September had just started. Mohammad Syed, 51, an apple-grower from Deeri area of Pulwama, south Kashmir, was despondent; Kuloo (a type of apple) had ripened on his about 5 kanal orchard and he couldn’t find any buyer or a transport facility to trade his product.
“I dumped them into a nearby stream,” he said. “They were rotting on the tree; due to the shutdown, even roadside vendors (who would sell fallen apples) didn’t come.”
A month back, in New Delhi, the parliament had struck the constitutional special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), claiming that the move would bring economic prosperity in the Valley. The government also imposed a clampdown to “prevent law and order situation.” Thence, all lines of communication were snapped.
“[Our area] would produce about twenty lac apple boxes,” he said. “But due to fear and fewer buyers around, we sold our annual production at very low prices.”
As per the numbers available with the Department of Horticulture, Kashmir, about 8,000 to 10,000 crore rupees of Kashmir’s economy is dependent on the apple industry and nearly one-third population of the Valley is associated with this sector.
In any another year, at an average, north and south Kashmir produces more than 7 lac metric tonnes annually, separately, while the central region and Srinagar contributes about 1.5 lac metric tonnes in the total Valley’s apple production.
The Kashmir Walla visited back the growers when the season is on the verge of ending to understand their experience from the clampdown to snowfall; wherein most of them were economically hit with the production of growers are still lying in the courtyards – waiting for buyers.
MIS and the growers
On 9 September, to provide a helping hand to the apple growers, the government introduced the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS), under which a sale counter was to be installed in all registered fruit markets around the Valley to facilitate better prices.
The scheme was approved by the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, under the aegis of Ministry of Home Affairs, for the current apple harvesting season.
The then governor of J-K, Satya Pal Malik, had said, “With the scheme, the government wants to lay focused attention on providing every possible support to the apple growers – right from their orchards to the market.”
After more than three months of the scheme, The Kashmir Walla spoke to dozens of fruit growers – seeking if it had benefitted its target; though, most of the farmers expressed contrary to opine and highlighted issues.
“Their grading system was not good,” said a 43-year-old farmer from Pulwama town, Bashir Ahmad Mir. “If they would find a B-grade apple in an A-grade box – they would consider the whole box B-grade.”
However, the director of the Department of Horticulture, Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, 46, refused any such barrier. “[In the boxes packed by the growers] normally a single box, which contains five layers, two layers would be second-grade quality,” he said. “How could be that considered as first-grade quality?”
Although, as a director of the program, as Mr. Bhat said, he had asked the “monitoring team” to be “flexible and helpful” while selecting the apples.
But, growers like Mr. Mir either couldn’t find a stall under MIS or were “too afraid” to deal with them. “There was a stall in Pachar market [Pulwama] but no one dared to transport, or deal, boxes there,” Mr. Mir said. “Even drivers were not willing to carry apple boxes.”
Since 9 September, as per official numbers, the government has purchased only 6.80 lakh boxes weighing 9000 metric tons of apples worth Rs 47 crore from fruit growers in the Valley.
Fears and apprehensions
Mr. Syed remembers seeing a poster in September in his village, warning: “Do not sell your apples outside. Whosoever starts exporting apples is responsible for his life.”
Alleged warning by the suspected militants didn’t only appear in Mr. Syed’s area but in other parts of the Valley as well – developing a sense of grave fear among fruit growers.
In some places in Shopian area of south Kashmir, there were reports of destroying apple boxes who tried to export to outside. “We wait for weeks in a hope that situation would improve but, with no options around I sold my production on a lower price,” he sighed.
Due to uncertainty and threats for traders and growers in the Valley, many fruit dealers also preferred not to jump into the stream. The most common apprehension being: “If we start purchasing apples, what if we could not send it to the respective dealers outside the valley?” wondered Imtiyaz Ahmad, a dealer from Khygam area of district Pulwama.
Mr. Ahmad, 33, usually starts his trading in the early week of August, but this year amid communication lockdown, he was out of any idea on how to trade. When he would usually fix a deal for his trade every year, this time, “stepping into the market without any contact with the clients would have been a foolish step.”
Soon after the partial restoration of communication services in October, growers started transporting apples to outside the valley but spree of killings of people associated with the apple industry – especially truck drivers – brought back the fear at the forefront.
On 14 October, militants had shot dead a Rajasthan-based truck driver and assaulted a local orchard owner in Shopian. Two days later, a Punjab-based apple trader was killed in a suspected militant attack in the same region.
After the partial restoration of communication services, Mr. Ahmad got a few queries and calls to secure deals. Fearing more loss than the profit, Mr. Ahmad preferred staying away from the trading this year. “[Due to fear and risk] I thought of saving my life and money,” he said.
Upon the visit of a 28-member European parliamentary panel to Kashmir in the last week of October, a Jammu-based truck driver was shot dead by suspected militants in south Kashmir’s Anantnag.
Authorities later announced guidelines to the non-local drivers not to go into the interiors of south Kashmir to avoid further such incidents.
“Back in 2010 and 2016, we used to have the same feeling when we would go outside the state,” said a Shopian based truck driver, Aijaz Ahmad lone. “Attacks on drivers didn’t surprise us but we fear its repercussions when we will be outside the state.”
Standing next to his truck, Mr. Lone, 34, believes that, “In every way, it is a Kashmiri who is suffering. If they (non-locals) will be attacked here, it is obvious that we’ll be treated the same outside the state. Isn’t it?”
A cold ending
This year, the unexpected heavy snowfall in the first week of November caught everyone sleeping. It caused havoc in the orchards and halted trucks carrying apples on the Jammu-Srinagar highway.
As per the data recorded by the Horticulture Department, south Kashmir has witnessed 20-25 per cent damage due to the snowfall, while in north Kashmir, the damage is about 10 to 18 per cent.
One such orchard is of Mohammad Yehya Khanday, a 52-year-old apple grower from the Aglar Kandi area of Pulwama. His family of seven is totally dependent on it. In addition to the apprehensions, killings, and fear, the untimely snowfall was like the last nail in a coffin for Mr. Khanday.
Talking about the condition of his business and the orchard, he said, “If I was producing 600 boxes in a season – next year, I will only be able to produce 60 boxes.”
On the halted highway, at least 5,000 trucks carrying apples were stranded on the highway for days. It also instills fear among the traders of chances of apples rotting.
“From 2008 till now, farmers who are dependent on this economy find themselves in darkness,” said Mr. Khanday “Our hopes shattered when we did not receive the expected amount from our annual production.”
This story originally appeared in the 25 November – 02 December 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.