A day after the driver of a truck loading apples was killed by militants in South Kashmir’s Shopian district, the movement of trucks slowed. While the Jammu and Kashmir administration has vowed to increase security, this was the third attack on the apple trade in the Valley since the Centre’s August 5 decision to scrap the state’s special status and bifurcate J&K into two Union Territories.
But with apple harvest at its peak, and despite the terror threat and the uncertainty in the region since the August 5 decision, traders and growers in South Kashmir fear business will suffer. And it is a cost they say they are willing to pay.
Commissioner Choudhary Mohammad Yasin told The Indian Express, “Today movement of trucks is a little slow. We are strengthening security along the routes where fruit trucks ply.”
Since September 23, when the apple season started in Shopian, approximately 4,200 trucks have carried approximately 1,83,000 kgs of apples out of the district, including those procured by National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED). In Shopian, as per the district administration, about 40 per cent and in neighbouring Pulwama, only about 10 per cent of the apple harvest comes to the fruit mandis for auction.
The rest travels through established channels to traders as far as Bangalore. A majority of the fruit goes to various markets via aggregators who operate as middle-men between the small farmer and the bigger traders operating from different mandis and is ferried on trucks.
So vital are these trade links to old customers across the country that even the Centre’s announcement that the National Agricultural Produce Marketing Federation (NAFED) would procure apples for a higher price has few takers.
The J&K administration on October 8 revised the procurement prices for apples at rates that are between Rs 5 to Rs 10 (per kilogram) higher than offered before. An extra “superclass” of apples has been designated, being procured at Rs 70 per kilogram.
Incidentally, Shopian contributes approximately 4 lakh metric tonnes of the state’s 15 lakh metric tons per year of apples. The Shopian apple, with its low water content, has a longer shelf life and an immense market outside the state.
Even as the Centre’s move was reportedly “aimed at achieving integration” the socio-economic linkages formed by the apple farmers of Kashmir and the traders in different parts of India, that they have fostered over decades, run the risk of abandon.
“We will not sell to the government. We have long standing relationships with our trade partners in different parts of the country, we borrow money from them, how can we not deliver,” said Farooq Wani, an apple grower in Shopian.
Director Horticulture Ajaz Bhat told The Indian Express, “The response to the scheme is good. We have procured close to 1 lakh boxes from the four mandis at Anantnag, Srinagar, Sopore and now Shopian as well. We are now offering Rs 70/kg for gift packs and this rate has never been offered before. With the increase in rates, we are expecting to buy more produce from the farmers soon.”
Another grower Ishaq Ahmad said that though the government is providing better rates for C grade apples, used for extracting juice primarily, farmers have loans running into crores of rupees and it is impossible to go back on those deals.
“The government is paying three times more for C grade apples 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,” he said. Despite threats and intimidation by militants aimed at impeding the apple season, the fruit is being transported owing to these reasons.
Deputy Commissioner (Shopian) also stated that since the apple harvest began in the district, close to 3,000 boxes of apple have been procured through the NAFED scheme “and with the hike in rates, we are expecting a further surge in procurement”.