Gradually, Kashmir has started changing the way it used to sell its apple. As 14 satellite markets attracted nonlocal buyers, slightly more than one-third of the produce is sold in Kashmir. But Faheem Mir and Umar Mukhtar, after spending a day in Sopore and Shopian –Kashmir’s two major mandis, report there is a lot that needs to be done
Apple is the main mover and shaker of Kashmir’s rural economy. It took a very long time in agreeing to make certain changes, both in pre-harvest and the post-harvest. The biggest change in the marketing of the produce was facilitated by the setting up of a chain of mandis. Right now 14 are functional, three are in advanced stage of implementation and 25 small ones are coming up. This has reduced grower’s costs and efforts to reach the buyer.
Though the fundamentals of the selling process have not changed much, it still is considered one-up, in comparison to the age-old practices. The mandis at Sopore and Shopian are the major markets which manage almost eighty percent of the locally marketed produce. This season, these are the most crowded places where time flies. Promoters, buyers, and the growers are all scared that any weather change can impact the entire exercise. Everybody is in a rush.
These markets remained almost locked in 2016 because of the turmoil triggered after Burhan Wani’s killing. “We are seeing the business for the first time in 2015 November,” one senior leader in the Shopian market said. “It has been so smooth, so far.”
Trucker Gurmeet Singh, 55 and his partner Swaran Singh, 53 are residents of Saranwali (Punjab). They are readying to leave on a 2,733 km long journey on NH27. It will take them 60 hours to reach their destination. They are carrying 2400 half cases of American Apple, usually known locally as American Treal, from Sopore Fruit Mandi to the Bangladesh border.
Though an apple, its small size has reduced to a Treal. Crispy, crunchy and juicy, this particular variety of apple growing in Kashmir is very popular in Dhaka. Reason: Bangladesh has large families and this apple offers good numbers of fruit in per kilogram purchase. This apple has remained historically popular with West Bengal ad the Bengal.
“We are driving fruit to the markets from Kashmir from last 20 years,” Gurmeet said. “In a season, we drive into Kashmir, almost seven times, taking away nearly one lakh of boxes.”
Mustafa Memorial Fruit Mandi at Sopore, named after its founder late Ghulam Mustafa Malla of Watergam, was established in 1988, is spread on a sprawling 372 kanals of land in Achabal Rafiabad. It has been only a few years back that the mandi became fully operational, thus attracting the attention of the buyers from the Indian mainland.
“We export 1.25 to 1.50 crore of apple cases a season from this market,” Syed Riyaz Ahmad, Area Marketing Officer (AMO), said. “Almost 20 thousand people are directly engaged with this mandi, including transporters, growers, traders, and shopkeepers.” Riyaz’s predecessor said the mandi started with 23 lakh tonnes of apple in the very first years in 1988. “Since then, the volumes are increasing.”
The market starting operations in June and closes by late November. Usually, the business is around Rs 1500 crore a year.
“During the peak season, it operates round the clock,” local dealer Habibullah said. “We unload apple coming from orchards even at 3 am as loading of trucks for outside happens round the clock.”
Initially, the buyers were reluctant to come, dealers said, but the trend has changed. “Right now, we have more than 20 buyers from Dhaka and many others from Kathmandu who are purchasing apple and dispatching it to their markets,” Mushtaq Ahmad Tantray, president of the market said.
Jahangir Baba is from Bangladesh. He has been shipping Kashmiri apple to his country for last many weeks now. “We are receiving good response from Bangla people but the demand for American Apple is much higher in our country than India,” he said.
But the real worry of the growers and the buyers are the climatic impact on the crop. “Climatic change is impacting the crop and the rates,” grower Shahid Mir said.
Mohammad Rustum Alam is a buyer from Bihar and very loyal to Kashmir apple markets. “I am receiving regular complaints from my customers that the fruit is not good in comparison to previous years,” Alam said. “Massive traffic jams on the Srinagar-Jammu highway is affecting the produce as trucks are stranded for many days.”
Other concerns include the lack of basic infrastructure, post-harvest and a massive hike in freight.
“There is no separate water supply arrangement for this market,” said Manzoor Ahmad, the head of the local Wakf Board committee. “It is hard to accommodate thousands of people in the Masjid for prayers when there is no water for ablutions.”
The only cost that increases on yearly basis is the freight, growers alleged. “The transporters now charge Rs 300 per box to Bangladesh, which is double when compared to Rs 170/box rate of last season,” Ghulam Rasool said.
One way out could have been storing the crop for the winter and market it in early spring when there is no apple grown anywhere in India. This, Ghulam Rasool said, would prevent people from distress sale of the produce. “It is important to have cold storage facility here,” he said.
There are three controlled atmosphere storage nits already operational in the town. But their cumulative capacity is only 15000 metric tones which do not make even a fraction of the produce from north Kashmir. Growers are seeking the establishment of a couple of apple concentrate plants for which the market produce a lot of raw material. “Ideally, it should be within the market because that will reduce the costs of transportation and make these units viable,” Bhat said.
People around the Shopian mandi are not sleeping these days. Located in Arhma, in Shopian outskirts, the market spread over 35 kanals of land, is busy in its twelfth year in purchase and sale of apple.
“We started with Rs 2.5 crore turnover in 2005,” said a major trader. “Twelve years after, we have crossed a four-digit figure already.”
What makes this mandi so busy is the stiff competition that local major buyers have with their counterparts from plains. “This competition ultimately benefits the growers,” said Arshad, a labourer, who has been working in the market for many years now.
“We hoped that our turnover touches Rs 1500 crore this year,” the market President, Mohammad Amin Peer, who also has a shop in the mandi, said. He is personally looking after the affairs of trade and the issues that emerge on daily basis. “Weather played a trick; dry spell prevented the proper colouring of the fruit.”
“Last year we did a business of Rs 985 crore but despite the problems, we will still touch Rs 1120 crore,” said a confidant Peer. “This year quality issues were there though volume wise it was better than earlier years.” Unlike Sopore, Shopian market is known for the quality.
The mandi remains crowded for most of the day. There are traffic jams on the highway to Srinagar and sometimes, it takes hours to crossover. Peer said hundreds of people come to work in the market and they do different works.
“Every day, we receive almost 140 thousand boxes and it is routine to send 80 to 120 trucks to outside markets,” Peer said. “It means it needs to be unloaded and then reloaded after there is sale and purchase so lot many people come and work.”
Unlike north Kashmir that has aged orchards, Shopian apple is considered to e the address of quality. So buyers from almost every state of India come to Shopian. Currently, most of the buyers stationed in Shopian are from South India.
Chandan, a buyer from Karnataka, is supervising the labourers who were loading his just purchased apple in a trawler truck. He said it is his tenth is it to the market in last one decade. “There is a huge demand for the apple in our state,” Chandan said. “Fruit with Shopian tag sells like hotcakes.”
Growers apart, Chandan has serious concerns. He says he had seen very less development in the fruit sector. “The growers are cultivating apples in the traditional way and the mandis are not up to the mark and I see no change in it. There is no cold storage facility is here, it is very limited.”
Ashiq Hussain buys the apples locally and markets them to Delhi and Gujarat. “This year it has remained almost smooth,” Hussain said. “The conducive environment encourages others to get into the trade but the real problem is that when there are uncertain times, the government stops handholding which is a really big crisis.” He wants cold storage facilities to be set up within the mandis.
Growers share their problems with their Sopore counterparts. “Rates fall at the peak of the season so we would like to store the produce,” Hussain said. “Freight has gone up by almost 100 percent compared to last year and we need the government to intervene and stop this arbitrary hike, year after year.”
Peer regretted that former chief minister Mufti Sayeed had laid the foundation stone of another mandi, at Aglar,an extension of Shopian. With an investment of Rs 50 cro9re, this mandi on 300 kanals of land should have been ready. But it is not. “This speaks about the priorities in the government,” Peer said.