state Education Minister Suresh Bhardwaj had said that around 47,000 of total 90,000 Nepalese labourers are already available in the state. The rest went to Nepal and are in touch with the apple growers, he had said, adding that Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur had talked to the external affairs minister about the availability of Nepalese workers. He had said that state government was ready to bring back Nepalese labourers in buses to Himachal from the Nepal border at Tanakpur in Uttarakhand.

Laxman Thakur, an apple grower in Jubbal’s Nandpur village, said that the spring and early summer seasons this year were cooler than normal, which affected the cell division during the fruit’s development leading to a smaller size. “Everything is going negative this year. Let’s see how the monsoon plays out,” he said.

Bhupinder Singh, another apple grower from Khasdhar village in Rohru, said that orchards in far-flung areas will bear the severest brunt of labour shortage.

Economically, apple is Himachal’s most important fruit, constituting nearly 50 per cent of the total area under horticulture, and accounting for 75 to 85 per cent of the total fruit production in the state in the last few years. Shimla district accounts for a majority of the production, while the fruit is also grown in Kullu, Kinnaur, Mandi and Chamba. A rough estimate puts apple economy at around Rs 4,500 crore in Himachal with close to 1.5 lakh families associated with it.

The state produced around 6.64 lakh metric tonnes of apple last year, while the horticulture department has estimated a production of 5-6 lakh metric tonnes, or about three crore apple boxes, this year. The apple production in the state has been witnessing sharp fluctuations in the last decade.

Its harvest season lasts from July to October, peaking in the month of August.

According to Dr Kuldip Tanwar, president of Himachal Pradesh Kisan Sabha, movement of thousands of transporters, commission agents and others during the harvest season to and from Delhi, a city with a high Covid case load, will pose a serious challenge. “Till now, Covid-19 has mostly affected the districts of lower Himachal such as Hamirpur and Kangra. But the apple supply chain movement may lead a surge of cases in upper reaches of the state. The state government must constitute a task force to facilitate a smooth transportation chain which remains Covid-free,” he said.

Earlier this month, the opposition Congress had urged the state government to relax norms to allow buyers from outside to visit Himachal in the harvesting season.

Tanwar added that many areas witnessed intermittent spells of hailstorms and unfavourable weather variations due to which the total production this season is expected to be 20 to 25 per cent below average.

Last week, Governor Bandaru Dattatraya asked the horticulture department to strengthen the chain of cold stores and suggested that labourers from non-apple growing regions could be asked to work in the apple belt during the harvest season. He also suggested developing sub-marketing yards which would help in maintaining physical distance, and providing packing material to the growers in advance.

According to Amitabh Awasthi, secretary, horticulture department, about 68,000 trucks would be needed for transportation of the crop, and there would be more pressure in August and September, when 75,000 trucks may be required. All arrangements were being made to arrange the trucks and make the transportation process and the apple season smooth, he told the Governor.

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