A sense of bitterness at the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP coalition is palpable amongst farmers of kinnow, Punjab’s ‘king fruit’, in this Assembly constituency close to the India-Pakistan border.
Punjab is India’s largest kinnow producer and out of the 48,000-odd hectares cultivated area in the state, nearly 27,000 hectares is in Abohar. Yet, the Parkash Singh Badal-led government’s “preferential treatment” to Muktsar — the ruling family’s home turf where the citrus crop is grown in just 5,600 hectares — is a recurrent complaint one hears from owners of orchards, pack houses and wax units in the “real” kinnow hub.
Their main grouse is the lack of export promotion measures, due to which much of the estimated one million tonne production — two-thirds of it from Abohar — gets dumped in domestic wholesale markets at Rs 10-14 per kg. For the current season (November-March), the Punjab government has targeted exports of 30,000 tonnes. But so far only 5,000 tonnes has gone out, admits Kahan Singh Pannu, managing director, Punjab Agro Industries Corporation (PAIC).
“Harvesting of the fruits ends in February. How will they meet the target?”, asks Pradip Dawra, president of the Kinnow Waxing and Grading Association, who, along with three other exporters, has shipped out a 24-tonne container load to Dubai this season “without any government help”. Moreover, even the fruits exported are apparently from “select” orchards in the Badal bastion of Muktsar. “Nobody came here to do quality inspection for exports. They only visited orchards in Muktsar,” claims a farmer.
Abohar has some 70 pack house and waxing units, of which only five have pre-cooling and cold room facilities. “Even these were installed by us this year at Rs 40-50 lakh each. We were promised a 35 per cent government subsidy on this, which hasn’t come yet. Last year, there was sudden demand from Russia, but the fruit that went wasn’t up to the mark because of the absence of the said facilities and also special anti-fungal wax,” points out Dawra. PAIC’s Pannu, however, maintains that there is no bias. “We are exporting from Abohar.
Also, we have arranged wax from Spain this time and it will be done every year,” he states.
Abohar has an agro-processing plant set up by the state government in 2007 for producing juices and jams from kinnow. Farmers, however, allege that only substandard fruit is procured at Rs 4-5 per kg by the plant, while their superior kinnow gets rejected on quality grounds. “They haven’t even started procurement this time. And who will sell at their rates when production costs alone are Rs 10-12/kg?,” quips Shivam Sethia, a waxing unit owner.
IJ Manchanda, the plant head, informs that kinnow procurement will commence soon at Rs 5 per kg. “The processing isn’t taking place as the TSS (total soluble solids) levels in the fruit are not of the required standards. Besides, most of the Abohar kinnow is of table variety, not suitable for processing,” he counters. Meanwhile, the plant, as The Indian Express discovered, is doing job work processing for others — including amla juice for Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved and guava juice for ‘MSG’, the brand of the company owned by godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh!
The man seeking to derive advantage from the kinnow growers’ angst in the current state elections is Sunil Jakhar, three-time Congress MLA from Abohar and Leader of Opposition in the outgoing assembly. A kinnow grower himself with an orchard in Moujgarh village — his father was the first to start cultivation of the crop in Abohar — he tells voters here why a Congress-led state government in their best interest.
For Abohar’s farmers, rising saline groundwater levels are also a major concern, threatening to destroy acres of kinnow orchards. In 2014, the then UPA government at the Centre released Rs 2,240 crore for a project to drain out saline waters in the region. But if the growers here are to be believed, this work, too, was taken up only in Muktsar. Even ‘degreening’ technology — exposing green citrus fruits with low levels of ethylene to enhance colouration — was introduced in the Badal family’s pocket borough of Lambi in Muktsar, according to them.
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