Selling Apple

In order to get the best from its apple cart, Jammu and Kashmir invested massively in creating a vast infrastructure in pre and post-harvest. The creation of the market chain was a major change. However, Kahlid Bashir Gura points out that society and the systems may have to relook and see why the pace of change is not managed so well

The apple harvest and grading in progress. KL Image

In the last thirty years dominated by turmoil, Kashmir has successfully managed a series of interventions to manage its apple cart better. Withdrawing the toll tax on the ‘exports’, creating a chain of satellite markets, investing hugely in the controlled atmosphere storage (CAS) and now pushing fast the high density, there may not be better-qualified compotators to Jammu and Kashmir. However, managing the pace of the change, retaining the key infra in perfect order and leveraging the facilities to get the best of it is something that requires a lot of work.

Some of these facilities are linked to other infrastructure. The highway is of paramount importance. Whether the fruit is driven directly from the orchards to Azadpur and other markets or from local mandis or in early summer from the vast CAS network, the highway is the basic challenger.

Irrespective of the weather conditions, part of the fruit-laden trucks does witness massive halts on the now less than the 300-km national highway. Stakeholders insist that these delays render the perishable produce vulnerable and munch its market value at the tail end.

The Roads

“Due to halting a large number the demand and supply get uneven which results in a loss for us,” one trader said. “These trucks are halted for longer periods and then the caravan is permitted to move and they reach the markets on the same day triggering a glut that leads to the fall in the process.” The stakeholders do insist that the availability of the main national highway and the Mughal Road need to be adequately leveraged in situations where the halt becomes inevitable.

Kashmir is emerging as the new crucible for climatic change. The unseasonal snow almost every year – for the last three years now, is making Kashmir vulnerable to the vagaries of weather quite often. The losses are phenomenal.

For the last many years, the growers have been demanding some sort of crop insurance. The policymakers have never been negative but the actual product was never provided. Apple growers say how not they can avail the product when it exists in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

The Satellite Markets

The evolution of a network of mandis has been a huge intervention. It has not only bridged growers with buyers but has also created a lot of seasonal employment.

Earlier, the growers and traders had to ferry the produce to Delhi and other markets. Now they meet traders in orchards and mandis, thus reducing unnecessary travelling and panic.

One key factor in creating these markets was to reduce the exploitation of the growers at the hands of the agents and middlemen. The introduction of the low-cost Kissan Credit Card (KCC) was one intervention aimed at keeping the grower with some money to manage his pre-harvest needs.

The fact is that the tradition survives. Growers continue taking money in advance to meet pre-harvest expenditure. This leads to their bleeding eventually.

After a detailed survey of the sales set up in markets outside Kashmir, it was observed that the agents are charging the growers for items like boarding, loading, the local market and many other things. With the creation of local markets, it was presumed that these will end. But that survives. The new mandis of Kashmir have also standardised the practices of the Delhi market. One mandi in Kashmir debits one rupee per box for a local shrine!

Default is the norm in business. All the mandi managers said the unwritten principle is that the buyer will deposit the sale amount within 15 days after taking over the crop. By and large, the system is working but there is a lot of default between the growers and the buyers, both local.

The agents who are bringing the buyer and grower are working on a commission. In different mandis, the rate of commission varies and it is required to be taken to a uniform level across the market network.

Usually, the auction takes place under a cloth. This has remained a major critique to the sales taking place outside Kashmir. Interestingly, however, the same practice is in vogue in Kashmir markets.

The agents, however, defend the practice. “Under this system, the rates usually meet growers demand and expectation,” Buyers President in Sopore mandi Mudasir Ahmad Bhat said. He said they charge commission for mediation and transactions. “We charge eight to nine per cent as we, in turn, have to pay 12 per cent to the bank.”

The major question that the mandis in Kashmir may have to answer is why most of the apple is still being transported to the major markets outside Kashmir bypassing the local mandis.

Freight Mess

The crop transportation is abrupt and is for three months. During these months, the market exhibits a massive appetite for transport. The demand surge escalates the freight. Stakeholders insist that the officials must devise some mechanism to decide a freight tariff.

“During lockdowns, the transporters charged us hugely,” Bhat said. “This time as the prices of crude oil is high, the freight is also up – Rs 120 for Maharashtra, Rs 75 to Delhi. At the time of lockdown, we even paid Rs 150 to Rs 200, up to Delhi.”

While the policymakers insist that the upcoming railway track will end the transport crisis once for all, the stakeholders insist the government can issue tenders to keep the transport available in the peak season after properly devising a realistic tariff. The SRTC can get a special grant to add to its truck fleet and that can run on profit if properly utilised.

Mandis Mother

Sprawled on 372 Kanals, the Sopore fruit mandi is said to be Asia’s second-largest fresh fruit mandi with an annual turnover of around Rs 2000 crore.  The vast market is dotted with heads of thousands of visitors, towering apple boxes queued up for loading, tractors ferrying fruit to the market, and trucks dispatching the crop to hundreds of markets across India, even abroad. Amidst this daily activity, growers approach the market with the hope to get a better return on the produce.

“The mandi was established in 1989 and is connected with around 450 markets across the country. The mandi has 639 shops out of which 300 have been allotted,” said Buyers President Mudasir Ahmad Bhat. “Around 1200 traders are registered with the union; however, there are hundreds of others who are not yet registered. Similarly, there are 600 registered buyers and around 200 are unregistered.” The mandi also tackles part of the produce that comes from certain south Kashmir areas. “The satellite mandis have limited capacities and farmers in order to sell their produce at best prices need better platforms. The Sopore mandi emerges as an option and hope for them,” he said.

Bhat said more than ten thousand people can be seen in the mandi during the peak season.

The mandi mainly exports Red Delicious as they have a huge market appetite in the country. Besides varieties like American, a small-sized apple is exported to Bangladesh. Bhat said the introduction of high-density varieties by growers to meet competitive market demands needs to be stressed and more awareness is needed. The quality and quantity of produce by the hybrid tree is better and has the least gestation period, unlike the traditional tree varieties. The high-density is being seen as the only way out to compete with Iran, China and America, the world major apple producers.

“We have been able to fetch better rates because of the quality of hybrid produce,” Bhat said. “We sold one apple box at Rs 900-1000,” he said. “Almost 200 truckloads are dispatched to other markets daily as each truck ferries around 1000-1500 apple boxes.”

Infrastructure Issues

The three-decade old mandi, however, lacks basic amenities like water, drainage system, accommodation, washrooms, cold storage, link roads for the apple produce and people visiting frequently.

“Even though Rs 7 crore were sanctioned by the government after more than two decades struggle in 2020, we are told it will still take some more time,” Bhat said. “Lately we have had to dewater the waterlogged mandi by asking fire tenders. An hour’s rain renders mandi dysfunctional as it is waterlogged to the knees. In the end, it is growers who suffer as their produce is rendered vulnerable.”

Bhat talked about discrimination. “In Jammu, the authorities have constructed Kisan Ghar which has around 50 rooms with all the facilities. Our Kisan Ghar has ten rooms and without facilities,” Bhat said. “This is despite the fact that we have exporters coming from outside. This season, we had around 25 parties of buyers from Bangladesh alone.” The mandi, he said, is facing a crippling crisis as they are unable to properly lodge the buyers coming from different parts of the country.

Mandis usually give rise to a lot of infrastructures around. One key area is cold storage. The Sopore mandi requires five lakh metric tonnes of controlled storage capacity to fully benefit from the crop. This is because

Kashmir is prone to disruptions and the highway issues remain unaddressed. “We do not have any CA storage in mandi, however, there are some private facilities around which everyone cannot afford,” Bhat said.

= Over the years, however, many other satellite markets, mandis, appeared, mostly in south Kashmir. Off late, south Kashmir continues to be the address of best apple because most of the orchards – unlike north Kashmir, are young. The high density also took off mostly from south Kashmir and now parts of central Kashmir and north are followed at a huge pace.

These factors led to the creation of a chain of mandis in south Kashmir.

Mega Mandi Aglar Shopian

The lately shifted mandi in south Kashmir’s apple bowl is spread over more than 300 kanals. The new location has given respite to the belt from frequent traffic jams that would block the Mughal Rod for hours during the peak season.

With an impressive footfall, the mandi supports 22000 families across the district directly has 500 licensed traders and hundreds of buyers who continue to swell. Unlike Sopore, most of the buyers come from various locations across India but nobody from Nepal or Bangladesh. The key factor is that the region hardly grows American Treal, a small size delicious apple, which is hugely popular in Bangladesh and Nepal having big families. The reason for the variety’s popularity in the two neighbouring countries is that there are apples per kilogram in this variety in comparison to Red Delicious, Golden Delicious or other verities that are grown in South Kashmir. In the coming days, however, some varieties of high density may address this crisis to some extent.

Rayees Ahmad Khan, general secretary of the Shopian Mandi said they usually dispatch around 150 truckloads on daily basis. Even though, fledgling, the mandi operates under still-under construction tin sheds. Out of eleven, nine are ready. The mandi requires around 600 shops. The yearly turnover of the market is around Rs 2200 crore and it may cross the figure this year as the quality was hugely improved and rates, initially, were better.

“The delicious costs Rs 800 – 1000, a box and Kullu Delicious around Rs 1000-1100 per,” Khan said.

Khan said due to the lack of shops, the mandi is rendered dysfunctional in winters. Given the fact that the entire CAS infrastructure is at a stone’s throw from the market, a good section of the produce is stored and ferried to markets in early summer. After more than four months of dormancy, mandi gets active in May with cherry.

Infrastructure Deficit

Located on the banks of moody Rambiara rivulet, the mandi, if not fortified with strong walls, runs the risk of being washed away, someday. The mandi leaders are expecting to have the construction of shops completed by 2022.

The mandi lacks any lodging facility for visiting buyers. They have to put up in nearby private hotels during their stay. Within mandi, according to Khan, the macadamization is under process, the drainage system is being developed. The mandi is also facing network problems. Like all other mandis it also battles highway hiccups, however, the mandi has not explored alternative Mughal Road as 80 per cent of produce is transported through national highway.

Batengoo Anantnag

Established in 1985, the mandi has been functional since 2013. One of the smaller fresh fruit markets, it is spread over 45 kanals with an annual turnover of around Rs 350 crores. The mandi has a footfall of around 3000 at the peak season. Around 60 to 100 buyers come from across the country in peak season to make purchases.

“The mandi with a limited space dispatches 60-70 truckloads daily,” Mohammad Iqbal Hafiz, Vice President of the Mandi said. “There are 110 shops and two auctions (fadds) platforms,”. Interestingly, almost 25 belonging to migrant Kashmiri pandits are intact.

Mostly selling Delicious, the average rate, this season remained around Rs 600 to Rs 900, solely depending on the grading, demand and supply.

Infrastructural Issues

The mandi, stakeholders insist, lacks basic amenities. “We have constructed shops on our own,” Hafiz said. “During inclement weather, storage is a major issue.” There is no cold storage facility in the area and one has to reach Acchabal or Lassipora for storing the produce.

Though authorities have drafted various Detailed Project Reports (DPR) for certain key requirements, implementation is awaited. Besides, the mandi lacks accommodation facilities for buyers from different parts of the country.

Kulgam Mandi

Launched in 2008, the Kulgam mandi has a space of 53 kanals and has 228 shops allotted with five auction platforms. The 2021 harvest witnessed around 180 buyers driving from different locations across India.

“Every year more than 30 lakh apple boxes are dispatched across the country,” Secretary Fruit mandi Kulgam, Mohammad Yousuf Koka said, insisting on average 50 trucks are dispatched daily.

In Kulgam, the apple produce, due to the climatic vagaries is ready a little earlier than in other districts. The Kulgam mandi produces 95 per cent of delicious variety and the rest is other varieties said the secretary.

Pulwama Fruit Mandi

Established in 2007 on 34 kanals of land, the mandi has been expanded to 84 kanals recently. The mandi does not have a single shop but has around three tin sheds and growers mostly erect tarpaulins to sell the produce. Around 400 licences have been issued to traders and around 60-70 buyers come from other parts of the country. On average, around 50 trucks ferry the fruit to other markets of the country.

Javaid Ahmad, who heads the association, said the rates were not hugely different from what was reported from other markets.

The lack of shops, Ahmad said renders the facility dysfunctional for most of the year. Even the space within the market is not properly macadamized.

“The dust and dirt on the ground impact the health of visitors,” Ahmad said. “There is a lack of basic amenities like bathrooms, accommodation, and cold storage.” He said link roads are required to reduce traffic jams.

Parimpora Srinagar

Considered as the face of the Kashmir horticulture industry, the mandi has a huge space of 324 kanals with 300 shops and 300 auction sheds. It is the major infrastructure. Almost 300 members are associated with the mandi. Unlike all other mandis, this market deals with fruits as well as vegetables and is mostly an import mandi with only small portions of produce being exported to markets outside Kashmir.

“From April to July, on daily basis, the mandi gets around 250 truckloads laden with watermelons, melons trucks; 50-80 trucks of bananas, 30 trucks of oranges and hundreds of trucks of vegetables and other fruits,” said Bashir Ahmad Basheer, President of New Kashmir Fruit Association.

Despite being the oldest and the key infra in the capital city, problems remain. There is a crippling lack of accommodations, rundown roads within the market, drainage facility as a result of which it remains waterlogged during rains. There is even encroachment of land within the mandi and severe municipal issues. Basheer said 5000-ton cold storage in the facility, being planned now, would be a huge hit.

 

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