In a bumper season that has seen a record 3.50 crore apple boxes hitting the countrys markets,the glut and lack of storage facilities have meant disappointing prices for growers and traders in Himachal Pradesh.
The wholesale market has crashed twice during the season with thousands of apple boxes left to rot,either on the way or loaded on trucks after arrival. Even apples of the best quality have fared poorly and sold in distress. Its only at the fag end of the season just 20 per cent of the apple crop remains for marketing,which will happen over the next fortnight that the market recovered but only a few benefited. These growers had managed to stagger their transportation and are now getting better prices.
It is the Kinnaur apple that is selling well at present. Rated the best among Himachal varieties and boasting a long shelf life,they have entered the market recently and been fetching high rates. However,there arent enough of them. Hit by natural calamity,Kinnaur orchards have already lost 60 per cent of their crop. Besides,these constitute only 10 to 15 per cent of the total apple production of the state.
Among earlier varieties,Royal Delicious apples saw a fall from an initial Rs 1,800 per box to a low of Rs 800 to 1,000. Normal varieties failed to justify their minimum of Rs 600 to 700 after reaching markets such as Delhi,Ahmedabad,Chennai and Mumbai.
The steep fall in prices during what should have been peak days was the result of high arrivals during Janmashtami. Traders blame growers for creating a glut,while the latter say they had no option except to roll out the packaged fruit.
There is no cold storage facility with the growers. Whatever facilities are available in the state have,in fact,been outsourced by the Himachal Pradesh Horticulture Produce and Marketing Corporation. It was a bumper crop but there were no measures in place to regulate apple movement to prevent a glut in the market, says Rakesh Singha,an orchardist and Himachal Seb Utpadak Sangh president.
The bulk of the stock at HPMCs cold store at Parwanoo has started rotting. Former horticulture minister Narinder Bragta had to rush to the store to check his own stock after several panicky growers started pulling out theirs fearing these would rot. The state is also lacking in controlled atmosphere facilities and growers feel they have no option other than to market their apples as fast as they can.
Another reason to which the unstable apple prices are being attributed is the arrival of foreign apples in Indian markets. Himachal Pradesh has been seeking a hike in import duty to discourage the inflow of foreign apples but the Centere hasnt yet obliged.
The last hike in import duty had come during the NDA regime when chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal managed to convince prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to raise it to 50 per cent. Since then,Himachal and the other two apple-producing states,Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir,have been asking unsuccessfully for an increase in import duty to 80 per cent.
Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma,who was in Shimla recently,expressed the governments helplessness and instead asked the state government to improve its marketing and post-harvest infrastructure if the apple industry has to survive. He assured central funding for addition to storage capacity. The situation,he said confirming growers fears,is going to get worse once new WTO regulations come into effect from 2014.
I was part of the state government team that held talks with Anand Sharma to convey the concerns of apple growers on WTO regulations, says Rohit Thakur,chief parliamentary secretary and an orchardist himself. We (the government) are making efforts to get the apple declared a special product and save Himachals apple industry,and also strengthen post-harvest infrastructure. Its a question of livelihood. The Centre must intervene and help Himachal.
Himachal is handicapped by its ageing orchards and declining productivity. The cost of inputs and marketing is high and the returns fall short whenever there is a bumper crop. A Rs-80-crore apple rejuvenation scheme,started two years ago,to replace some of the older apple varieties has not taken off as well as the initial enthusiasm had suggested it would. And a Rs-100-crore modern fruit market project,launched during the BJP regime,has been shelved by the Congress government.
What is seen as a positive is the entry of two leading corporate groups,one of these Adani Agri-Fresh,which go shopping to the orchards. The companies,however,look only for quality fruit with a long shelf life,requirements that only 15 to 20 per cent of the orchards are able to meet.
Last year,75 per cent of the crop had gone to markets outside such as Delhi,Gujarat,Mumbai,Chennai and Chandigarh. This year,it came down to 55 to 65 per cent.
The only possible solutions are delinking production from marketing,including post-harvest care,a rescue effort by the Centre,and an upgrade of the states products to match global competition. Otherwise,the option is diversification to alternative fruits such as cherry,strawberry,kiwi,pomegranate,plum and peach.