Packing Apples

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Apple packaging is a key ingredient to Kashmir’s apple economy that keeps thousands of people busy round the year to manage more than 70 million boxes a year. Farzana Nisar visits three South Kashmir hamlets that have emerged as a key hub for making the wooden cases

Blades At Work: A band saw machine in Khudwani works for half a year and specializes in wooding packaging for apple. KL Image: Farzana Nisar

About 60 km south of Srinagar, nestled on the banks of Veshaw rivulet in Kulgam are three hamlets – Redwani Bala, Hawoora and Mishipora. The vast belt starts once the crucial Khudwani bridge on Veshaw is crossed. Amidst the lush paddies, the hamlets are dotted with the band sawmills on both sides of the road. They all produce wooden apple packing.

Every morning this area wakes up to the humming sound of the band sawmills and at any given point of time, people covered with sawdust from head to toe can be seen entering and leaving them. These ear-piercing annoying sounds of machines are the key income to the belt.    

Back in 1988, Mohammad Akbar Dar started a small wood processing unit at his home in Redwani Bala. Sometime later another sawmill was constructed a short distance from his unit. This marked the beginning of more than two dozen bandsaws, as they are popularly called in Kashmiri) in the area. Today almost every household is engaged with the production of wooden apple boxes in the village.

Thirty years later Dar’s grandson, Sartaj Ahmad works in the same band sawmill.

“I took over the business from my father Mohammad Ayub Dar.  And like many other families in the village this is our only source of income,” Sartaj said.

Interestingly, the residents who don’t own a sawmill also find the source of their livelihood from the same apple box production. Some work as band saw workers, some as daily labourers and many others manage the activities of transporting these apple boxes. This is how the village is managing the self-sufficiency on a key ingredient of the roaring apple economy.

In a cluster of three villages surrounding Khudwani, the main business is selling the wooden packaging for apples. KL Image: Farzana Nisar

It is around noon and Mohammad Hussain Dar, 50, is busy in wood processing in one of the sawmills in Hawoora. Standing near the noisy band-saw, with his face covered with a thick cloth he skilfully saws a board into several thin slices, which then can be used as different planks of an apple box. For nearly two decades Mohammad Hussain Dar has been working as a sawyer.

“Earlier I used to work as a day labourer in fields and used to go to Punjab for earning a livelihood during winters. But with the establishment of band sawmills in the area I decided to learn the art of wood processing”, Hussain said. “I have worked in 12 band sawmills till now and people in this belt directly or indirectly thrive on apple box processing as the work demands huge labour.”

Not everybody one sees in these sawmills is illiterate. Many educated young residents also have come up with the idea of starting a bandsaw mill. Iftikhar Hussain Dar has an MPhil degree in Psychology. Unable to get a government job, he decided to start a small scale band sawmill business in September 2018.

“After seeing my uncle earn a decent good income from his sawmill, I decided to start one of my own. It has been a year now and I am happy with my decision,” Iftikhar said.  In its first year of establishment, Iftikhar’s unit has turned into a successful one and he is hopeful of producing 40,000 apple boxes this season.

Cardboard and wooden packaging go hand in hand in apple packaging. KL Image: Shuaib Wani

Work in a sawmill is seasonal, between March and September. Each sawmill employs a minimum of five workers daily during the season, in addition to other labourers, producing an approximate of 500 apple boxes a day. The most senior worker is paid Rs 800 as daily wages.

On average, a unit produces 60,000 apple boxes every season and each box is sold for Rs 70 or above per season. The sawdust from these mills is also sold for use in brick kilns and poultry farms.

Irshad Ahmad Dar who owns one of the oldest sawmills in the areas earns a profit of about Rs 3.5 lakh for a season.

“Apple orchardists prefer the apple boxes of this belt. We have been manufacturing them for decades now and get orders from neighbouring districts too. This season I got a total order for about 70000 apple boxes”, he said.

Cardboards and Crates

Due to the transition in Kashmir’s fruit industry from the use of wooden crates towards cardboard boxes these sawmills owners initially suffered some loss but that did not affect their business. With the increasing trend of conversion of paddy fields into apple orchards, they managed to produce a good quantity of apple boxes.

A group of apple packagers posing for a photo. In the background are the plastic crates that are now being used in managing movement of the apple. KL Image: Shuaib Wani

“Cardboard boxes are cheaper than the wooden ones, but the demerits that come with packing the apples in cardboard boxes cannot be neglected. Cardboard boxes may become deformed if they are exposed to extreme pressure or when stacked and also are not the better option for weatherproofing”, said Waseem Ahmad Lone, who has done his Masters and runs a sawmill. “Moreover orchardists get a good amount of money for apples packed in wooden boxes than cardboard boxes. So, despite being expensive, a large section of orchardists still prefer the wooden box apple packaging”.

Lone believes that both types of apple packaging are equally important to meet the demands of the market.

Kashmir requires a huge quantity of boxes every season. Kashmir produces more than two million tonnes of apple a season and most of it goes to the market in proper packaging. By an average, Kashmir requires around 70 million boxes a season, which in itself is a huge business.

Historically, it was the wooden box that was in use. But now trends are changing. The mass use of cardboard boxes has hugely helped reduce the consumption of wood, mostly the poplar. It sells less than half the cost of the wooden case.

“We actually use three types of packaging now,” a Shopian apple grower, Mohammad Muslim said. “The traders from the plains come with their trucks and plastic crates of their own. They employ the locals who collect and purchase the ghirana (the apple that falls on its own) and pack it in cares and take.” In fact, the apple that gets into cold atmosphere stores also uses huge store-owned cases until the crop stays with them.

“We use the cardboard for second-grade varieties purely to improve the margins. In fact, certain varieties that do not require covering larger distances to reach market also use the cardboard,” Muslim adds. “The top-grade usually requires hard casing like wood because it protects the fruit.”

The diverse packaging, however, is not impacting the routine of the band-saw mills. They say the increasing conversion of the paddy lands into apple orchards on one hand, and the new trend of making high-density apple orchards keep both their hands busy. The demand is increasing on yearly basis, they assert.

Being one of the most volatile regions of south Kashmir, Khudwani is often marred by protests and killings. According to the saw millers, this is the biggest challenge they face.

“Redwani, Hawoora and Mishipora are prone to shutdowns and search operations from the last many years. Army men often enter our mills asking the workers to prove their identities. This hampers the smooth running of our sawmills”, said a local resident. “At the peak of the season we require a lot of labour but workers from other villages avoid working in this area due to these reasons”.

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