Azhar ud Din
“Rice is the best, the most nutritive and unquestionably the most widespread staple in the world.”
Horticultural crops, especially apple, pear and cherry, have gained name and fame in the last two decades in Kashmir due to their handsome economic benefits. Farmers in Kashmir have converted vast areas of agricultural fields into horticultural land. Besides economic benefits, lack of adequate irrigation facilities also was a potent factor behind conversion of farm land into orchards. Paddy cultivation requires much more water than apple, peach, pear or almonds. In addition to this, the government announced a scheme to provide subsidy to farmers who plant high-density apple orchards. Good road connectivity of orchards with markets also played an important role in the conversion of agricultural land into orchards in Kashmir. According to the official records of the former state of J&K (now UT), paddy land in Kashmir division shrank from 1,63,000 hectares in 1996 to 1,41,000 hectares in 2012: a loss of 22,000 hectares over 16 years.
In the valley of Kashmir, rice has been a staple food since ancient times. Here people prefer rice in both lunch and dinner. The area under rice cultivation in both the divisions of Jammu and Kashmir is 40% and 60% respectively (Statistical Digest, 2015-16). On average, per person consumes 270 grams of rice every day in Kashmir. It was in the decade of 1930s when apple cultivation was started in Kashmir and at that time it just covered 12,000 hectares of land in Sopore town of Baramulla district. It is in the last two decades that apple production has emerged as a major contributor to Kashmir’s GDP. But at the same time, due to the shrinking of agricultural land in the valley, the indigenous rice production cannot meet the local demand and is augmented by imports from regions outside Kashmir. The Economic Survey of 2013-2014 revealed that the volume of rice imports in the entire Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is continuously increasing at a high pace. Experts of Kashmir University have already warned that “we are importing more than 50 percent of our rice, and if we lose further production we are going to become even more dependent.”
Production of horticultural crops on a large scale not only makes the people of Kashmir dependent but also creates many problems. Water that remains in static in paddy fields recharges the groundwater too. Prof Shakeel Ramshoo, Head of Earth Science Department at Kashmir University, has said that due to the shrinking of paddy fields, there will be less recharge of groundwater and thus scarcity of groundwater in Kashmir in the future. The rapid conversion of agricultural land into horticultural or residential land was one of the causes of the havoc that floods caused in Kashmir in 2014. The vast paddy fields situated along the flood plains of the Jhelum river at both sides acted as a temporary reservoir during the flooding, and gradually released the runoff into the river system and thus prevented the abrupt overflow of the floodwater.
Fungicides and pesticides used in orchards have caused numerous health and environmental problems. According to a study by Swerdlow et al, toxic chemical pesticides like chlorpyriphos, mancozeb, captan, dimethoate, phosalone, etc, cause many chronic and acute diseases in people working in orchards of Kashmir. The most common effect that the study found was cerebral pain accompanied by vomiting. The water quality of rivers and lakes is also being degraded by these pesticides and fungicides which affect both human and aquatic life.
To make Kashmir again self-dependent in terms of food grains, especially in rice production, it is the need of the hour that the administration tries to prevent farmers from converting their paddy fields into horticultural or residential land. No doubt that apple production is one of the pillars of Kashmir’s GDP but at the same time majority of the people in Kashmir are dependent on other states of India for food grains. To cultivate both food crops and horticultural products the first and foremost thing which the farmers of Kashmir have to do is to practise horticultural farming in the higher elevated uplands. In the well-drained plain fields they should grow food grains especially rice and vegetables on a large scale. The irrigation department should provide proper irrigation facilities to the farmers, so that they do not face any problem before or after the transplantation of paddy plants.
Another important thing which can help is the general awareness of farmers. Agricultural department should hold programmes at the grassroots level to make farmers aware about the importance of food crops, especially of rice. It should also provide high-yielding variety seeds, manures, etc, free of cost so that farmers can make possible large production of rice on small size fields. The government should provide good market facilities to farmers where they can sell their surplus production of food grains at fair prices.
Finally, it is the responsibility of every Kashmiri farmer that they should not view the production of horticultural crops, especially apple, only in an economic perspective. They should understand its bad repercussions in the long run. If the trend of conversion of agricultural fields into horticultural and residential land continues, the time is near when Kashmir will be entirely dependent on the rest of India for food grains.
The writer hails from Anantnag and is a student of Geography at AMU