Happy Harvest

Areal view of Sopore Fruit Mandi
Areal view of Sopore Fruit Mandi

Satellite fruit markets (mandis) established in different districts are helping fruit growers get value for their produce at their doorsteps. Some infrastructural lacunae and misdirected policies are hampering their growth. Hamidullah Dar reports.

The wholesale fruit markets (Mandis) established in the valley have brought smiles to the faces of fruit growers as they are getting good returns for their produce, virtually on their doorsteps. More than 50 per cent of the apple produced is sold in these markets, reducing the long chain of middlemen and commission agents. However inadequate infrastructure, lack of finance and illogical government policies are hampering the growth of these mandis.

Listening to the bids of a trader at Kulgam Fruit Mandi (KFM), made many worries evaporate from the mind of fruit grower Ghulam Hassan Mir of Chhambgund in Kulgam district. His Kulu Delicious variety of apples sold at Rs 800 a box – beyond his imagination. He knew he wouldn’t be in debt even when this year the produce from his orchards was around one fourth of the last year’s produce.

“I was expected to suffer losses but Allah has saved me as rise in rates are beyond my calculations. These have healed the harvest wounds,” says Mir in a tone loaded with gratification.

The high rates this year have proved to be a hedge against the reduced produce due to unkind autumn hail and spurious pesticides flooding the markets.

“Equally satisfying is the presence of fruit market in the vicinity where we come to know about the rates and within we can bring in our produce to sell it at the rates of our choice,” Mir added.

The establishment of satellite fruit markets in many district and Tehsil headquarters and the terminal fruit mandi at Sopore has brought immense relief to Valley’s fruit growers.

Spread over 13 kanals of land, KFM was established and operationalised in 2005. The land was purchased by the Fruit Growers Association Kulgam and donated to government for establishment of the satellite fruit market. But less than one third of the forwarding agents are housed in the mandi.

“Due to lack of infrastructure only 225 of the 750 members of (FGA Kulgam) are accommodated in the mandi. Around 8750 growers bring their produce mostly apples to the mandi that is then sold to the buyers from outside state”, says Mushtaq Ahmad Sathoo, Marketing Inspector in Horticulture department’s Area Marketing Office.

“The establishment of satellite market has lessened our burden as the transport costs and intermediary exploitation have lessened, increasing the profits of fruit growers”, says Ghulam Mohammad Banday, president FGA Kulgam.

Last year around 12 lakh boxes, just over half the areas fresh fruit produce was sold at KFM but only three auction platforms and 110 shop sites in the mandi make it look like a mess, when arrivals are at its peak.

“Government notified 20 kanals of land for erecting Kisan Ghar, pack house and two auction platforms but so far nothing has been done”, complains Banday.

Like ants, vehicles enter and leave Shopian Fruit Market (SFM) in a convoy. Known for its quality apples, fruit growers of Shopian longed for establishment of a mandi in the area for decades. Their demand was realised in 2006 when SFM was established at Arhama in the outskirts of the Shopian town. Spread over an area of 33 kanals, SFM is congested with vehicles, traders, growers and the produce growers bring to the mandi. Business worth Rs 200 crore was transacted at the mandi.
“Keeping in view the large quantity of fruit produced in the area, this mandi should have been established over 400 kanals. You see, there is no space for vehicles and the fruit boxes which creates problems”, says Mir Mohammad Amin, president Shopian Fruit Growers Association.

The commission and forwarding (C&F) agents say their business is affected due to non-availability of shop sites besides unauthorised traders operating in the mandi.

“Only 200 C&F agents are registered but more than 600 people operate in SFM,” says Shabir Ahmad Dar of Dar Fruit Company, Shopian.

The rates are touching the all time high in SFM as Kulu delicious apple is being sold 750-800 per box. The buyers from outside the state purchasing fruit in the mandi are also making good profits. “It is good to purchase fruit directly from the grower. Earlier I used to buy apples from Delhi or Jammu but this year I came here directly and found the rates quite enticing,” says a bearded Haji Mastan of Ospet, 160 km from Thiruanathapuram, Kerala.

“This time average profits have been around Rs 30,000 per truck load of apples which is double than what I used to get by purchasing at Delhi or Jammu,” adds Mastan.

Though growers are happy at the reduction of exploitative element in the trade they are unhappy with the horticulture department.

Fruit grower Nazir Ahmad Rather of Gasran, Shopain says, “Earlier fruit trade was in the hands of Delhi-based commission agents but with the establishment of mandi here, the trade has gone into the hands of cultivator.”

However, Rather is dismayed with the Horticulture department. “We do not get timely guidance from the (horticulture) department. They informed us about spurious pesticides when we had harvested the fruit”, he rues.

Established way back in 1988, Sopore Fruit Mandi is a terminal market, the biggest in Kashmir. “It was established to challenge the monopoly of Azadpur Fruit Mandi in Delhi. Many satellite markets were off late set up to feed this mandi for onward dispatch of the fruit. Last year 11.8 million fruit boxes were dispatched from this mandi which is 57 percent of the total fruit production in Baramulla district,” informs Mohammad Ashraf Damno, chief executive, Area Marketing Office, Sopore fruit mandi.

Started by 33 traders in 1988, the mandi is spread over  372 kanals out of which only 55 kanals have been developed into auction sites. There are 500 commissioning agents but the allotment of shop sites is still awaited. There are 10 auction platforms and three are being constructed. Fayaz Ahmad Malik, president Sopore Fruit Growers Association says more needs to be done to give this mandi a proper shape.

Explaining why 50 percent fruit is still sent directly to Delhi and other markets when local mandis provide good returns to the fruit growers, Malik says, “People from Delhi resort to pre harvest finance which compels growers to sell them their produce. We need Rs 325 crore for lending growers before picking of the fruit so that they stop feeding Azadpur (Delhi) mandi,” says Malik.

Sopore mandi is cosmopolitan in its composition of growers association, the members of which come from almost every district of the Valley. It is a grower’s mandi and anybody is welcome here, says Malik.

“Unlike satellite markets that cater to the needs of the area around them, Sopore mandi receives produce from every area of the valley such as Handwara, Kupwara, Ganderbal, Shopian, Kulgam, Islamabad, Pulwama,” said Damno. “On an average 1.75 lakh boxes of fruit are sold here daily. About 10-15 truckloads go to Bangladesh on direct challans and as many head to several destinations in Nepal.”

These fruit mandis have become employment generators in the valley. “Sopore fruit mandi provides employment to more than 30,000 persons,” says Malik.

The establishment of fruit mandis has helped growers a lot besides generating employment but deficient infrastructure and lackadaisical attitude of the horticultural department officials are impeding their growth.

“We have an agriculture university in Kashmir and a full-fledged horticulture department but their contribution has not been encouraging at all. The knowledge gained in the laboratories needs to be introduced in the field. The field staff of the department is invisible to a farmer which has an adverse effect on fruit industry,” complains Shabir Ahmad Wani, a trader at Pulwama fruit mandi. Pulwama Fruit Mandi with only two auction platforms and 94 commissioning agents sold 1.5 million boxes of fruit last year.

Lack of banking facilities, parking spaces, lavatories, electricity supply and water is an across the board phenomenon in these mandis.

Use of cardboard instead of wooden boxes in packing fruit has picked up in the last couple of years. “Almost 50 per cent fruit is packed in cardboard boxes jolting bandsaw owners, who make wooden boxes. It can snatch livelihood of thousands of people working in bandsaw mills,” says Shabir Ahmad Dar.

Last year, 35 million cardboard boxes were used in packing of apples alone, says Rather. And almost all of it came from outside the state, adds he. Cardboard boxes, sold at Rs 30 a piece, is Rs 105 crore industry that can give employment to many.

Fruit growers allege that funds are diverted to non-functional mandis that were set up to satiate political interests. “Chrari Sharief mandi is a flop show as no one does business there. Similarly Islamabad mandi is non-functional. At Handwara only three traders are doing business. However in sanctioning of funds, these mandis get Rs three crore each like that of Sopore and Shopian which is extreme injustice,” says Malik adding that government policy should be formulated with economic sense, not political considerations and let the market forces grow so that general public reaps the harvest.

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