An olive-green mine-proof Caspir vehicle of the Army stands in front of a long, tin-roofed platform in Sopore’s fruit mandi. At Asia’s second-largest apple market, these should be bustling days. But it’s all quiet, the mandi’s stalls empty. As the clampdown in Kashmir continues, for the first time, the apple has become a target in the Valley’s three-decade-old conflict.
Realising how central the fruit was to its attempts to restore “normalcy” in Kashmir, the Central government had announced on September 5 that NAFED (the National Agricultural Produce Marketing Federation) would procure apples in the Valley — a first for the central agency. Earlier, nearly a month ago, the government had said trucks of fruits, including apples, were moving out of Kashmir, “like always”. On September 25, the Army released aerial pictures from Jammu and Kashmir as well as a video captioned “loading of apples… people moving on with life”.
But, with militants threatening growers against complying with government plans, figures released by the state’s Horticulture Marketing and Planning Corporation (HMPC) show that till September 25, only 10,861 apple boxes (approximately 184 metric tonnes) had been procured by the authorities — a worrying fraction given the state’s average annual production of nearly 20 lakh metric tonnes. The HMPC is the state’s nodal agency for the procurement of apples.
In other words, as the harvest season slips away, 75 per cent of India’s total apple production faces danger of being lost.
June to December are the busiest months at the Sopore fruit mandi, spread over 50 acres just outside town, with 15 auction platforms parallel to each other. This time of the year, the mandi normally employs around 5,000 people, doing the bulk of its annual business of up to Rs 2,500 crore.
The sellers reach the mandi by dawn, and after a day of transactions, truckloads of apples leave for destinations like New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and even Bangladesh and Nepal.
‘Neglected’ trade feels pain
IT’S BEEN a long-standing demand of apple growers that their trade be given industry status, given its importance to the state’s economy — a treatment they see as step-motherly compared to the tourism industry, which invites most of the talk and attention. The latest blow may add to the trust deficit.
These days though, its main iron gate half-shut, the mandi is deserted. Outside, a long row of shops, mostly of fruit traders, are shuttered. The only sign of life inside is at the office of the HMPC.
In orchards in most of Sopore, ripe apples are still hanging from trees — with every day past the harvest time of third week of September ominous for growers. The situation is the same in other areas of north Kashmir and in Pulwama, south Kashmir. Some growers are carrying out plucking, but discreetly, and take the fruit home, to “wait it out”. “I will see how and when I can send it to the market,” says a grower.
In Shopian, the Valley’s second-biggest apple-growing area, the panic hasn’t set in yet. Grown at a higher altitude than other fruit areas of the valley, the Shopian apples ripen later, and most varieties are harvested in the first week of October.
It is not the first time that the Valley’s fruit season has coincided with a shutdown. However, through the Amarnath land row agitation of 2008 and the violent protests following militant commander Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016, there was an unwritten understanding that the fruit would not be touched — while the government had taken measures in 2016 to stop night travel of apples, it was essentially done to make growers keep the Sopore mandi open during the day to break a militant-enforced shutdown.
This unwritten code was broken in the first week of September, nearly a month into the clampdown, which had been imposed ahead of the Centre’s decision to abrogate Article 370. First, on August 24, while talking about “normalcy” returning to Kashmir, J&K government spokesman Rohit Kansal said at a press briefing that fruit consignments are being sent to outside markets, adding, “As against 89,000 metric tonnes last year, around 1.20 lakh metric tonnes have been transported out in the corresponding period.”
Then, early September, the authorities, including the police and Army, asked fruit growers to keep the Sopore mandi open during the day amidst an otherwise near-total shutdown. On September 5, the Centre announced a Market Intervention Scheme to procure apples in the Valley through NAFED, so as to “ensure good remunerative prices”.
A day later, militants barged into the house of a prominent apple grower in Sopore, opened fire and left four wounded, including a five-year-old, and warned the family against going to the mandi.
In the three weeks since, posters bearing names of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen have surfaced in Sopore and Shopian, asking people not to send their fruit to the markets of Delhi this year. In a statement, the J&K Police had confirmed that militants had put up the “threatening” posters in Sopore, naming some Lashkar men.
Few fruit growers are willing to talk about the militant threat. While Nazir Ahmad, from Nowpora in Sopore, does, he also blames the government. “It is for the first time that militants have interfered in the fruit business. They have been angered by the government trying to project it as a sign of normalcy. In the worst of times, like 2016 or 2010, they (militants) let us open the mandi in the morning and evening. Now they are firm that no fruit must leave.”
A fruit grower from Sopore, who refuses to be named, says that this time too, they initially tried to have the same arrangement. “But then the posters surfaced,” he adds, also blaming the government.
DGP Dilbagh Singh denies “forcing anyone”. “We are only facilitators and our job is to ensure that if they want to do business, they can without a sense of fear,” he says.
Still, there is little doubt that, for the government, apples in Kashmir are not business as usual.
Before the NAFED announcement, the Centre had organised a meeting in Delhi for fruit growers from the Valley with the federation and top government officers. Confirming this, a senior government officer in Srinagar, who refused to be named, said the scheme might have gone down better if officials on the ground had been kept in the loop. “Now a scheme launched purely to benefit growers looks politicised.”
In its statement announcing the NAFED scheme, a J&K government release hinted that preparations had been on for some time. “Already a NAFED team has arrived to finalise modalities of the procurement,” it said.
Fulfilling the promise is anyway a tall task for NAFED, that has never been procured apples, and opened an office in Srinagar only days before the announcement. The nodal agency usually procures oilseeds, pulses, copra, onion and cotton at minimum support prices declared by the Centre.
Speaking to The Indian Express earlier, an NAFED official had said, “We have been told to buy whatever is offered to us, though the indicative target is to procure 12 lakh metric tonnes. The state government will fix the prices. The total cost of operations is tentatively assessed at Rs 5,000 crore.”
The procurement was to start from September 12, and the entire process finished by mid-December.
Ghulam Mohammad Dar, who has been given additional charge of HMPC (the agency handling the procurement at the state level), hopes things will get better. “Ultimately it is up to the people to sell to us or not. The response is not up to expectations but we are really hopeful it will improve,” he says. Dar was brought in after HMPC Director Shahnawaz Bikhari was shifted out last week, a move that has done little to reassure growers.
In Shopian, the district administration has publicised the NAFED scheme through fliers in Urdu, and TV and radio advertisements. “People have started coming to us to reserve their spots for auctions. Many people have established business relations but some are coming to us as well,” Deputy Commissioner, Shopian, Choudhary Mohammad Yasin told The Sunday Express.
Irrespective of the militant threats though, growers say, they had other doubts about selling to NAFED. Says Shahnawaz Ahmad, an orchadist from Shopian, “It is none of the government’s business (whom we sell to). The industry has a set procedure. We are bound by a contract, and get advance money from the big fruit dealers in Delhi and Kashmir on the promise that we will sell our produce to them. They even arrange the pesticides for us.”
Farooq Wani, an apple grower from Shopian, also argues the same, saying they will not sell to the government. “We have long-standing relationships with partners in different parts of the country, we borrow money from them. How can we not deliver?”
Another grower, Ishaq Ahmad, says that for some varieties, the government offer is better, “but we cannot tell traders who help us when we need money that we cannot get produce to them. For us, it would be better if transportation could be allowed”.
A report prepared by the government after the militant threats shows that fruit dealers from outside Kashmir, mostly from the Azadpur fruit market in Delhi, have given more than Rs 4,000 crore as advance to Valley growers. M R Kriplani, the President of the Azadpur Fruit Merchants’ Association, says they have given “anything between
Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,200 crore as advance”. “Though we are receiving some fruit from Sopore belt, no fruit has come from Shopian so far,” he adds. “It is far less than what we used to receive… It has an impact.”
In Shopian, for example, as per the district administration, about 40 per cent of the produce and in neighbouring Pulwama, only about 10 per cent, comes to mandis for auction. The rest travels through established channels to traders as far as Bengaluru.
Meanwhile, as they struggle to contact their buyers outside the Valley amidst the information blackout, the growers say rates being offered are down by more than 30 per cent, as dealers sense their desperation. “In the past, we would call our dealer in Delhi five times a day and if we felt the prices were not competitive, ask them not to sell. We would even store the fruit in cold storage and take out when rates increased,” says Abdul Qayoom, a fruit grower from Pulwama. “With no communication, our dealers are selling the fruit at prices of their choice. We come to know four or five days later.”
Denying this, Kriplani says they set the price purely as per the colour of the produce. “As the rains have been low in Kashmir this season, the apple has not coloured well.”
NAFED has set up four procurement centres — at Sopore fruit mandi, Aglar fruit mandi in Shopian, Parimpora fruit mandi in Srinagar and Botengo fruit mandi in Anantnag. Official figures reveal that only 1,303 fruit boxes have been procured by the government in Sopore while the process is yet to begin in Shopian.
A member of the Sopore Fruit Association, who doesn’t want to be named, says the idea of setting up procurement centres at the mandi itself was wrong. “Our problem is harvesting the fruit, packaging it and then transporting it to the mandi. If we can get it to the mandi, we can send it outside as well, and for prices far better than the government’s. In these circumstances, what and where is the positive role of NAFED?”
From the orchards to the mandi is generally a process spread over several days. The plucked fruit is spread over a tarpaulin at the orchard, apples of different sizes and colours separated, graded ‘A’ (the best quality), ‘B’ or ‘C’ accordingly, with bigger size and deeper colour fetching better prices, and then packed in boxes. Given militant threats, the process now must be carried out discreetly.
Some growers complain that the government’s grading process for apples is flawed as it focuses only on colour. “There are other factors like size, how free the fruit is from diseases,” says Mohammad Qayim, a fruit grower from Pattan in north Kashmir.
The highest price the government is offering is Rs 52 per kg, for the ‘A’ grade apples of Delicious variety — a sweet apple, it is the most sought after. The other most-popular varieties are ‘American’ and ‘Maharaji’, which have longer shelf lives.
Last year, the ‘A’ grade apple of ‘Kulu’ variety, the first to get to the markets in the Valley, went for Rs 64 per kg on an average.
J&K’s total apple economy is estimated at Rs 8,000 crore (roughly 8.2 per cent of its GDP, concentrated almost entirely in Kashmir). In comparison, tourism comprised 6.89 per cent of its GDP (92 per cent of that earned by the Vaishno Devi Shrine in Jammu alone) as per the 2017 Economic Survey.
The survey put the number of people directly or indirectly associated with horticulture in the state — a major part of which comprises apples — at seven lakh families, or 33 lakh people. The latest official figures put the number at close to 50 lakh people.
The Economic Survey put the total apple production in the state for 2016-17 at 17.26 lakh metric tonnes, which last year, as per government figures, had risen to 18 lakh metric tonnes. Apart from this, as the Survey pointed out, 5.18 lakh metric tonnes of apple on an average are culled or fall off before harvest and are used for preparing juice and jams.
Official data shows over 1.45 lakh hectares of land in the Valley is under apple cultivation. North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, which includes Sopore, has the highest area under apples, over 25,000 hectares, followed by Shopian in South Kashmir where apples are grown on 21,000 hectares.
As the imbroglio continues, the growers are hoping their apples won’t go the way of the Valley’s pears, which almost completely went waste this year. A fruit with a small shelf life, pear ripens in August and the growers have only a fortnight to harvest and transport the fruit to markets, including outside the Valley. Most couldn’t manage it this year once the clampdown set in, while others who did, saw rates plummet. “A box of pear (on an average 17 kg) would fetch us around Rs 500-600,” says Irshad-ul-Haq, a fruit grower from Sopore. “This time, we got barely Rs 300 a box, just covering our cost.”
Also counting their losses are truckers like Manjit Singh, from Haryana, who has been waiting outside the Sopore mandi for 17 days, without any means of contacting families back home. “We wait the whole year for the fruit season to begin. September-November are our most profitable months. But this time, we are facing huge losses,” he says, adding how even 2016 wasn’t this bad.
Trying to put up a brave face, the owner of a cold storage plant who did not want to be identified, says they realise this time is “different”. “The issue is also constitutional as well as sentimental, and even if we suffer losses this year, we will be fine.”
Adds a fruit grower from Pulwama, “We are ready for the loss of this season’s crop, if it helps in some sort of resolution of the Kashmir issue.”
The more realistic hope is that militant pressure will ease now, after the United Nations General Assembly session, where they had hoped to put the Indian government under pressure over Kashmir.
Should that happen, the apples would fly. Less than 100 metres from the desolate Sopore fruit market, stand hundreds of trucks, mostly from outside the state, waiting to take the fruit to all corners of the country.
(with inputs from Naveed Iqbal)