Apple is one of the most important cash crops for Himachal Pradesh. It takes up almost 49 per cent of the total area under fruit crops in the state, which is responsible for about 85 per cent of the total fruit production.
Maximum plantation of the fruit is seen in the districts Shimla, Kinnaur, Kullu, Chamba, Simaur, Lahaul-Spiti and parts of Mandi, while the time for harvesting the produce differs for all seven districts. It should be noted that the districts at higher altitudes need plenty of water for the right colour and size of the produce. Higher altitude generally means higher dependence on rainwater, as the only other alternative is hydraulic lifting of the water from the reservoirs nearby, which is an expensive alternative.
Though the state government has promised to supply pesticides, fertilisers and feed for the crop at subsidised rates under central government’s Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme (WBCIS) – intending to provide insurance protection to farmers against adverse weather conditions such as deficit or excess rainfall, high or low temperature, humidity etc. – farmers have not received any benefits. Rakesh Singha, MLA from Theog constituency, Shimla, feels that it is because of the policies of the BJP government in the state that the farmers have to bear the brunt. “Modi government’s WBCIS has been a total fraud. It has only extracted money, and not even the premium has been given to the farmers. The government says we need to double the production of apples in this region. How can this be achieved when there is no provision for lifting water as promised by the government? On the contrary, with no rainfall and no proper provision for water lifting, the government is even withdrawing the supply of fertilisers, feed and pesticides,” said Singha.
To add to the plight of the farmers, the All India Motor Transport Congress called for an indefinite strike on July 20, demanding reduction in diesel prices under GST. This was a serious cause of concern for the farmers from Chopal, Kotkhai and Theog belt,who grow an early variety of apples, and have the only option of the road transportation to carry the produce to Delhi. Each farmer has about 50 boxes to sell in the market every day. If wholesalers do not load the fruit, they will stop buying it from the farmers.About 15,000 cartons were arriving in Dhalli and Parala mandisevery day from the lower belt, where the produce is highly perishable due to the heat. This belt comprises Guma, Hatkoti, Mendli, Thana in Jubbal-Kotkhai, Jhiknipul, Nerwa, Chopal, Theog, lower Kumarsain, Palsar, Bhutti areas of Kotgarh, Churag, Mahunag, Bhakhrot, Dhanda Pani, Pangna, Seri in Karsog of Mandi district and Anni of Kullu.
Members of the Himachal Kisan Sabha and the CPM members had sought intervention of Chief Minister Jairam Thakur, stating that although demands of the truck drivers were genuine without a doubt, this was adversely affecting the farmers, especially in Himachal Pradesh, as the road transport was the only means of transport in the state unlike the neighbouring states. Singha, in his letter to the chief minister, had requested him to raise the issue with the central government on a priority basis, as it was announced by the AIMTC that the vegetables, fruits and dairy products would be exempted from the strike, but the ground reality had remained different.
The government’s ‘solution’ was merely placating than proactive in the form of a statement issued by the Horticulture Department, urging the farmers to delay the plucking of ripe fruits which has only resulted in over-ripening of the produce, making it stale.
Even after the end of the strike, the plight of apple farmers is not over. Fragmentation of the land continues to be a cause of concern, with landlords perpetually owning more than 1.4 per cent of the total land, only 0.02 hectare is with small land owners who account for about 58 per cent out of the total population engaged in apple farming. Low produce can drive away the private bulk buyers like Mother Dairy, Reliance Fresh (who have recently started bulk-buying directly to avoid middlemen), who are now planning to start procurement from Kashmir. Against this backdrop, apple growers are treading on thin ice, and face a grim future. With the produce low in quantity and substandard quality, apple growers are set to face losses worth crores by the end of the season.
Having already incurred tremendous losses, negligent and delusional attitude of the government may only push the farmers to move away from apple farming in the region.