SUNIL CHAUHAN is a busy man these days, spraying ‘Antracol’ and ‘Nativo’ fungicides on his apple trees spread over 14 bigha (2.25 hectares) in Dhangwi Kalan. The 32-year-old, a PhD in history who teaches at the Panjab University in Chandigarh, has taken a break to help his family out at their orchard in this village of Shimla district’s Kotkhai tehsil.
“The crop is going to be much better than last year. We don’t want to take chances, when it’s so close to harvesting,” says Chauhan, as he walks through his high-density plantation orchard having 300-400 trees per bigha, as against the normal 50 or so. The trees bear both new “imported” (Adams, Jeromine, Gale Gala, Scarlet Spur) and “traditional” Royal Delicious apple varieties. The imported varieties would be ready for plucking towards July 20 and the traditional ones from early-August.
But what is exciting Chauhan isn’t just the prospect of bumper production; his trees should yield 3,400-3,500 boxes (each containing 20 kg of apples), compared to 2,800-2,900 last time. “We also expect prices to hold at last year’s levels of Rs 2,000-2,400/box for Royal Delicious and Rs 2,800-3,100 for the imported varieties,” he adds.
According to M L Dhiman, director of Himachal Pradesh’s horticulture department, apple production in the state is likely to rise from roughly two crore boxes to 3.70 crore boxes this year, thanks to a better and extended winter. The hope of growers such as Chauhan that this will not lead to a crash in realisations is based on the Narendra Modi government’s decision, last month, to raise import duties on US apples from 50 per cent to 70 per cent. The extra impost was slapped as a retaliatory tariff, in response to the US imposing import duties on steel and aluminium last year, besides withdrawing $ 5.6 billion worth of special trade benefits for Indian goods this June.
India produces 23-25 lakh tonnes (lt) of apples annually, the bulk of it accounted for by Jammu & Kashmir (17-18 lt) and HP (5-6 lt). Between 2013-14 and 2018-19, the country’s apple imports have gone up from 1.75 lt to 2.83 lt. Out of the 2.83 lt imports last year, 1.28 lt was from the US, followed by Chile (54,317 tonnes), New Zealand (26,217 tonnes) and Italy (21,680 tonnes). Imports of Washington apples have grown largely at the expense of China, which, until 2016-17, was India’s biggest supplier, at 1.75 lt. Since June 2017, India has banned imports of apples and pear from China, after some consignments were found to be infested with mealy bugs and fungus.
“There should be a total ban on imports,” states Chauhan, whose apples don’t go beyond Parwanoo in HP’s Solan district or Chandigarh. The markets in the rest of India have been increasingly flooded with imported apples. “When there will be less fruit coming from US, on top of the continuing ban on Chinese apples, our realisations would obviously improve,” notes Anoop Thakur (37), a 70-bigha grower from Kotkhai, who transports his apples right up to Delhi.
Others aren’t that hopeful, though.
Rakesh Singha, CPI (M) legislator from the Theog Assembly constituency in Shimla district, feels that the US producers will evade the higher import tariff by routing apples through other countries. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture, in its report last month, predicted Indian imports to remain at current levels, as increased shipments from the European Union, New Zealand and Chile will “contribute towards filling the gap left from lost China supplies and lower U.S. deliveries”. A top executive of a leading Bangalore-based online grocery, too, pointed out that Washington apples are now wholesaling at about Rs 3,000 per 20-kg box, while Italian and Polish produce are available at still lower rates of Rs 2,500-2,600 and Rs 2,200-2,300, respectively (for 18-kg boxes).
“The apples from outside have longer shelf-life, which has essentially to do with their superior post-harvesting practices. While they do packing in 20-kg boxes, we fill these up to 25 kg, resulting in quality deterioration and damage to the fruit. The perishability of our produce and lack of attention to post-harvest management is why we are unable to get a good price. I don’t see imports falling even with the higher tariffs,” opines Singha.
Dhiman attributes the crisis in the domestic industry to also climate change: “This year, our production will almost double to 3.7 crore boxes, but we have even achieved 10 crore boxes back in 2010. The weather fluctuations are very abrupt now, especially at the time of flowering”.
Apples from the lower heights of HP, between Solan and Shimla, start arriving from end-July, while the peaking marketing time for the crop in the Shimla-Narkanda-Rampur belt is August-September. From late-September, harvesting of Kinnaur apples begins along with that of the Kashmir valley, whose supplies continue till November-December.
Growers in Kashmir — its main apple-producing districts are Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag, Budgam, Kupwara and Baramulla — are also expecting a good crop this season. But they aren’t sure whether there will be a double benefit from the hike in tariffs/ban on Washington and Chinese apples.
“The government should increase the duties on imports from all countries. That will definitely help local producers realise higher prices. Our apples taste better; where we fail is in maintenance of quality and product presentation,” claims Mohammad Amin, who heads the local growers’ association at Shopian in south Kashmir. He also pins blame on the lack of cold storage infrastructure.
Syed Shahnawaz Ahmad Bukhari, director of J&K’s horticulture planning and marketing department, estimates that the 20 cold stores in the state have a capacity of only one lt, whereas the requirement is 8-10 lt. “It is natural, then, that our growers are desperate to sell at whatever the rates fetched in the market. Also, we have no proper grading, sorting and packing systems. As a result, a mix of ‘A’ and ‘B’ quality produce goes into the market and we are in no position to dictate prices,” he sums up.