Srinagar: The alleged smuggling of Iranian apples via Afghanistan under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) at zero per cent import duty is affecting the market in Kashmir and inflicting heavy losses on apple traders.
The influx of cheaper Iranian apples (locally referred to as Iranian but there is no evidence to suggest so) have severely hit the horticulture sector in Kashmir; it comes at a time when fruit growers have suffered huge losses due to natural calamities and two back-to-back lockdowns.
The apple industry has previously suffered considerable losses ever since the annulment of the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, which was followed by heavy snowfall and the COVID-19 lockdown. Apple growers have also suffered huge losses after a scab infection hit around 50% of the production last year.
Horticulture contributes over eight per cent to the GDP of Jammu and Kashmir. Official figures show that seven lakh families are directly or indirectly reliant on the horticulture industry.
Over 3.38 hectares of land is under fruit cultivation in the valley, of which 1.62 lakh hectares is under apple cultivation. In 2018-19, 24.15 lakh tonnes of fruit were produced in Jammu and Kashmir compared to 23.30 lakh tonnes in 2017-18. About 77% of the total apple production in the country is from Kashmir.
Hill States Horticulture Forum, a body which was set up to tackle such issues, described the incoming foreign apples as “catastrophic” for small and marginal fruit growers.
“The sale of Iranian apples in mandis has resulted in a 30% to 40% decrease in prices for domestic farmers this year. We anticipate that if this continues, farmers will have no market left and will have no means of sustenance,” Harish Chauhan, president of the forum, told Newsclick.
Chauhan said that the body has also approached the government for a redress of critical issues and said they would launch a country-wide protest if the government failed to check it. “We hope that the government will consider our demands. The import duty on apples should realistically be levied at 100% and imports should be fixed in order to look after the rights of the domestic growers and associates. Otherwise, this undervaluation of duty will cause losses of revenue to the government,” he said.
He also pointed out that the 'import' of apples would also affect other states. “States like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand will also be affected because of this,” he said, adding the growers will face an even harder time during the season if imports were not checked.
The apple intake has resulted in a body-blow to the rates at which Kashmiri apples are sold in Indian markets, so much so that the growers have written to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman about the issue. “Various traders sell apples imported from 'Iranian via Afghanistan' at the Azadpur Mandi in Delhi, taking advantage of the fact that there is a zero import duty agreement between India and Afghanistan. It is severely impacting our businesses. This evasive activity to defeat the realisation of taxes has a direct negative impact on the apple and fruit industry in northern India, and the UT of Jammu and Kashmir in particular. The said evasion needs to be checked in time to uphold transparency in the merchandise,” reads a letter sent to Sitharaman by the union on January 28 this year.
Hoping for better prices, growers stored over 1.5 lakh metric tonnes of apples in cold storage this year in Kashmir, but the influx of so-called Iranian apples has affected their market in India.
“The apple industry has faced tough two years wherein growers suffered huge losses. Last year the growers could not mitigate the crisis due to a widespread scab infection. The Iranian apples are an even bigger threat as they are eating into our market,” chairman of Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers Cum Dealers Union and president of the New Kashmir Fruit Association told Newsclick.
Fayaz Ahmad Malik, president of the J&K fruit growers’ association Sopore, told Newsclick that the fruit industry in Kashmir is hurting. “The Kashmiri apple is better than Iranian apples but it is being sold at cheaper rates. We need immediate intervention from the Central Government,” he said.
A trader and apple grower from Shopian told Newsclick that the issue was also against the much-touted idea of an 'Atmanirbhar Bharat'. “This highlights the duplicity of the government. On one side, they want to promote locally grown and produced products, but on the other, they abet this illegal practice,” a grower said.
Director of the Horticulture Department, Aijaz Ahmad, told Newsclick that it was difficult to prove the growers' claim. “It is really difficult to prove that the apple is not from Afghanistan, a country with which India has a free trade agreement,” he said.
The growers, however, demanded biological tests on the apples to figure out their actual origin. “Different biological and geographical variations impact the fruit as well and that can be found in a biological test,” Izhan Javed, CEO of Fruit Master Agro Private Limited from Shopian, told Newsclick.
He argued that the government needs to figure out how Afghanistan was exporting more fruit than it was producing.
(The writer is an independent journalist.)