As politics played a spoilsport in the market intervention scheme (MIS) aimed at managing the C-class apple locally, the market has located and seized an opportunity to manage nearly half a million tons of apples. Purchased, packaged and dispatched to the markets in the peripheral areas of the plains, the business is roaring, reports Masood Hussain
The business works like a liquid, it creates its own space. Tired of the long wait for Kashmir’s erstwhile rulers would come out of their myopia and make areas like education and the economic politics-neutral, the apple growers found their own way of managing an impressive crop that falls in C-grade. In the last decade, the management of C-grade Apple has evolved into a thriving small business that must have a few hundred crore turnover.
Credit goes to small fruit wholesalers in the Indian plains who located an opportunity and quickly ceased it with the help of hugely cooperative apple growers. They have successfully created a vast chain of Girana Market that ensures that only the rotten part goes to waste. This happened without even the knowledge of the policymakers in Jammu and Kashmir government in the pre and post-2019 era.
The Fallen Apple
Girana is an interesting word, seemingly Urdu but is not. It denotes the apple that falls simply because of Newton’s law of universal gravitation. The conventional wisdom has only two apples that are ripe – the one part-eaten by the bids, locally called Shoug-e-Tscount (the part-eaten apple) or the one that falls on its own. While the former lacks a market, the latter is as good as the one still awaiting harvest.
With the Girana and the lowest grade that is harvested, Kashmir produces nearly five lakh tonnes of the C-grade apple a season. Its percentage can go up or down depending on the weather conditions. Apples with scab scars, red marks, and irregular size – all fall in the C-category apple, which has only one problem – it lacks the visual attraction of grades one and two. This is precisely why the planners in Himachal understood early and started consuming it within the state in order to keep their market clean. It was the same Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) that Jammu and Kashmir copied, rolled twice and withdrew in the wake of strong opposition from one political class. The fruit that the state-run JKHPMC would procure would go to the apple concentrate makers thus creating a parallel ancillary sub-sector.
MIS introduction had made growers happy. Though the JKHPMC never procured a huge quantity as Kashmir produced, it was hoped that with the passage of time, it would change the ground situation. That never happened.
This led to the intervention by market forces. The growers, right now, are not converting the fallen apple or the C-grade into fodder. They sell it and get cash instantly.
The Mandi Spread
In the last twenty years, Kashmir witnessed the rise of a chain of Mandis, the satellite fruit markets, where mainly apples are being sold. These are designated spots with formal traders and a proper system in place. But many times more mandis operate outside these markets. These are small shops with additional tents where the people work round the clock for nearly three months starting in September. The beauty of these movable mandis is that, unlike the formal mandis at Sopore, Shopian, Kulgam and other places, these small trading spaces move into the villages where it is mutually accessible to growers and buyers.
“It is a recent phenomenon,” an apple grower in a Shopian village said. “Almost five years back, a small-time trader from Uttar Pradesh came to our village and sought permission for some spot so that he could erect his tent.” As the residents understood his business model, they readily agreed. The villagers would go to their orchards, collect the fallen apple and bring it to him in 20-kg crates. “He would pay in cash on a daily basis. Now, he is a regular who sends almost 100 truckloads home every season.” A portion of this apple goes to Rajouri and Poonch using the Mughal Road access.
The trader has his own people with him. They know the rates, they make purchases on the spot, fill in cardboard cartons usually used ones, and load them on the truck. “They work till the cold gets intense or the supplies dry up. They never purchase the top grade or the second grade apple saying their market does not require it.”
The trader, who wishes not to be named, said he belongs to the interior of UP and he purchases the fruit and supplies it to off-market mandis where the people can afford this grade. “Thank God, it is a good business, I intend to continue,” he said. “In the last few years, I have been able to create my own systems – my packers are from my place, my transporters are from my area and the agents whom we supply are also from my area. Everything is alright.”
While the non-residents dominated this trade, there are too many native traders as well. Farooq Ahmad is one of them. For most of the year, he works at Parimpora Fruit Manadi. As soon as the apple starts ripening, he moves to Pulwama where he sets a mandi of his own.
“I have been working as a seasonal apple purchaser and seller for the last eight years now,” Farooq, who is one of the scores of such traders in the area, said. “We work for two and half months during which I usually send nearly 100 truckloads to the markets in UP and Punjab.”
Farooq said he works with around 100 auto owners who, during the day, move from village to village and purchase the fallen and C-grade apples. Then they get the load to us. “They purchase at Rs 100 a 20-kg crate and we pay more on this and that is how it works,” Farooq said, explaining the ecosystem. He said the rates are fluctuating. “The rates are mostly depending on the road condition. If we are able to shift the fruit quickly to the market, it is great and in case our truck is caught in traffic snarls on the highway the fruit is damaged and it pushes the rates down here.”
So huge is the demand and supply that another major temporary mandi works quite opposite to him and it is also doing a roaring business, working almost 18 hours a day. They are getting the produce on two-wheelers and a lot of growers come with their produce in jute sacks and get instant cash within seconds. “I used to throw these apples to the river till these young men started their business,” one villager, who came on a scooter with his wife from his orchard to Farooq’s mandi in Pulwama periphery and carried the fallen apple in a jute sack. These were measured in a crate and the cash he got was in a jiffy and left.
Sajad Ahmad is another trader, who has been in this business for nearly eight years. “We go to the areas first where harvesting is early and at the fag end of the season, we move to Shopian which is the place where the apple harvesting takes place late,” Sajad said. “In a season, I dispatch around 50 truckloads to UP, Punjab and many other stations. Some traders come to us directly and take the truck after paying it here.”
Right now, Sajad said he purchases from auto drivers at around Rs 130 to Rs 140 per crate. “I work with almost 25 auto owners who spend their day in the village and come with the load in the evening.”
In the absence of the MIS, the apple crushing units – both concentrate makers and the instant juice makers – operating in Kashmir also have the same strategy. They work with these traders directly or have a chain of tempo-loaders who purchase on their behalf at fixed rates for a commission.
Kashmir’s tragedy is that it has not been able to explore and adopt the various other products that apple processing entails. Evolved apple markets produce a varied set of products in addition to apple juice and concentrate.
Traditionally Kashmir had been producing dried apples and pears. In fact, Chrar-e-Sharief was known for the tang-e-hatcheh, the pear chips till recently and it was being purchased as a tabrook – sort of a consecrate, by the faithful who would visit the shrine of Sheikh ul Aalam. Usually, these apple and pear sun-dried chips are consumed in the off season. Families would make efforts to make these chips, especially for the children. Off late, however, the tradition has faded away.
In fact, Brand Lee, an American citizen, invested in Srinagar and is making apple chips on most modern lines. He is doing a good job.
Interestingly, the market did not encourage traditional apple chips. Last year, a kilogram of dried apple chips would fetch Rs 10. “There is a change,” one resident said. “It is now being purchased at Rs 100 per kilogram this year. I do not know where it goes but the better market price is indicating hope in the revival of traditional chip making.”
What is interesting about the Apple chips is that they do not have an expiry date. Shade-dried chips, if well packaged, can last for many years.
Stakeholders suggest that the policymakers in Kashmir must explore the possibility of newer products so that the surplus fruit is consumed locally and converted into products having a better shelf life and good returns. Why cannot Kashmir produce apple powder? With Kashmir gradually getting into the high-density apple, production will likely improve in the coming years. With improved production, the competition is also going to be stiff.