The Ramzan Blessing

A highly stressful Kashmir society dogged by cancers and cardiac crisis is consuming tons of nutritious, anti-carcinogenic, soothing super-foods to break evening fast. R S GULL examines the Ramzan’s impressive coincidence with certain local harvests that triggered a big business as well.

Yateem Khana Bemina-Photo:Bilal Bahadur
Yateem Khana Bemina-Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Month-long fasting for Muslims is aimed at purification, sort of a larger catharsis at individual and societal levels. But the festivities associated with Ramzan sometimes go contrary to the concept with the faithful actually ending with calorific intakes. This phenomenon is not endemic to Kashmir alone.

This season, however, Ramzan arrived at a time when the mercury soared with every passing day. It is the thirst that upstaged hunger. As the fasting is nearly 16 hours affair, it leaves not much time for experiencing new delicacies. The faithful end up resting for less than one-third of 24 hours as prayers take their own time.

Lifestyle changed a bit. It is more fruit intake and that has sent the market is an upward swing. Right now, the three major local fruits – apricot, plum and peach, which were awaiting harvests when the Ramzan crescent was seen, are the best beat. What is more important is that all the three fruit are part of the globally acknowledged super-foods. The nutrient load that apricots, plums and peaches offer if consumed on long-term basis, could actually help to address Kashmir’s particular health crisis, cancer, and to a large extent the heart ailments. Interestingly, all the three fruit by and large undergo organic farming with no pesticides and least fertilizers.

For most of the last many centuries when exploitation of peasantry was the hallmark of autocracies, apricot was the main lunch, and sometimes dinner too, for the hungry farmers who tilled their fields for the kings, queens and courtiers. Post-partition, the significance of the apricot was lost and a time reached in around the seventies when its kernel became the product of economic worth and not the fruit. The kernels would fetch seeds that would get cooking oil that kitchens required. Gradually, the apricot became rare delicacies that families flaunted and gifted but rarely the fruit became an economy unlike in Kargil.

As the principal apricot producer in India, the desert Kargil district has the potential of changing the surging Indian market that imported fresh and dried apricots worth the US $ 20 millions. “We have around 6000 cultivators who produce more than 3000-ton apricot a year but marketing problems and lack of infrastructure hits it hard”, a member of the Kargil’s Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) said. “Our fruit is much better than that of Afghanistan wherefrom most of India’s apricot imports originate.”

India’s overall apricot production is around 11000 tons as parts of Northeast, UP, HP and Uttaranchal also produce apricots with better yield as compared to Kargil (HP has 0.42 tons a hectare as compared to 0.20 in J&K). But J&K holds the key. J&K’s official records suggest Ladakh alone has witnessed an increasing trend in the apricot plantation. In 2008-09, Ladakh had 2054 hectors under apricot that increased to 2140 hectors in 2009-10 and 2183 hectors in 2010-11. The production also jumped from 7924 tons to 8388 tons and finally to 8806 tons in 2010-11. The capacity in the valley is in addition to this.

But what is tragic is that Ladakh lacks both the post-harvest and the marketing infrastructure. Since 1968, J&K government has banned movement of all kinds of fresh fruits outside the arid desert of Ladakh. It was part of the quarantine process to prevent the spread of Cordly Moth but for all these years, nobody knows if the disease exists now or not. The ban has prevented it from becoming the table fruit leaving the only option of getting marketed in dried form.

At one point in time, there was just one solar drier in Kargil with 15 ton a month capacity. Now the department is distributing smaller simple ultra-violet driers that usually comprise of polythene to the families on fifty percent subsidy.

Unlike Kargil, Kashmir does not market dried apricots. It consumes fresh and this year was a record, thanks to the month of fasting. “My conservative estimation suggests that we sold not less than 725000 kilograms in Parimpora mandi alone this year which must be a record,” Bashir Ahmad Bashir, the head of the New Kashmir Fruit Association, said. “Though a trickle of supply is still there but the apricot season is over.”

Apricots are supplied to the fruit markets in 9-kgs boxes and Chrar-e-Sharief is the main supplier followed by Uri and Ganderbal. It has three classes that obviously fetch different rates. Bashir said apricots had a bumper production this year, nearly double than last year. This obviously impacted the prices which were less as compared to last year.

But what Bashir and all others in its production and marketing do not know is that if ever there was a cure to cancer, part of it will come from the apricot that is the store of vitamin B17, the major anti-carcinogenic ingredient. Though no protocols exist, medic in alternative medicine see strengths in vitamin B17 against cancer and this vitamin is abundant in apricots. Some people try to link apricot with least cancer cases in Northern Areas and Gilgit which make Pakistan world’s fourth largest apricot producer.

Apricots are key to the Iftaar in Kashmir and are a super-food.

Full of beta-carotene and fibre, three apricots contain about 50 calories! With very low dietary fat content (0.14 gms per fruit), rich dietary fibre (2 gms per 3 fruits), apricots may reduce risks for certain cancers, help diabetics, figure conscious people and reduce heart-related health risks because they have impressive potassium content – 91 mg per fruit. Besides, it has adequate Vitamin A that helps the skin to have a healthy glow and promote good vision. Beta-carotene helps protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, which may help prevent heart disease. The apricots fibre prevents constipation and digestive conditions such as diverticulosis.

Apricot is a huge industry world over but Kashmir does not give it any importance even though it could trigger a major industry. Farm fresh apart, apricots are marketed dried as well as canned. Its market is throughout the world. A chain of controlled atmosphere storage will extend its shelf life.

In the first 10 days of fasting, the apricot season was almost over. But what was interesting is that its gap was neither filled by the banana nor by any other non-local fruit including mango. Two new fruits took over – the plum and the peach.

Kashmiri plum on the tree

Plum is a huge money earner. Kashmir has barely tasted the fruit for ages as both the varieties – green and pink – would directly go to Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi where it fetches better prices. Over the years the trend is changing a bit. Though there are no signs of fall in the production but its ‘exports’ to the Indian markets is gradually getting down.

Plum with a small shelf life is marketed in 4-kg half cases. Statistics provided by the Horticulture (marketing) department suggests that in 2004-05, J&K marketed 7307 tons in outside markets which improved to 7738 tons in 2005-06 but reduced to 6226 tons in 2006-07. In 2009-10, total ‘exports’ were at 3588 tons. Only that fell to 3261 tons in 2011-12.

“Kashmir market barely consumes ten per cent of the plum crop and this year it might be slightly more,” Bashir says. “On average, our mandi supplies slightly more than 10 thousand kilograms plum to Srinagar market daily which is substantial.” Most of it is purple plum and not the green because the latter is very expensive for fewer supplies and better demand.

But the LoC opening through Uri is teaching new lessons to Kashmir. Trans-LoC traders revealed to Kashmir Life that the month of fasting is fetching a good business. “Fruit is in huge demand on both the sides,” Hilal Ahmad Turki, one of the major traders said. Banana is the major export because it is in huge demand in PaK especially for Iftaar, the evening breakfast. “Last week we supplied 200 truckloads of 10 tons each and it was all banana,” Turki said. And in the barter, they ‘import’ many things and it includes special apple, dates and yes plums.

“I was amazed to see the quality of the plum that came from across,” Bashir said. “They were fully coloured, total ripe but strong, suggesting that their shelf life was better than our fruit.”  Kashmiri plum exhibits dampening when it is fully coloured and feels as if it is overripe, a condition that did not exist in PaK imported plums.

The quality and the fluctuating statistics must force the policymakers to introspect both in the market and on the ground. Plum is a speciality grown in Ganderbal, Harwan, Tangmarg and parts of south Kashmir and there is not much of the official data available on plum production, suggesting that the policymaker sees the only apple in Kashmir’s fruit basket. Areas in a desert region, Chenab valley and the Pir Panchal region also produce plums but there are no details available about the pot harvest systems and the market.

But the society must help its food habits to accommodate plum in improved quality given the fact that it is considered a complete powerhouse and super-food. The purple fruit exceeds blueberries in antioxidants and phytonutrients. Antioxidants are molecules that sweep through a body looking for free radicals – atoms or molecules that lurk where diseases like cancer and heart disease are found, to knock out.

Plums are low in calories, contain no saturated fats and are an excellent source of vitamin C. Compounds like sorbitol, and isatin are known to help regulate the functioning of the digestive system and thereby used in constipation conditions. Significant amounts of lutein, cryptoxanthin and zeaxanthin act as protective scavengers against oxygen-derived free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) that play a role in ageing and various disease processes.

The fruit is rich in minerals like potassium, fluoride and iron, besides B-complex group of vitamins – niacin, vitamin B-6 and pantothenic acid. These vitamins are acting as cofactors that help body metabolize carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It is a source of vitamin K that is essential for many clotting factors functioning in the blood as well as in bone metabolism and helps reduce Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly.

It was not the plum but another super-food, the peach that was the surprise of the season. “This year it was a bumper crop, four times better than last year,” says Bashir. “By an average, the Parimpora Mundi sells around 25000 kgs – 25 tons, to Srinagar market alone every day and it has been a fortnight already and will take a nearly three more weeks.” Officially, peach is part of the ‘other fresh fruit’ story. Not much of the literature is available about the peach Kashmir grows or any kind of intervention that might have taken place at the quality or species improvement at any stage in last many years.

But peach is huge, by way of what it offers. A medium peach 75 gm has 30 calories, 6 gms sugars, one gram each of fibre and protein but 140 mg of potassium, and 8% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin C. It has a calming effect on the human mind, glows skin. It helps fight cancer, reduce heart-related problems functions as natural de-wormer of the human intestinal tract.

Giving an active child a peach to eat in the evening may act as an anxiety remedy and promote sleep, as one of the elements in peaches is a very mild natural sedative. The existence of antioxidants lycopene and lutein do not offer the fruit its colour but help the consumer to battle heart disease and cancer. Presence of polyphenols, another antioxidant, makes it a potent weapon in preventing breast cancer. Peach fiber helps boost metabolism, regulate body temperature, create antibodies, and help make neurotransmitters and hemoglobin. Apart from iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and manganese, fresh peaches contain vitamins A, B6, B12, C, E and K, as well as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin.

Barring apple, dates and bananas, Kashmir has rarely used its endemic fruits in the month of fasting primarily because the shifts in the lunar Muslim calendar makes Ramzan vary by an average 10 day a year.

That means the next Ramzan with almost the same seasonal coincidence will be after three decades. Next year we are expected to have the same set of fruits available because variation is not huge. But the larger issue is if the intake of these fruits is made a routine, it will be comparatively better and easier to fight the lethality of diseases that defy a cure.

Change in food habits is less costly and can trigger new smaller economies given the availability of producer and consumer within small geography at no additional costs.

(The copy used certain open source details about the fruit nutrient contents)

Cancer in Kashmir

In Kashmir, cancer is gradually emerging as a major killer. No studies exist to link any particular factor to the “high” incidents of cancer cases being reported in Kashmir but the general belief is that a sedentary lifestyle, peculiar food habits including soda tea and a large number of smokers are responsible for a sudden increase in cancer cases.

Unlike Jammu, where cervical cancer in women has overtaken almost every other cancer in women, oesophagus cancer is at the top in Kashmir following by lungs and stomach, with the breast cancer at fourth position (see table). Doctors believe that breast cancer is somehow linked to late marriages, late childbirth, urbanization and a sedentary lifestyle.

The oesophagus cancer is the most common in both men and women which accounts for nearly 42.9 per cent of all types of cancers detected in Kashmir. This cancer type is strikingly different from that in the rest of India where oropharyngeal cancer is the most common type. In India, oesophageal cancer is commonly found in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Assam but Kashmir leads in numbers.

Cancer management in Kashmir is done mostly at the state-run hospitals with SKIMS and SMHS playing the major role. The problem with both the hospitals is the lack of adequate manpower, better machinery and reasonable space. It took SKIMS almost three years to change the practice of administering chemotherapy to many patients placed on the same bed for the lack of space. Though space remains the same, the management now deals with the patients in shifts.

A small section is managed by a private hospital in north Kashmir and the affluent sections usually take their patients to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or even outside India. Some of the best hospitals in India occasionally hold camps or open clinics to manage some part of the patient load.

The support systems are limited. While the Cancer Society of Kashmir is managing certain basic tests by holding camps including the awareness campaigns, the state government has established a fund that takes care of a section of underprivileged, needy patients. The disease has already established a small pharma economy that drains not less than R 100 crores across J&K a year.

Cardiac ailments

The heart ailments are on the rise in Kashmir valley. The past 22 years of turmoil had its psychological impact on the people which is believed to be the main reason for increasing heart ailments in the valley. No study has been done so far on the subject in the SMHS hospital after the turmoil started in Kashmir.

At SKIMS, the lone super speciality hospital in Kashmir valley, the administrative authorities are reluctant to talk.  Experts at the SMHS believe that the change in the lifestyle, low physical activities, stress and ultimately the violent conditions prevailing in the valley result in the rise of coronary heart diseases.

Dr Bashir Ahmad Naikoo, consultant cardiologist at SMHS says, “Smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension are the main reasons for different heart ailments”.  Presently, SMHS treats 5 to 6 patients per day with chronic heart diseases, besides other patients who come with heart failures, hypertension, renal failures, diabetes, depression, stress, palpitations, etc.

As per 2006 reports, J&K was the biggest consumer of pacemakers after West Bengal. As per the studies of 2011, ten per cent of the total population, below and above 30 years in Kashmir was suffering from various heart ailments, and the number of deaths because of cardiovascular diseases was increasing. At SKIMS, 22966 patients have been treated in the cardiology department and 7182 patients in Cardio-Thoracic surgery department so far in the past six months.

Date with Dates
In Kashmir, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, dates symbolize the month of fasting. Earlier the people used to consume dry dates but with the advent of liberalized economies and fast communications, wet and fresh dates are available around the year almost in every part of Kashmir. “The impression in the valley is that the people consume dates in Ramzan only but the fact is that the dates are in demand round the clock. We import dates around the year,” Bilal Ahmad of Pick & Choose department store said.

Almost every variety of dates is available round the clock. The traders in Kashmir import high end dates from Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Jordon. Some of the varieties are as expensive as R 1600 to R 3000 per kilo. “In a month, we sell around 50 kgs of Jordanian high-end dates and the almost same quantity of dates from Madina,” Mohammed Ashraf of Subhana Sons said. Of late, the LoC trade has opened a new window for dates. “We import many varieties from Pak,” Hilal Turki, one of the traders said.

However, Kashmir is not known for importing a large number of dates. “It has wide distribution but the volumes are not big. This year, the people in Kashmir will consume around 320 tons of dates,” says Waseem Ahmad of Khursheed Enterprises, one of the major date distributors. J&K is consuming huge quantity of exotic fruits, some of which are imported from abroad. Though no exact details about non-local fruit consumption in J&K is available because it is tax-free, but the officials posted at Lakhanpur believe that the average yearly fruit imports into the state are at 150000 tons.


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