Apple is more than a horticultural crop for Kashmir. The people are emotionally attached to the apple. The reason being the importance of the apple to the economy of the valley. Almost every household is beneficiary of the apple industry, from labourers to street vendors to pesticide dealers to saw mill owners to packing material dealers to truck owners to orchard owners. The money generated by it reaches every nook and corner of the valley and beyond, hence its great importance in the lives of Kashmiri people. It wouldn’t be wrong to say, good market prices of apple are akin to good economic conditions of the valley.
Apple farming is not an easy job at all. It requires hard work to establish an apple orchard. The orchard then has to be given regular doses of fertiliser at different times of the year. The plants are pruned every year and unnecessary vegetative growth is removed. Come the spring season, the conditions become favourable for fungal diseases in apple plants. Even the presence of fungi in the region is a threat of infection in an otherwise unaffected orchard. Apple farmers start spraying fungicides from March-April up to July-August, depending on the weather conditions. If the weather remains moist then more sprays are to be made.
During the summer season (June, July and August), insecticides are to be sprayed to eliminate the damage by the insects. Hot temperatures are suitable for insect infestations. Substandard chemicals (fungicides and pesticides) aggravate the problem. After having done all the hard work, the farmers are still many a time not able to control the fungi and insects fully in their orchards. This reduces the proportion of grade-one apple. The farmers leave no stone turned in trying to produce a good-quality crop.
The input costs have increased tremendously in the last few years, but the returns haven’t increased proportionally. The fluctuating market prices add to the woes of the traders. There are no floor prices below which the market prices can’t go. That would have made sure that farmers even in worst-case scenario are at break-even point (no profit, no loss).
Apple being the local produce of the region should be getting all the policies and economic interventions in its favour. But things seem to be going in the reverse direction. The apple farmers are claiming that the Indian government has imported large amount of apple from Iran. As if this was not enough, the government has reduced the duty on apple imports considerably. It brings the apple growers of Kashmir and Himachal in competition with apple growers of Iran. The local produce should have been the first priority of the government. The vocal for local slogan has been thrown to the winds. Kashmiri farmers are claiming that their fruit trucks are being unnecessarily stopped on NH-44 for days together, which results in spoilage of the apple before it reaches the market. The apple then fetches very low rates. Such anti-farmer steps have worsened the condition of apple farmers in the valley.
One variety of apple, called ‘American’, was fetching good money till recently. Its main consumer was Bangladesh. Now the country has increased taxation on it, which has reduced the returns considerably. The GOI should hold talks with its counterpart in Bangladesh regarding this.
The love of Kashmiri people for apple orchards has resulted in increase in the tree cover of the valley. Degraded areas are reclaimed by the people for the cultivation of apple. The Karewas which are totally dependent on the rains are being turned into beautiful orchards. Many areas which were devoid of any trees are now blooming with apple and other horticultural crops. One can find water storage tanks built up in these areas for irrigating the trees. The tree cover enhancement also helps in trapping more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, hence achieving the goal of net zero-carbon generation.
One can find poplar and willow plantations almost everywhere in Kashmir. The farmers are raising the plantations with a hope that they will get good returns. A blooming apple industry would make sure that they get so. Willow and poplar are used for making boxes for packing the apple, to transport it to different parts of the country. Though a sizable proportion of the boxes market is now captured by cardboard boxes, there are still many areas where only wooden boxes do the job, due to rough terrain and climatic conditions. A fall in the apple industry would result in less demand for the poplars and willows, too.
The Kashmiris’ most important resource though is not apple or any other produce or the valley. The most important resource of Kashmir has always been the Kashur (people of Kashmir). Not very long ago, Kashmir was famous for its handicrafts. Not only famous but the handicraft industry was contributing substantially to the economy of a region. Carpet making was carried out in every other household. Now it is restricted to some pockets of the valley only. If apple stops to bring good returns, the apple industry would pave way for some other venture. The failing of the apple industry is the failing of its consumers, too. The consumers of apples have to stand together with the producers. Else, both will suffer. People longing to cherish the fruit varieties of Kashmir need to stand with the farmers. A farmer’s distress is the country’s distress. It must be paid immediate attention. This bad phase for the apple farmers will be over soon, God willing.
The writer is faculty (environmental science) at GDC Kargil, Sankoo campus