In early July 2008, when the Valley was celebrating the then Jammu and Kashmir government’s decision to revoke the transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board, protests broke out in Jammu against the government’s move. The agitation spiralled quickly and turned against the Valley, with protesters blocking the Jammu road to Srinagar. As the Valley’s apple harvest had then just started, the fruit could not reach its markets in Delhi and other parts of the country.
On August 11, 2008, the separatists called for a march towards Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to protest against the Jammu blockade, demanding the opening of the trade route to Pakistan. A large number of people took to streets and started a march towards Muzaffarabad. The epicentre of the protests was Sopore, the fruit bowl of Kashmir and the land of the apple growers. After marching for 40 kilometres, the rally halted near the border town of Uri, where police opened fire killing five people including Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz.
The Valley protests had then dissipated but the government was forced to open the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad route for the cross-Line of Control (LoC) trade on October 21, 2008.
Apple has always been deeply connected with the lives of the people in Valley as the fruit provides direct or indirect livelihood to over half of Kashmir’s population.
Cut to September 2022. Since the beginning of this month, the J&K administration regulated the movement of fruit-laden trucks on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway no. 44, allowing only limited number of trucks to cross into Jammu. As a consequence, apple trucks started piling up, with over 10,000 trucks reportedly getting stuck at Qazigund on the highway till a few days ago.
Since early September, these fruit trucks would remain stranded for up to seven days, triggering massive resentment among the apple growers who have complained of rotting apple in stranded trucks and crashing prices in a year of a bumper crop. To protest against it, all the fruit mandis of Kashmir remained shut last Sunday and Monday.
Following these protests, the administration, sensing the mood in the Valley, finally moved to lift the curb on the movement of fruit trucks on the highway, allowing over 4,000 apple trucks to head towards Jammu each night on Monday and Tuesday. The government also transferred the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Traffic, Ramban and ordered his attachment to the traffic department, without citing any reason.
The smooth movement of thousands of trucks during one night has however raised questions among the apple farmers over the administration’s earlier claims that allowing free truck movement from the Valley was “beyond the capacity of the national highway and would upset the balance of traffic”.
“Why now then? If they could allow some 8,000-10,000 trucks in two nights and the traffic on the highway was not halted despite some natural incidents of shooting stones, why couldn’t have they let a few thousand apple trucks pass each day earlier,” said a fruit-grower from Sopore. “There are some forces in the bureaucracy and the government, who want to destroy the fruit industry in the Valley. It is they who are creating these roadblocks for us,” he alleged.
While the apple farming provides livelihood to over 45 lakh people in Kashmir, it contributes to about 75 per cent of the total apple production in the country. Kashmir produces around 2 million metric tonnes of apple every year, with its apple industry estimated to be worth Rs 10,000 crore. Cultivated over 1.45 lakh hectares of land, apple produce contributes about 8.2 per cent to the J&K GDP as against 6.8 per cent from tourism, over 90 per cent of which is accounted for by the pilgrimage of the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu. The government however often draws criticism for allegedly downplaying the role of horticulture in J&K’s economy.
Since the rise of militancy in Kashmir in 1990s, when tourism was its lowest level there, it has been the apple production that sustained the economy of the Valley over the last three decades. That explains why any disruption in it is perceived in the Vally as a strike on its economy. Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti Tuesday termed the curbs on the movement of apple trucks as “economic terrorism”. “An attempt is being made to destroy our economy and make people completely dependent,” Mufti alleged. “We must say it is economic terrorism. They say they have ended militancy here but the biggest terrorism is happening against the people here, against horticulture. Just like Jews blockaded Palestinians and destroyed their economy, a conspiracy is happening here to destroy Jammu and Kashmir.”