Cold winds blow from snow-covered mountains facing Thanedhar, a village in Kotgarh area in Himachal Pradesh’s apple belt. White sheets of anti-hail nets, which look like cobwebs, are strewn in patches all over the village.
In Kotgarh in 1916, American missionary Samuel Evans Stokes started to experiment with American apple varieties. Over a 100 years later, apple farming is one of the mainstays of the state’s economy, with apple orchards currently spreading across 1,12,634 hectares, mainly in the areas that fall under the Shimla (reserved) and Mandi Lok Sabha seats. While the area under apple cultivation is increasing with each passing year, apple production is decreasing.
Moti Ram, who manages the orchards spread across around 200 bighas, says, “There was a hailstorm on April 18. The frost that followed has done immense damage to the apples.”
The Economic Survey report for 2018-19 estimates a decline in the production of apple, which forms 79 percent of the total fruit production in the state. Till December 2018, around 3.59 lakh tonnes of apples were produced in the state – less than half of the 7.77 lakh tonnes of apples produced in 2015-16.
Erratic weather is but one of the many issues faced by the apple farmers in the state.
Apple farmers being duped by commission agents, locally called ‘arthiyas’, is perhaps a burning issue which is expected to impact the prospects of the BJP, especially in the Shimla seat.
Former Shimla mayor Sanjay Chauhan, who is secretary of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, a group working on farmers’ issues, says, “Payments of apple farmers dating back to over five years are still pending. Most of these farmers have been duped by the commission agents into selling their produce, and later the farmers didn’t get paid.”
Sushil Chauhan, a farmer from Kyari village in Shimla district, tells The Sunday Express that his payment of Rs 11.72 lakh is pending since 2015. “I, along with other apple farmers whom a commission agent owes money, filed a complaint against him (the commission agent) in the Kotkhai police station. An FIR was registered, but he managed to get bail,” he says, adding that the BJP in the state and the Centre has done “nothing” to help the farmers.
Over the past year, 205 complaints related to recovery of pending payments for apples sold to arthiyas have been filed in the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC), Shimla.
After years of non-payment, many new complaints are frequently being filed in the APMC, Kashyap says.
Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised the issues of plight of the apple farmers. Blaming the then UPA-II government for its “flawed policies” at an election rally in Sujanpur Tira, Modi had said, “The farmers work hard, cultivate apples. Even then, apple comes (to India) from foreign countries. Apple farmers in Himachal Pradesh don’t even get fully paid.”
On Friday, Congress president Rahul Gandhi attacked Modi over the unfulfilled promises made to apple farmers. Addressing a rally in Solan, he said that Modi “lied” when he said he would increase the import duty on apples. He said, “Modi came to Himachal Pradesh this time too. But, like 2014, did he say he would increase the import duty on apples? He cannot say that now.”