Despite bountiful harvest, Shopian orchardists in doldrums

Despite bountiful harvest, Shopian orchardists in doldrums
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Market rates take 35% plunge across India

SHOPIAN: Orchardists and apple growers in South Kashmir’s Shopian district are getting what they are terming an ant’s share on an elephant’s investment. People are aghast at the low market rates they are getting this year. Many say Kashmiri fruit is being intentionally sidelined in the national markets despite it having maintained better quality this year as compared to previous ones.
According to market experts, the apple crop this year saw a 35 percent decline in rates, whether at local mandis or in markets outside the Valley. “This year, there is a good quality of fruit; the better climate this year was among the reasons for the better quality. But in the end, there was no matching demand for the Kashmiri apple right from the beginning of harvesting season,” said Manzoor Ahmad, a horticulture expert based in Shopian.
Orchardists said that they were left worse off than beggars. “Maybe there were lower rates in the markets, but there is no demand since nobody came to us to buy apple boxes. They were lying in our orchards or stores. Despite repeated contacts with buyers, nobody turns their face towards our fruit,” Shakeel Ahmad, an apple grower from Vehil area, rues while witnessing the worst market condition of his life.
Horticulture experts said that there are about 150 markets based in different parts of India where the Kashmiri apple is traded. “None of the successive governments took any measures with the central government that the Kashmiri apple should be exported to neighbouring or western countries. How is it possible that an American, Australian and Italian fruit gets much higher rates than Kashmir Delicious, which has better quality, crunch and taste than the imported ones?” questioned Showkat Ahmad, a worried apple trader from Shopian.
According to official figures, district Shopian was expecting 3,29,310 metric tonnes of total horticulture production on 26,932 hectares of land. Experts say that 95 percent of the district’s population is directly dependent on the horticulture sector, particularly apple growing, and scores of orchardists have taken crop loans from different financial institutions and banks.
According to orchardists, it costs them Rs 400 to 500 to prepare a single box and get it to the Delhi market, which takes place at higher charges than at other markets of India, even those further off.
“On spending Rs 400 to 500 on a single box of apples, it gets Rs 600 to 750 in the markets there, which is an ant’s share on an elephant’s investment,” said a member of the group of orchardists and traders from Shopian’s Arhama Mandi.
The orchardists said that before this year, they used to see rows of traders from Bengaluru, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kolkata, Mumbai and other markets of India. But this year there was a sudden decline in the number of outside buyers, due to unknown reasons.
Director Horticulture, Planing and Marketing Department, Jammu and Kashmir, Syed Shahnawaz Ahmad Bukhari told Kashmir Reader that this year there was an increase in the production of apples, which is among the reasons for the decline in rates.
“We don’t have arrangements for sufficient cold storage units in Kashmir, and most of the time, the orchardists have no option but to send their fruit to outside markets whether the rates are sluggish or satisfactory,” Bukhari said, adding that another reason for the decline is that local traders have created a monopoly. At many places, he said, growers have turned traders (buyers) and small-scale orchardists get stuck in their monopoly.
“Like I said, we don’t have cold storage and hence we can’t stop sending fruit outside at lower rates. Once there would be sufficient storage, the orchardist will himself decide to sell fruits where there would be good market,” he said, adding that this year around 5,000-apple laden trucks got stuck on the highway for days near the tunnel.
“When the same number of trucks reached the markets, it brought down the rates, there being less demand and higher supply. Available cold storages in the Valley have space for storing only one lakh metric tonnes of apple,” he said.