Sitharaman Pre-Budget Meetings: Kashmir Apple Concerns Highlighted

   

SRINAGAR: In Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s ongoing pre-budget consultation meetings, Kashmir apple was the key concern when she met the agriculture stakeholders on Friday. Maajid A Wafai, President of the Jammu and Kashmir Fruits and Vegetables Processing and Integrated Cold Chain Association (JKPICCA), was the sole Kashmiri representative at the fourth Pre-Budget Consultation.

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sithraman in a pre-budget consultation meeting with agricultural stakeholders in Delhi on June 21, 2024.

Wafai presented several pressing issues affecting the apple industry in Jammu and Kashmir. He emphasised the need to halt the malpractice of “illegally” importing apples through the Wagah and Nepal borders under the guise of Afghan apples. This, he asserted, undermines local producers and disrupts the market.

The cold store stakeholder called for an increase in the assessed value of apples from Rs 50 to Rs 100 per kilogram to reflect market realities better and provide fairer compensation to farmers.

Highlighting bio-security concerns, Wafai urged the government to implement rigorous testing of imported apples, particularly from Iran. He cited a report from the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST), which found quarantine pests in kiwis, warning that similar threats could exist in imported apples, posing a risk to apple orchards in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand.

Wafai also addressed the issue of under-invoicing and the inappropriate sale of imported apples in mandis designated for Indian farmers. He advocated for the inclusion of high-density apple plantations in the Agri Infrastructure Fund (AIF) and requested an exemption in import duty for the latest farm machinery.

Proposing sustainable energy solutions, Wafai recommended a 50 per cent subsidy in solar power generation for farmers, projecting an addition of 50 MW to the region’s power-deficient grid. He criticised the “TOP to TOTAL” scheme as ineffective, noting that it had not benefited a single farmer despite its goal to mitigate post-harvest losses and prevent distress sales.

Wafai further urged formulating a robust logistics policy to make apples from Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand viable for South Indian markets. He also called for reducing GST rates from 18 per cent to 5 per cent on pesticides, fungicides, packing materials, and nutritional sprayers to alleviate financial pressure on farmers.

The consultation meeting, also attended by Union Minister of State for Finance Pankaj Chaudhary, Finance Secretary TV Somanathan, Chief Economic Adviser V Anantha Nageswaran, and senior officers from the Agriculture Ministry and Ministry of MSME, covered a broad range of agricultural issues.

MJ Khan, Chairman of the Indian Chambers of Food and Agriculture, emphasised the need to lift export bans on agricultural products. He noted that India’s agri-export share is only 2 per cent in global exports and that export restrictions have led to a US $ 4 billion decline. Agricultural economist Ashok Gulati suggested prioritising rice exports due to surplus stocks and lifting the ban on onion exports. Badri Narain Chaudhary, President of the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, called for a long-term agricultural policy and improved data collection in the sector.

The government has imposed several export bans to balance consumer affordability with industry support amid rising retail prices. Notable interventions include the prohibition of non-basmati white rice exports and a 20 per cent duty on parboiled rice, extended until March 2024.

Discussions also included suggestions to ease farmers’ burdens by reimbursing GST on input materials like fertilizers and pesticides and ensuring the government does not import items below the Minimum Support Price (MSP). Experts recommended reviving agricultural research, especially for high-value crops like basmati rice, and extending benefits under PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi to non-landowning farmers.

Wafai’s detailed presentation underscored the specific needs and challenges of the apple industry in Jammu and Kashmir, bringing crucial regional agricultural issues to the national stage ahead of the 2024-25 budget.

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