Snowfall, political violence and Covid devastate Kashmir’s apple farmers

Kashmir Apple

Untimely snowfall, migration of workers following terror attacks and the overall political uncertainty has added to the woes of apple farmers in the Kashmir Valley, already reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic.

The untimely snow on October 23-25, has caused extensive damage caused to apple trees resulting in destruction of at least 40 percent of the fruit. The districts of   Shopian, Sopore and Baramulla have been the worst hit.

“More than 30 percent apples were unharvested. Due to the snow not only did we lose the fruit but also a major number of apple trees have developed cracks and fallen. In our orchard alone, we lost around 35-40 percent of apples”, said Yusuf Ahmed, an apple orchardist in Pinjora in Shopian district, known as the ‘apple bowl’ of Kashmir.

Yusuf an orchardist by family tradition says this is the third consecutive year when the losses are high.

“In 2019, owing to abrogation of Article 370, we had a complete lockdown resulting in damage and loss to our crops and economy. 2020 also turned out to be sad as we incurred losses due to the Covid pandemic. And now this year once again our community is facing huge losses owing to the weather conditions” he added.

COVID Response Watch LogoKashmir produces over 75 percent of apples in the entire country. The districts such as Shopian, Baramulla, Anantnag, and Ganderbal are known for producing good apples. The Shopian district alone accounts for nearly 3 lakh metric tonnes of apple every year. The horticulture sector is considered the backbone of the economy of Jammu and Kashmir.

Another apple orchardist Showkat Choudhary added, “The tribal villages are worst affected. The Keller tehsil of Shopian district has about 80 percent of ST population whose main livelihood is, directly and indirectly, dependent on apples. The untimely snow has caused us harm”.

The Meteorological Department had predicted a spell of ‘higher intensity’ rains and snowfall across Kashmir between October 23 and 25, resulting in sleepless nights for many farmers. Following this warning the Department of Horticulture to apple growers asking them to harvest apple crop as early as possible.

Panic-stricken orchardists in an attempt to harvest their apple crops in a hurry deployed thousands of workers day and night to pluck the apples before the snowfall. However, despite the efforts, the losses were huge.

As per Fayaz Ahmad Malik, the President of the Kashmir Fruit Growers And Dealers Association of Fruit Mandi Sopore, the most important apple varieties, Delicious and American, had not been harvested yet.

“The advisory came just three days ago and it was impossible to harvest crops within this small-time duration. Even after engaging labourers twice a day, it was impossible to harvest the entire crop”, added Malik.

“As soon as this advisory came up, I engaged hundreds of labourers day and night in my orchards for the harvesting of crops. But even then, around 25-30 per cent of apples remained unplucked from the trees. We have been praying for favorable weather but this time again we were unlucky. Our community is sad”, Abdul Ganie another orchardist in Sopore said.

Kashmir Apple1

While fruit growers had already sent early varieties of apples outside the state and to the local markets of the Valley, varieties like American, Maharaji and Chamboora were still in the orchards.

“Following the advisory from the meteorological department, we had instructed growers that they should harvest apples in the orchards where apples are still on trees and also prune trees and ensure proper drainage in the orchards,” said Ajaz Ahmad Bhat, Director, Department of Horticulture.

Another factor that contributed to the delay in the apple harvesting was the migration of a large section of the migrant workers, who contributed to the workforce in the apple farms. The recent targeted killings of migrant workers in Kashmir, made many flee the Valley. The killings had spread panic among at the time when most of migrant labour would have been working in the apple orchards or as construction workers in the valley. At least 12 people died in targeted killings in the first fortnight in Kashmir.

The apple industry is important to Kashmir’s economy. According to government officials, Kashmir exports around 20 lakh metric tons of apples every year and horticulture is a source of livelihood for around 35 lakh people in the union territory.

For the last three years, the apple industry has been facing losses worth crores of rupees. The adverse effects of climatic change have seen growers battle persistent unseasonal rainfall, sudden snowfall, hail storms and winds.  The regular lockdowns owing to the abrogation of Article 370 and then the Covid-19 pandemic have also taken a big toll on the business.

The transportation industry and procurement markets were disrupted due to the complete shutdown after August 05, 2019, when Article 370 was scrapped, making it difficult for stakeholders to harvest and store the fruit. The communication shutdown also meant that apple growers, transporters and traders could not contact each other, disrupting the demand-supply chain. This caused delays, inconveniences and additional costs.

In 2020, due to the Covid pandemic protocols, the export and transportation of apples became a herculean task again. The lockdown forced apple growers to reduce the number of times fungicide and other chemicals are sprayed which in turn gave rise to scab disease affecting production.

“After the dilution of Article 370 in August 2019, and the subsequent lockdown, several apple growers and businessman had stored their hopes on 2020 and 2021 but all the hopes were dashed when the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world”, said Amin Peer, President of the Fruit Growers Association, Shopian.

“Last year our Mandi’s turnover was Rupees 22.2 crore, which was  30 percent less than normal. This year again we are fearing losses despite the good crop. The hail storm has affected it. Now we have to sell our apples for less price.  Last year one thousand boxes of apples were in a Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CAS) and I had to pay Rs 40 per box as charges for retaining the texture and the taste of the stored apples,” Mir added.

As per Mir apple growers are now relying on traditional and cheap fungicides like Dithane M45, Contaf Plus instead of Cabrio Top, Merivon, because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. The Valley’s apple farmers are are thinking twice before spending money on maintaining their crops.

Tabeenah Anjum is a journalist reporting on politics, gender, human rights, and issues impacting marginalised communities. She tweets @tabeenahanjum

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