An Apple Economy

5 mins read

The Legitimate Desk

Few trucks loaded with apples are making their way into a fruit mandi in north Kashmir’s apple town Sopore. The Asia’s largest fruit mandi these days is wearing a deserted look following the abrogation of Article 370 by Union Government in Jammu and Kashmir. Outside the gate is stationed a mine proof Casper vehicle of army guarding the mandi followed by the militant threats. This fruit mandi which normally does whopping Rs 2500 crore business annually and employ over 5000 seasonal labours is almost shut with no business activities.

The activities here remain suspended after militants warned fruit growers against selling fruits during day time and insisted to observe complete shutdown.  In other words, the Mandi has become the point of confrontation between militants and authorities after later released several satellite pictures showing growers loading the trucks with caption “Life goes on”.

“This probably seems to have irritated the militants after authorities attributed these activities with normalcy. So we received threats of not opening the Mandi during day time,” said one 0f the agents outside Mandi. The army chief Bipan Rawat in a statement to media also said that Kashmir is getting normal with apples getting out of valley.

So the “apple” took the centre stage. However, amid this standoff, in the mandi there is a group of people along with their apple boxes for auction. The fruit growers have arrived here early in the morning to sell their fruit to the Horticulture department which along the NAFED (National Agriculture Produce Marketing Federation) have set up an auction stall for the farmers. Earlier last month the state government announced to set up four selling points for apple growers as the harvesting of the crop has begun. These points are at Sopore, Srinagar, Anantnag and Shopian.

NAFED is buying the apple crop from farmers on fixed prices in case they fail to export the crop to outside valley given to prevailing situation. In fact those who also do not get the desired prices to their crop could also turn up to this point.

So far the government claims that it procured 450 metric tonnes of apples worth 2.70 lakhs from the valley’s farmers and is expected to lift nearly 12 lakh metric tonnes crop from the small time farmers this season.

“The harvesting season has just begun. Yet the red delicious, Royal Delicious and Maharaji is still on trees. Once the crop is fully plucked from the tress, the rush will begun here of farmers who want their product shall be sold for genuine prices,” says, a senior official of NAFED, overlooking the operations at Sopore Fruit Mandi.

Since the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) was launched, the officials are hopeful of breaking the monopoly of commission agents in the trade and sustain the competition in market.

“Our aim is to maintain the Minimum Support Price here.  This will compel the agents and brokers to pay the prices more than us or they will have to give up now,” he adds.

Ironically, the scheme where the growers have an assured profit of not less than Rs 250 in each box doesn’t attract too many growers.

Reason: the debt trap. In Kashmir, the fruit growers traditionally take the cash in advance from the commission agents to buy pesticides, chemical and other material. The growers don’t have any money to invest in the trade and are forced to take cash advances in the beginning of year due to which they later lose the hold on their product.  The commission agents sell their product at the prices they choose. This has led to the sustainable exploitation of growers for decades.

In fact the NABARD several years back had sought the massive reforms in the Kashmir’s apple industry and claimed that the sector is extremely in the clutches of brokers and agents owing to which the grower is the least beneficiary of this whopping Rs 8000 crore industry.

The lack of money in the beginning of season was attributed as the main reason for grower’s exploitation in the report.

While the state government considered the report and launched a mega Kisan credit scheme for the apple growers, the scheme, however, failed on ground given to poor understanding of farmers.

“Majority of the people who availed the loans under this scheme on low interest rates utilized this money for the marriage of children, build houses or purchased cars.  This was all because there was no awareness and counselling of these farmers to aware them about its purposes,” said a senior horticulture officer, wishing not to be named.

While the state government shelled off hundreds of crores under the Kisan Credit scheme, it is unlikely that any farmer has elevated himself from the debt trap or saved his business from agents clutches.

This is well reflected at Sopore Mandi where these agents are making round the clock surveillance to see if their clients have sold their fruit to the state government.

“Here the agents are making rounds all the time during our working hours and they ensure their clients are not making deal with us since they have paid them money in advance. So this debt trap does not allow them to get elevated or sell their products on standard prices,” says Sunil Kumar, a representative from the NAFED at Sopore Mandi.

Kumar, however, is optimistic and says more and more people will sell their crop to them from next year onwards since lots of growers have decided not to take advances from any agent.

“If they will not take any money in advance from a broker or agent, they can sell their crop to anyone wherever they get the genuine prices. We have set the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and if the grower gets beyond it they can sell in open market or he can sell it to us at MSP,” Kumar adds.

As per the officials of the NAFED, the fruit growers in Kashmir doesn’t have standard packaging of their product, besides they also compromise on grading due to which their final product either doesn’t attract the customer or gets suspicious during sale.

“We ask them now how to pack your apples. In case they compromise with grading and packaging, they will lose the true value,” the officials maintain.

“With improved grading and packaging, the Kashmiri apple will compete in the global market with apples from America and Australia.”

The growers, however, complain that the grading of the apple cannot be improved unless the rates are increased.

“The grading and packaging they are expecting doesn’t match the rates they have fixed. They need to increase the rates so that we can also improve our grading system. Otherwise it is loss,” says fruit grower Mohammad Yousef.

NAFED, the central governments nodal agency was initially engaged with the farmers dealing with agrarian products including Oilseeds, Onion, and cotton and has now forayed in the horticulture sector in Kashmir. It is aiming to set the base here and continue to work for the benefit of fruit growers.

The stringent guidelines set by the agency make it impossible for the brokers to leverage from the scheme as the benefits goes directly to the growers.

All those growers who want to sell their crop to the agency need to properly register first and submit the revenue documents of an orchid they own. The money will also go accordingly to his account after three days of procurement. The agents can only sell once he gets the permission from the original fruit grower to the nodal agency. However, again much to the annoyance of brokers the money will be transferred directly to growers account.

In Kashmir valley, apple industry is one of the most powerful economic sectors with 75 per cent population associated to it. While the sector is the most unorganized one, it still contributes over Rs 8000 crore to state’s economy and generates lakhs of jobs.

Experts are suggesting major reforms in the sector in an order to make it more productive and competitive to elevate the economy of landlocked region.

The economic survey of 2017-18 reveals that 18 lakh metric tonnes of apple is being produced in valley and contributes 75 per cent of country’s total production. Its contribution to the state’s GDP is over 8.2 per cent while tourism contributes upto 6.89 per cent of which 90 per cent is of Mata Vaishnu Devi in Jammu. The cash crop entirely concentrated in Kashmir is cultivated on 3.87 hectares of land and most of the farmers have also converted their paddy land into apple orchids given to its growing demand.  Even in the worst times of Kashmir’s conflict, this industry stood alone in bailing out Kashmir’s economic distress.

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