The last week in Himachal Pradesh has witnessed a surge of disappointment and discontent among apple growers of Himachal Pradesh as the price received by them has been much below their expectations. Local newspapers have been full of these reports and Amar Ujala, a leading Hindi newspaper, went to the extent of full page coverage of this issue, apart from highlighting it on front page.
The problems are reported to be more acute among the smaller orchard owners who need immediate cash to clear their loans taken to meet high costs. When the Chief Minister issued an advisory that they should go slow on fruit plucking for some days to avoid a bigger cash of price, some of these orchard owners issued statements drawing attention to their urgent cash needs. They said that the government should play a more prominent role in assuring proper purchase price to them.
While the main issue is that of providing relief to orchard owners, the issue also has strong political implications due to the possibility that this will bring farmers’ movement to Himachal Pradesh in a big way. Himachal Pradesh, which has a BJP government , has been rather quiet as far as social movements are concerned, although the CPI(M) has a base among a relatively small section of population particularly workers and peasants and discontent in rural areas has been emerging recently on the issue of disruptions related to hydel projects. But the apple price issue may integrate several farmers’ organizations more with the wider farmers’ movement of recent times.
This movement has its strongest base in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP, all neighbors of Himachal Pradesh. Rakesh Tikait, one of the most important leaders of farmers, had come earlier to mobilize farmers of Himachal Pradesh and as discontent of orchard owners over price decline increased, he came again. An important issue highlighted in this context is that orchard owners are also suffering due to the same factor which has been at the core of the farmers’ larger protest—the strong and increasing tendency on the part of authorities to promote big business interests over the interests of actual cultivators.
At the start of the apple growing season, as highlighted in a report of Dainik Bhaskar newspaper, the government had highlighted its achievement in bringing in big business players for apple purchase by quickly giving them NOCs, claiming that this will help apple orchard owners in getting higher price for their fruit. This naturally raised expectations among orchard owners, but these turned all too soon into bitter complaints. Several of them alleged that big business interests led by Adani had set low prices and this had led to a cascading impact resulting in low price.
Orchard owners further alleged that if they compare the retail price of top grade apples in big markets like Delhi with what they get, then the difference is so big as to be very unfair. Further they alleged that the purchasers make a killing with the arbitrary gradation and as a significant part of their produce gets graded in lower categgories, what they actually earn can be quite low.
In addition cultivators have been complaining about the significant increase in their costs and comparing this with the very low increase in purchase price over a period of several years.
As apple orchard owners as a group are politically quite influential in Himachal Pradesh, the state government cannot afford to ignore their discontent. One hopes that this will result not just in short-term relief but also longer-term, wider efforts to ensure more satisfactory and sustainable livelihoods in these beautiful villages. An immediate step which I would like to strongly recommend to the state government is to enter the market to itself purchase a significant quantity of apples for free supply to local children and pregnant women of poor households. This can be done through government schools, their mid-day meals schemes as well as anganwadis, or else in other ways.
This idea occurred to me very strongly when I was standing near a road packed with trucks carrying huge loads of apples. A small group of poorly dressed children was playing at some distance.On the spur of the moment I went to talk to them and as we chatted I casually asked if they had eaten any apples in recent weeks. I found that none of them had tasted any apples in recent weeks, in the middle of these huge truckloads and bountiful harvest of this high nutrition fruit of their state referred to by some outsiders as apple state.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth Over Children and Man Over Machine.