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HP: Thousands of Apple Growers Gherao Secretariat, Govt Seeks 10 Days

The growers’ collective has given the state government time to act till August 16. If their demands, especially GST on cartons, are not met satisfactorily, they will participate in mass arrests on August 17 under a ‘Jail Bharo Andolan’.
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Shimla: On Friday, after a week of widespread mobilisation, thousands of apple growers from Shimla, Kullu, Kinnaur, Chamba, and mountainous parts of Mandi district converged at Talland-Sanjauli road to take out a march to the civil secretariat. The demonstration was called by the Sanyukt Kisan Manch to press for the complete acceptance of their 20 demands relating to the apple sector, which they believe is falling into a cycle of diminishing returns.

The main rallying point for the apple growers ever since the marketing season began has been the imposition of 18% GST (goods and services tax) on packaging items like cartons and trays. With the government unwilling to revoke it entirely as demanded by the Manch, growers have become impatient as their margins reduce further in the current season.

Speaking with NewsClick, Vishal Shankta, an apple grower from Kotkhai panchayat in Shimla district, said: “With the new GST, carton rates have jumped from Rs 20-22 to Rs 60-70. If we place this in the context of apple market prices remaining the same for a decade, it is easy to see our losses. Red Gold (a popular apple variety) used to sell for Rs 1,000-1,200 in 2010. Even now, it sells for the same. All this while, labour rates have increased from Rs 200 to Rs 600, and so have costs of various inputs.”

Vishal Shankta (second from left) speaks with other growers before the rally begins

Vishal Shankta (second from left) speaks with other growers before the rally begins

“Ordinary growers, whose families have cultivated the crop for three generations, don’t have the option to switch to other crops. Being less educated, they cannot find service jobs. Since they are poor, they also can’t enter the tourism sector by opening homestays, which require a modest capital for investment,” Shankta, a zilla parishad member from Shimla, said.

Despite heavy rain the previous night and despite the ongoing marketing season, some 4,000-5,000 growers had gathered before beginning their march to the secretariat. Harish Chauhan, one of the convenors of Manch, claimed that if the government did not bend, 20,000-30,000 growers would come to Shimla city.

“Right now, our people are busy in their orchards. Many women have had to stay back to supervise the work there. Today, the Chief Minister has shamefully left for Bilaspur. Nonetheless, our movement is not going to stop. We will return again,” Chauhan said.

As the massive march shot off, NewsClick spoke with another apple grower from Jubbal tehsil of Shimla district. Hemant Thakur, who left a government job to work his apple orchard full-time, said that his orchard was first established by his grandfather, which was later rejuvenated by his father. Now, he himself was rejuvenating a section of it with Italian high-yielding varieties.

Hemant Thakur

Hemant Thakur

“There is a perception that, unlike kisans, orchardists are well-off. This is untrue. You see, apples can be cultivated only once a year, restricting our income. Moreover, every three years, there is a crop failure now due to climate change. Snowing has been delayed, and there are hailstorms and unseasonal rain. The tragedy is that even when there is a bumper crop, the rates plunge due to market glut,” Thakur lamented.

Talking about the government’s push to double the farmers’ income, he said: “This is a good vision. Currently, the government wants farmers to take up high-yielding apple varieties to reach this goal. However, the market rates are insufficient when the production in the state stands at 3-4 crore boxes. With new varieties, our production will jump to 10 crore boxes. What will be the market rates then, Rs 2 per kilo? We will be forced to beg.”

Thakur, who holds a B.Sc in Horticultural Science and is a part of the generation of young apple orchardists, laid the blame for such a situation on the lack of an infrastructural support mechanism for growers. “For instance, the government closed the public-sector carton factory in Himachal Pradesh some years ago, citing losses. The irony is that big lalas (traders) in Punjab and Haryana, with their carton factories, are making huge profits by selling their packaging material to us. By 2022, we should have had 10 such factories in our state; but there is none. The government is bent on breaking our spine.”

Apple growers block the road to the secretariat

Apple growers block the road to the secretariat

With loud slogans, the massive rally made its way to the secretariat, where the local police had heavily barricaded the road. After a minor clash, the procession decided to block the road till the administration gave a positive response. Takht badal do, Taj badal do, Beymaanon ka Raj badal do (Upturn the seat, upturn the crown, throw out the dishonest men ruling us) was an oft-shouted slogan, showing the rage of growers against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Sanjay Chauhan, former mayor of Shimla, Rakesh Singha, CPI(M) MLA from Theog, and various other leaders, addressed the demonstration at the barricades.

Kuldeep Tanwar, president of Himachal Kisan Sabha, a constituent of the Manch, emphasised the political dimension of the protest. “Apple is the predominant crop in 27 Assembly constituencies. Here, the political economy follows the health of the apple sector. Since last month, there have been block-level protests in these constituencies two times. The issue has mobilised farmers out of their traditional affiliations - Congress or BJP - towards the political identity of being kisans,” Tanwar told NewsClick.

Indeed, it was common knowledge that many ground-level activists of the BJP had also joined the march. “Now growers are demanding political parties to add their issues into their manifestos for the upcoming Assembly election. I have no doubt that growers have successfully made apple a political agenda this year,” Tanwar added.

Despite the attendant responsibilities, hundreds of women joined the march. Ruhri Lata, a grower from Rohru, Shimla district, said that she, along with other women, had a harrowing time last night when leaving their village for the protest. “Our village is 102 km away from Shimla. Last night, it rained heavily, and while we waited for the bus, a tree and an electrical live wire fell on us. We managed to save ourselves by a whisker and managed to reach the city by 6 am.”

Ruhri Lata (second from left), with other apple growers from her village

Ruhri Lata (second from left), with other apple growers from her village

Lata, who gave a rousing speech at the barricades, also told NewsClick of women’s role in apple production. “My orchard produces 2,000 boxes of apples annually. I have seen that women do more labour than men. We make the towels (for maintaining apple trees) and apply the fertilisers. Men are more active during the marketing season. Since we belong to poor households, we cannot hire labour and do the work on our own,” she said.

The Manch, which has 27 constituent organisations, sent one delegate each to meet the state’s chief secretary, who promised that all 20 demands of growers would be accepted within ten days. However, the kisans are wary of accepting this at face value, and SKM has given the State government time to act till August 16. If the demands are not met satisfactorily, apple growers will participate in mass arrests on August 17 under a ‘Jail Bharo Andolan’.

Which way this movement will go remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the struggle has revived memories of similar large-scale direct actions by apple farmers in 1987 and 1990 (when three kisans were killed in police firing), and this may act as fuel to fire in the coming days.

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