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Irked farmers look to upset the BJP apple cart in Himachal, Oppn joins in

More than a thousand apple farmers marched to the Secretariat in Shimla last Friday, demanding, among other things, a rollback of GST on cartons and trays.

Several farmers’ outfits that carried out the demonstration under the banner of the Sanykut Kisan Manch claimed it was one of the largest agitations to have taken place in Himachal Pradesh in decades. (PTI)

More than a thousand apple farmers in Himachal Pradesh marched towards the Secretariat in Shimla on Friday, demanding, among other things, that the BJP government roll back 18 per cent Goods and Services Tax (GST) on cartons and trays.

Several farmers’ outfits that carried out the demonstration under the banner of the Sanykut Kisan Manch claimed it was one of the largest agitations to have taken place in Himachal Pradesh in decades. Protesters recalled a demonstration of this scale last took place in the state in 1990. The BJP was in power at the time too and three apple farmers died in police firing.

Friday’s demonstration will alarm the Jairam Thakur-led BJP government as it comes in an election year and concerns a Rs 5,000-crore industry that contributes more than 13 per cent to the state’s GDP. Incomes of lakhs of families are both, directly and indirectly, linked to apple production and key districts such as Shimla, Sirmaur, Chamba, and Kullu fall in the apple belt.

The protesting farmers claimed that input prices had increased and the hike in GST on the packaging would cause apple producers to haemorrhage money. Apart from the GST rollback, the demonstrators want the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) to be applied as per the type of apple, and the strict implementation of the provisions of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act. The farmers blamed the BJP government for not paying heed to their longstanding demand of raising import duty to encourage local production.

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Sensing an opportunity to corner the BJP, Opposition parties such as the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lent support to the farmers. The state’s lone CPI(M) MLA Rakesh Singha, the representative from Theog, also joined the agitation.

Shimla: Farmers under the banner of Himachal Kisan Sabha stage a protest outside HP Secretariat, in Shimla. (PTI)

At Friday’s protest, AAP leader Aninder Singh led the sloganeering. “Farmers have been protesting for issues for a long time. The apple season is upon us and is getting over by the day. The delay in government reforms will only cause losses for farmers. They do not have the time and liberty to come and sit here,” he said.

Influential Congress leader from upper Himachal and former Chief Minister Thakur Ram Lal’s son Rohit Thakur was also part of the demonstration. He appealed to leaders across party lines and ideologies to support the protesting farmers. “The government is not interested in listening to farmers and the committee that is being set up is an eyewash. The ruling party only wants to make announcements in order to divert attention. The Congress government has always wanted to develop the state as a ‘fruit bowl’ of the country. I have participated in the protests not only as a legislator but as a farmer. I will continue to raise their voice,” Thakur said.

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The committee the Congress leader referred to is the one that the Jairam Thakur administration announced recently, sensing that the blowback of the brewing discontent among apple farmers may prove costly in an election year. The government has said the panel will look into the demands of apple farmers. But, if their demands are not met, the protesters are likely to step up their agitation during the Assembly session. They are hoping that a sustained agitation turns their plight into a key election issue.

How the apple belt voted

In the last Assembly election, the voting patterns in the apple belt threw up a mixed result. The BJP dominated in Kullu and Chamba, winning seven of the nine seats in the two districts. But in the eight Assembly seats in Shimla, the BJP managed to win only three constituencies and its tally came down to two after the bypolls last year. The Congress won the lone seat in Kinnaur.

The BJP said the state government was committed to the cause of farmers and alleged that the protesters had vested interests. “The GST is decided on a Central level and the state gave six per cent relaxation on its part to maintain the status quo. There are other policies in place and several are in the pipeline. Some are using the plight of farmers to make it a political issue and raise protests. The farmers also know that the ruling party is with them in the long term,” said state BJP president Suresh Kashyap.

First published on: 08-08-2022 at 09:22:43 am
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