Choked Artery

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As authorities started getting into repairing the sick highway and the MHA restricted civilian movement twice every week, Kashmir’s imports and exports are facing a crisis that will have crippling cascading effects in coming days, reports Saima Bhat

Fruit Mandi, Parimpora, Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Fruit Mandi, Parimpora, Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

On the serpentine Jammu-Srinagar highway, a truck remained waiting for at least 12 days in April. Ashok Kumar, the driver, in his early fifties, was shocked when he received a call from his Maharashtra employer, questioning his repeated information that he was stuck on the Kashmir highway. This was the first time in his professional career of two decades that his employer questioned his credibility.

“He refused to believe me that I was in the queue, waiting for the permission, which was officially closed for the trucks due to the bad condition of the road,” Kumar said. “But at the same time, a truck was loaded from Kashmir, four days after I left, had already reached Maharashtra,” Kumar said it looked a mystery to his employer, till, the trader in Parimpora fruit Mundi, spoke to him and authenticated his status.

Kumar is not alone. The fate of countless Kashmir bound trucks remained the same since November 2018, when Kashmir received early snowfall leading to a crisis in key patches of the sick highway. But in the second last week of April when around 20 trucks reached Parimpora mandi despite the highway closure, the traders were furious to know how they managed to come the day, officially designated for the movement of convoys. These ‘special’ trucks had paid some money to some brokers who managed permission for their go ahead signal.

“Initially we received complaints that there are some brokers on the highway who ask for money from drivers to allow them to cross the highway,” Bashir A Bashir, the president of the Fruit Mundi traders said. “These brokers are stationed in between Jammu and Udhampur for Kashmir bound trucks and in Qazigund for Delhi bound trucks. They seek money for managing permission and the rate has gone anywhere between Rs 2000 to 50,000. But we couldn’t understand how these trucks were allowed to go on a convoy day.”

As the trucks are made to line-up, there are compelling cases: a truck carrying live stocks or the highly perishable grapes. Owners can lose the entire stock or they can pay an amount to reduce the losses.

In April last week, when the highway was opened for the traffic, around 300 trucks reached the mandi. Very disturbing videos were uploaded by traders on their social media timelines showing some of their members literally crying. In one video, a grapes’ trader, who would routinely shout Rs 600 a box, was seen seeking Rs 100 a box, a rate he reduced to Rs 50, and later to Rs 30. Reason: an inordinate delay had seriously damaged the fruit.

Out of these 300 truckloads of fruits and vegetables, traders insist 97 per cent was damaged and they threw it away. “On every vegetable truckload, there is a loss of maximum Rs 1.70 lakh and on a fruit-laden truck the loss is of 2 lakhs per truck,” said Wasim Hassan, a consignment agent in Parimpora fruit complex.

Kashmir needs at least 100 truckloads of vegetable to suffice the demand of vegetables in Kashmir, Ladakh, Tangdar and Gurez areas on a daily basis. These are mostly imported from Punjab, Delhi, Jammu and Maharashtra throughout the year except for four months when local produce reaches the market.

“From July to October, we are self-sufficient and even export around 100 truckloads to Jammu, Delhi and Bangalore. But for the rest of the year, we are import-dependent,” says Bashir.

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Farooq Ahmad Dar, the owner of New Punjab Transport company, who is in the business for the last 35 years, said he has never seen this kind of crisis ever.

“The present crisis mostly started from January 20, when the government decided to have convoy system. Initially, we thought it is a routine but it was not. Only the vehicles bound to Kashmir are stopped and I have proofs for that,” Dar said. His trucks used to ply four times a month between Srinagar and Delhi but now they are able to go just once leading to loss of Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh per truck. “The situation has gone to the extreme as the drivers don’t want their vehicles to be loaded with stock for Kashmir.”

After the trucks were allowed to move on designated days only, the order on April 3, by the Ministry of Home Affairs banning civilian vehicles on the highway for two more days after Lethpora attack added to miseries.

Imports apart, Kashmir’s economy is suffering a huge loss over export as well. Abdul Shakoor Wani, a farmer and merchant from south Kashmir’s Shopian, sees it part of Delhi’s plans to squeeze Kashmir’s economy.

Wani links the prevailing crisis with the 2016 unrest when Kashmir remained shut for almost six months. “Since then the debate was generated on news channels that how Kashmir manages to survive despite remaining shut for so long. And why there were no farmer suicides. Seemingly, this has led to this crisis,” Wani said

Since November, Wani said the highway remained open one way getting only three days a week for exports. “But the condition of the highway remained bad and the passenger vehicles were allowed to move first; so mostly we got two days a week on an average,” Wani said. “After MHA ban order, one more day was reduced and we got just one single day to export. This single day also remained at the mercy of whimsical officials on the highway.”

Soon after the apple harvest, around 60 lakh boxes are stored in around 20 CA stores in Lassipora with one lakh metric tonnes capacity. Usually, this is the A-category fruit that fetches better prices in offseason. “Some growers retain stocks at homes and dispatch it in January and February,” Wani said. “Due to bad road, this stock got delayed to March and even the CA store stock got hugely delayed.”

By an average 250 to 300 truckloads used to leave Kashmir by March but with just one day to move, only 50 trucks managed to get through the tunnel as the rest were stopped up to five days. The stock coming from CA stores need immediate transportation and it should reach its destination in 36 hours only as there is a dearth of refrigerated vans.

“With delayed transportation, the trucks reach Delhi on Saturday evening. On Sundays, the mandi remains off and it is on Monday when the stocks are actually received. The super quality apples’ condition till then gets reduced to B grade apple and instead of around Rs 1000 it fetches just Rs 500 per box,” said Wani. “These trucks create the same situation as they would create in November-December when CA set up was absent in Kashmir.”

One of the key crises with the apple was that unreliability of the highway would push the entire stock to Azadpur in autumn. This would trigger glut and the rates would fall. It was after a series of interventions that a CA store set-up was created and now Kashmir can retain almost six million boxes for gradual marketing in off season. This had started helping the growers and the market but the new situation has changed it altogether. The same glut kills the rates again.

The inside view of Parimpora Mandi. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

The inside view of Parimpora Mandi. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Last year, the growers said they did not face any problems as all the cargo was allowed to cross the tunnel before dawn, and by early morning, they would reach Udhampur. “That was helping trucks to reach Delhi within 36 hours, but now, they reach in a week.”

Wani kept his stock of 60,000 boxes in a CA store in early October and was expecting to finish sending his stock by May as he did last year. But on May 2, he said he still has 30,000 boxes in store adding to his cost by Rs 30 per box per month. “On average, we usually keep the stocks in stores for five months and wait till we get the best price which mostly is in March. But this year we had to keep it in store for seven months and I guess it may reach the eighth month too. It has also added to the cost of around Rs 10 lakhs for my 30,000 boxes for a month.”

The extra cost of store rent and then low price in the market, the whole brunt is on the grower. Wani estimates the average loss in around 18 CA stores is to the tune of Rs 70 to 75 crores.

Last week, Wani packed nine truckloads. Two of them, with fast drivers, managed to reach Delhi in time and the rest of the seven reached a normal pace. “I had to face around Rs 1 lakh loss in seven trucks in comparison to the two fast trucks.”

There were protests and the affected met the government officials. The Divisional Commissioner Kashmir ordered priority to the fruit-laden trucks but it remained un-implemented on the ground.

“This is aimed at decimating Kashmiri growers,” Majid Wafie, the president of the CA stores association, said. “It is a loss to the grower. It added with the cost of store rent, labour, extra freight. A grower could have managed to bear all the extra expenses, had he got the proper price but that is not happening because of the delayed transportation and the soaring temperature in Delhi.”

Majid estimates the losses to the tune of more than Rs 100 crores and he foresees more problems for the apple. “By failing to reach the market in Delhi in time, the traders have switched to American apples in Azadpur mandi because they receive those apples in time in better condition but our distance of 800 km is stretched to 80,000 km. We met the present administrators but there is no positive response.”

Damaged Fruits and vegetables. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Damaged Fruits and vegetables. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Due to the prevailing situation, the growers claim it is not them who decide the market dynamics. “We have been left to the dynamics of the road and we have to wait how khooni nallah and shaitani nallah will behave. Our planning is not anywhere; my planning is being done by the landslides,” Wafie said.

Transporter Farooq Ahmad Dar sees the crisis creating further problems for the new season of highly perishable items including cherries, strawberries and sweet potatoes. “Many of my drivers outside Kashmir don’t want to load for Kashmir and if it continues it will have another devastating impact on transport as we have Yatra coming too when our traffic remains disturbed. But nobody seems to be bothered.”

Dar estimates that per truck (6 tyres to 10 tyres), it is a loss of up to Rs 1.50 lakhs of profit margin. “Tell me how we will pay our loans back? From last three months now, we have not been able to pay our instalments. A few of my drivers want to hand over the trucks back to the bank,” Dar insisted.

If the highway traffic issues are not solved now then Kashmir horticulture industry will be in a deep mess. “May has already started and if the highway remains same then how will the cherries and strawberries be transported? We used to transport a part of it by air as well but the number of flights to Kashmir has already been reduced which means the air freight will be high,” laments Bashir.

The department of horticulture Kashmir has not estimated the exact amount of loss to the apple industry so far but sees it in crores. “It is a loss to the grower as the transportation takes more time which ultimately degrades the quality,” Vinay Kumar Dutta, deputy director horticulture says. He added that his department has taken up the issue with the divisional commissioner. “There is widening going on between Ramban to Banihal which has created all the mess and then the additional ban of bi-weekly added to it.”

Dutta is hopeful with the opening of Mughal road this season will lessen the worries to some extent.

Exactly after 14 days of bi-weekly highway ban order, the MHA on April 18 came up with another order banning the barter trade, duty-free trade across LoC at Salamabad at Uri. The MHA order reads that “The government of India has received reports that cross LoC trade routes in Jammu and Kashmir are being misused by Pakistan based elements. This misuse involves illegal inflows of weapons, narcotics and currency.”

Coincidently, the trade was not taking place since February 14, same day Lethpora attack took place, due to the collapse of the Kaman bridge. “The LoC trade mechanism is, therefore, being suspended pending the putting into place of a stricter regulatory regime. This is to ensure that only bonafide trade takes place, for the benefit of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, through this mechanism.”

Blocking of both the main trade route to Kashmir, Wasim Hassan, a consignment agent in the fruit complex Parimpora said is being done to “disturb” Kashmiris and it is being deliberately done before Ramadhan.

Due to the LoC trade ban, two main products reaching Parimpora Fruit Mandi, the potatoes and dates have been affected. “Dates are must-haves during Ramadhan. But now a box of dates that would have cost Rs 800 in Mandi is now being sold at Rs 3000. Nobody has so far ordered any consignment. Besides that the potatoes used to cost Rs 400 per 50 kgs but now same costs Rs 800,” said Wasim.

The blocking of both roads has added to the woes of consumers as the market value of fruits and vegetables has already gone up.

Efforts to reach Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir failed. “We are aware of the fact that the imports are getting delayed and the main reason is the repairing process between Ramban and Banihal,” Deputy Commissioner Srinagar, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary said. “This delay is impacting the perishable items and we are aware of it. In a recent meeting, we have decided that the Mughal Road will be used for cargo as well and it must start by May 15. We also a meeting with the CA store people and we asked them to start sending the produce when they have a clearance that Highway is through.”

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