Unlike all other unrests that Kashmir witnessed since 1990, apple somehow escaped the crisis. In the wake of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the Rs 10,000 croreeconomy is caught in crossfire and is struggling to survive at crippling costs, especially after a series of killings in south Kashmir, reports Shams Irfan
On the evening of October 16, when Aslam, 42, a fruit grower and trader from Shopian, saw fire tenders rushing towards Trenz village, he knew something bad had happened.
Within no time, he learned that unknown gunmen – police say militants – had attacked two non-local apple traders in Trenz, where they had gone to buy girana (C grade apples) from a local trader. The gunmen had also set on fire the vehicle in which the non-local traders had come. About an hour later, one of them, identified as Charanjit Singh, a resident of Punjab was declared dead, while his colleague, Sanjiv Kumar, 25, is struggling for his life in Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital.
Jammu and Kashmir police chief, Dilbagh Singh said the militants behind the attack are from Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and one of them is a Pakistani national.
Aslam who had been busy all day packing apples in two trucks in Pulwama, instantly knew what it meant. “We are finished,” he said over phone trying not to sound afraid.
The attack in Trenz came two days after Muhammad ShareefKhan, a truck driver from Rajasthan was killed by masked gunmen in a similar fashion in Shopian’s Sirnoo-Shirmal village. He had loaded 150 of the 200 apple boxes when two masked men forced him to move his truck out of the orchard on the main road, where they shot him dead and set his truck afire. Incidentally, the truck owner, a relative of the slain driver, was in his truck when it was set afire.
“The moment I learned about the second attack in Trenz, I decided not to trade in apple this year,” said Aslam. “No trade is worth my life. I will not put myself in risk.”
Aslam said at least twenty other growers and traders from his area have stopped picking or loading apples, after the twin attacks. “Why everyone is talking about apples?” asks Bashir Ahmad Wani, 56, a grower who lives in Shopian outskirts. The area is reeling under unprecedented fear as the belt’s key economy is caught in a cross-fire.
Since August 5, when Government of India unilaterally stripped Kashmir of its special status, and people reacted by observing a civil curfew, apples got catapulted to the centre of crisis.
This unnecessary attention made normal economic activity like picking or transportation of apples an emotional issue.
“I don’t understand why people are connecting apples with K-issue?” asks Aslam.
Growers say, even during the unrests of 2008, 2010, and 2016, they managed to harvest their crop and send it to markets in different Indian cities without any hassles. “But this year, it is different,” feels Aslam. He believes apple is deliberately being connected with politics. As a result Kashmir apple has made headlines since August 5, for all the wrong reasons.
A day after the attack in Trenz, orchards in Shopain and its adjoining areas once again were deserted. There were no mini-trucks seen parked outside orchards ready for loading. Traders like Aslam stayed at home hoping for a miracle.
“Once again Shopian and its adjoining areas are enveloped by mysterious silence,” said Aslam.
Apple picking is a labour intensive exercise. But Trez had a chilling impact on labour force. Reports in media suggest that the two gunmen who killed Singh had actually assembled as many as 18 non-locals in addition to Singh and Sanjiv. Finally, they separated the traders from the labourers and sent the latter free with a warning. These 18 labourers took refuge with the resident for whom they were working and were eventually taken by an army major along with him, according to The Telegraph.
There is no sign of life in south Kashmir’s biggest fruit mandi (market), located on Shopian outskirts. Outside one of its two iron gates, a group of teenage boys were riding their bicycles.
Besides the vast deserted premises of Fruit Mandi, these boys had entire Shopian-Pulwama road at their disposal to play. They knew people hardly travel on this road since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5.
In the distance, Mohammad SadiqWani, 55, watches them keenly as they dare each other for a race. At this time of the year Wani used to be a busy man. A third generation apple grower who inherited 24 kanals of apple orchards from his father, Wani is torn between emotions and economics.
“Some of my orchards are adjacent to the Mandi,” he said pointing towards apple trees sagging with year’s crop. It is almost ready for picking but Wani is in no mood to do so.
He would rather wait and watch what others will do.
“I am ready to sacrifice not only this crop but for next two years too if it helps,” said Wani emotionally.
With a total yield of over sixteen thousand boxes of apples, Wani is looking at a loss of over one crore rupees.
“I know I will be in trouble if I don’t harvest within next two weeks. My entire crop will rot on trees,” said Wani. “But I will not go against the collective will of the people.”
In mid-October, all fruit mandis across Kashmir used to be buzz with life with traders, truckers, and labourers from different cities of India trying to strike best deals.
“On a normal trading day, over 300 truckloads of apples was sent from Shopianmandi alone,” said Wajid, an apple grower and trader who has his office outside the mandi.
Since August 5, Shopianmandi has not loaded even a single truck of apples. “It is completely shut,” said Wajid.
With a two weeks window still available to growers in Shopian, people like Wani and Wajid are keeping their fingers crossed. “Compared to other parts of Kashmir, our crop gets ready for harvest in late October. So we can wait for a few more weeks,” said Bilal, an orchard owner from Pinjoora village in Shopian.
However, like everyone else Bilal too is not sure how things will shape up in two weeks given the recent killings. The belt owns barely 150-odd trucks and is heavily relying on almost 8000 trucks from outside.
“Whatever little activity was there has stopped completely now because of the killings,” said Bilal.
In other key apple producing belts like Pulwama, Bijbehara and Sopore, the window of hope is fast closing. “Unlike Shopian our crop starts ripening early,” said Shahid, 35, an apple grower from Sirhama village of Bijbehara. “So we had to find a way quickly to save it from getting wasted.”
In mid-September, commission agents and small traders converted a tourist cafeteria into a make-shift fruit market near Sirgufwara village of Bijbehara for growers like Shahid.
“We have no other option but to sell our produce,” said Shahid, who sold his entire crop of around 2000 in early September at the make-shift market. “I had already taken advances from my commission agent for my sister’s marriage. Had I not sold my crop to him, I would have been in debt.”
Shahid is lone brother among three sisters. His sole source of income is his apple and pear orchards. “My entire pear crop got wasted as I had no contact with my agent at harvest time in mid-August,” said Shahid.
Whatever little he could salvage of his pear crop was sold in the local markets at throwaway prices. “After pear, I was looking at a huge loss if I had not taken the risk of selling apples,” said Shahid. “I don’t want to go against the sentiment, but I am helpless.”
Interestingly, most of the apples brought to this make-shift market in load carrier autos are girana – apples that fall on their own owing to early ripening and gravity. These apples are usually sold locally by vendors. “These are not worth packing or sending to outside markets,” said Abid, a local commissioning agent. “We don’t trade in these kinds of apples usually. But with just small quantity of good quality apples coming to us, we are helpless.”
Transporting apples from orchards to these make-shift mandis is not an easy task given the politics around apples. “You cannot just pick apples and load them in a truck in this situation,” said an orchard owner from the belt. “Even parking a truck next to your orchard turns you into a suspect.”
That is why most of the growers transport apples in small load-carrier vehicles and autos during night.
Located amidst apple orchards the cafeteria was main attraction for tourists visiting famous health resort Pahalgam a year back. “They (tourists) used to come during harvesting season to experience firsthand how apples are picked,” said one of the workers of the cafeteria who earns his living by helping orchardists with the loading of boxes. “This was our busiest time. But now there are apples on trees but no one to pick them.”
But running a make-shift mandi like this one was an easy task given the situation. Besides, there are no trucks available to transport fruit outside Kashmir. “After incidents like Trenz and Shirmal, people would be afraid to deal with apple traders,” said a trader from Sirgufwara. “Everyone is frightened.”
Till a few weeks back orchards in Bijbehara belt have seen relatively better activity as picking of apples was done by farmers quietly. “We are keeping it low key to avoid attention,” said a grower from the area. “But now we have decided to stop for a while,” he added.
Given the circumstances, it is not easy to pick apples, pack them and then transport the same to different mandis (markets) as used to be the standard practice.
To overcome the crisis to an extent a number of growers are putting their crop in Controlled Atmosphere (CA) Cold Storages (CS), located mostly in Industrial Estate Lassipora.
“This area is relatively accessible to both Shopian and Pulwama based growers even during crisis situation,” Wajid said.
This time cold stores are already filled to their capacity. But with just over 20 cold stores in Kashmir, they can retain less than 5 percent of the entire produce.
Last month, a number of posters warning people not to trade openly during day hours surfaced in villages adjacent to Sopore fruit mandi. In a connected incident, four people including a 6-year-old girl Aasima was injured when unidentified gunmen shot at family members of a prominent apple trader, Hamidullah Rather, 72, in Dangerpora village of Sopore.
“I have already paid advance money worth crores of rupees to growers. If I am not able to trade apples I will be in huge loss,” said Ramzan, one of Rather’s relatives who was shot in the leg.
But the threat was not just from one side. “We wanted to operate mandi during night hours but were not allowed,” said another trader who wished not to be named.
In Pinjoora belt of Shopian locals alleged that army had damaged their apple boxes kept in a local schools ground for transportation. “They (army) want us to pack and transport our crop during day, which is not safe,” said a local resident who refused to reveal his name.
In Pulwama, an area where apple crop has been ready from mid-September, there is both confusion and anger among growers and traders. As the local fruit market remains shut since August 5, growers are helplessly watching their crop fall and get destroyed. “Once an apple falls on its own, it cannot be sold as A grade,” said Abdullah, a septuagenarian grower who lives near the fruit market.
Just like other growers he has made up his mind not to pick apples in protest but is pained to see his year’s hard-work get wasted.
In September, Government of India offered a helping hand by deciding to set up National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) counters in major fruit markets across Kashmir, where growers can sell their crop. Initially, per kilogram, they offered Rs 52 for A grade apple, B (Rs 36) and C (Rs 15.75). Rates were revised later to Rs 58, B (Rs 42) and C (Rs 22). An extra “super-class” of apples has been designated, being procured at Rs 70 per kilogram.
Despite an emotional advertising campaign by the government, a majority of growers refused to sell their crop to NEFED.
There were two reasons for doing so: growers have already taken advances from traders and commissioning agents, thus technically they cannot sell the same crop twice.
“We will rather let our crop rot on the trees then sell it to the government,” said a grower from Pulwama emotionally.
So far, only 3,087 growers registered under the scheme, off whom only 1,012 farmers came with their produce. But the quantum has been unimpressive – 1700 metric tonnes (1.15 lakh boxes) worth just Rs 7.26 crore.
(Some names in the story have been changed on request.)