For two days, Kashmir was restive over the inordinate delay in the passage of apple-laden truck convoys on the ailing old highway. While the growers are now facing the music for an instant glut in the market, the road is not the sole issue the sector is confronted with, reports Masood Hussain
Within two days after fruit markets in Kashmir shut in protest and the growers became visible on the roads, the government permitted the passage of hundreds of apple-laden trucks to the major markets in the plains. Some of these trucks parked between Lavdora and Qazigund for five to seven days carrying fragile pears had rotten.
Once the road was cleared, authorities attached the services of the SSP Highway. It reinforced the public perception that the road closure had inherent issues but the passage of fresh fruit could have been managed had there been will.
“It was painful to see an unending line of trucks parked for many days when I visited the area,” Bashir A Bashir, who heads the Parimpora Fruit Mandi said. “The tragedy was that we had met the Lt Governor and the Chief Secretary already and it was clear that the orders they had issued were not taken seriously.”
As the delay seemed to be sort of a permanent one or heading towards that, all the fruit markets in Kashmir got closed. The grower-trader combine got restive. As reporters visited down south, there were emotional scenes on display. Crying growers started throwing down the rotten apple from the parked trucks and in certain cases they set afire the apple in anger.
This essentially sucked in the politics of the place. Almost everybody started shouting at a very high pitch. Mehbooba Mufti even moved into Shopian Mundi and started issuing threats that she will block the highway altogether if the apple truck convoys are not getting top priority.
Had the government not followed up on the issue quickly, the issue had all the ingredients of a crisis. Quick decision-making saw normality prevail on the arterial highway and gave back sanity to society.
Unlike Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir’s apple cart has remained a hugely apolitical business. It has been an organic story with not much of interventions in most of its recorded history. The people have remained so ignorant of the sector that it was European visitors who introduced professional pruning to the sector. They hardly cared what happened to their crop as convoys of horse-driven carts would drive the crop on the Jhelum Valley Road. Till then, quite a few had ownership of the lands that grew the now-out-of-fashion Ambri and Maharaji. It was an economy dominated by Zaildars and other tribes of endemic parasites, the bourgeoisie.
Even after the land to the tiller, the people did not know of things. For half a century, the governments in Jammu and Kashmir would impose toll taxes on the outbound crop on the erstwhile Banihal Cart Road, now the National Highway. The fruit growers in Kashmir hardly knew that the economic model imposed upon them was perhaps the only instance of a government discouraging its ‘export’. It was reminiscent of the pre-partition exploitation that remained in vogue for more than 200 years. However, there was no movement against the government.
Gradually as Kashmir emerged as India’s undisputed apple cart, and the crop became the key mover and shaker of the peripheral economy, the growers started understanding their importance in the agrarian sector. The response that Shimla was exhibiting towards the issues of the apple growers had an impact on Kashmir too. It, however, lacked an impact till a series of disruptive interventions by the government after 2002 helped the sector reinvent its status and space. In the last decade, more than Rs 1700 crore investment has taken place in the post-harvest sector, according to Maajid Aslam Wafai, who heads the cold chain association in Kashmir and another Rs 500 crore investments are at various stages of implementation.
Kashmir has initiated a massive shift in the pre-harvest and the yield is visible. It is expected to trigger Rs 50,000 crore businesses in the next four decades envisaging the conversion of traditional orchards into modern high-density ones.
Now, Kashmir is producing almost 22 to 24 metric tonnes of apples and ninety per cent of it moves to non-local markets in a staggered fashion starting late August and concluding in early June, the next year. Even though it was earlier restricted to the grower-trader matrix, the apple has now urban engagement as most of the pre-harvest and post-harvest is centred at Srinagar. Apple has ceased to be a rural-centric economy, finally.
All this has made apple a very sensitive subject in Kashmir. It may not be political in nature but its significance is so huge that politics just cannot stay away. One political party is so impressed by the significance of the fruit that it has chosen the apple to be its election symbol. Another political party is literally rooted in the apple alone.
Glut and Rates
That explains why the upsetting apple cart triggered worries almost everywhere. Even though the convoys moved out, the worries have not faded away.
This season, Mir Mohammad Amin, who heads the Apple Mandi at Shopian explain, we had a basket of advantages and disadvantages. “It was a bumper crop but the fruit ripened early and clashed with the sales from Himachal,” Mir said. “This led to the fall in rates in most of the markets across India.”
Now, after the government ensured delayed passage of the stranded trucks, a glut has again overtaken the market. “The market was craving for apple for almost 10 days but there were no supplies and then all of a sudden every mandi got convoys of supplies and it dipped the rates further,” Mir said. “Almost every truckload that waited for more than three days on the highway has suffered a loss and it could be anything between one-fourth and one-fifth of the load.”
Mir said they are facing a new problem now. “We do not have transportation available even though the freight has gone up by 60 per cent and in certain cases doubled,” Mir said. “Last season it would cost Rs 80 per box up to Delhi and it is Rs 140 now. Against Rs 80 to Ahmadabad, it is Rs 160 now. To Bangalore, it was Rs 120 last year and now it is 220.”
However, the serious and “crippling issue,” Mir said is that there is no transport facility available. Most of the trucks that were halted for protracted periods have passed into plains and are desperate not to return because it kills their time and compromises their income. “We want the government to take this issue seriously,” Mir said. “In certain cases, if it is required, we are willing to pay part of the fuel they will consume one way for entering Kashmir.” This is the new state of frustration that the sector is exhibiting.
Apple picking in north Kashmir is in the middle of it and the harvesting in the south has barely started. If the highway does not open normally and its resumes showing its sickness, it will trigger a serious crisis for the sector.
“The total storage capacity we have is not more than 220 thousand tonnes and it is already booked,” Wafai said. “The booking takes place in June and July but the fruit comes to the stores in early October and November. Right now, we have barely 25 per cent of the crop in store and it has just started.”
This essentially means Kashmir would have to rush its produce to the markets. “By average we are dispatching almost 1500 truckloads on daily basis but it will go to four and five times up once the harvesting picks up but the problem is about the transport facility,” Mir said.
Offering an idea about the movement of trucks on the highway, the government said in the first 26 days of September, 30786 apple-laden trucks moved from Srinagar to Jammu. Most of these trucks – 18285 moved after September 15. From less than 1000 trucks in the first week to nearly 3000 trucks on daily basis in the last week indicate that the harvesting has just started.
As the demand for trucks is peaking, road health would remain the real worry. Officials said that the highway continues to be a single lane at 12-14 stretches between Nashri and Banihal and this is a major crisis. Authorities usually go for one-way traffic on this stretch. Besides, the movement of traffic is subject to stoppage due to shooting stones at Cafeteria Morh, Mehar, Sher Bibi around Ramban.
Incidentally, it was the Mahar Passi that became active on July 18 and led to the protracted halt of the traffic. This shooting stone spot led to a travel time loss of 21 hours and 9 minutes.
Interestingly, the ailing stretch of the road cannot take more than 4000 truckloads daily. Kashmir is solely dependent on the truckers for almost everything and there is a huge requirement for the army as well.
For the sake of argument, the Mughal Road is an option. Mir, however, said it is not an option at all. “It is a single-lane road which has crippling issues at various places and most of the big trucks avoid playing on this. It is suitable for smaller trucks which continue to play on the road,” Mir said. “The huge camp at Poshiana is normally halting the trucks for five hours and that is a loss and the searches take a long time.” Most of the growers and traders have their eyes fixed on Dussehra (October 5) and Diwali (October 24), the twin Hindu festivals, which normally witness improved sales.
Kashmir has invested massively in high-density apples. Industry sources said Kashmir produces almost 10,000 metric tonnes of high-density apple and almost half of it remained in cold chains for around a month.
“The apple picking of the high-density variety started late July and by early September, the harvesting was over,” one insider said. “We had no issues of transport, rates and the storage tensions. In fact, part of the money that was generated is spent already. We are sitting home.”
Unlike traditional varieties, the high density is a basket that is ready for market well before September. “This year, the rates were not huge but by and average every grower could save Rs 50 a kilogram.”