apple growers protest
Apple growers holding protest in front of state secretariat in Shimla on Friday. Tribune Photo: Lalit Kumar

August 5 witnessed the biggest protest of apple growers in Himachal Pradesh in recent decades as a very large number of them joined a march in Shimla, following the getting together of nearly 27 of their organizations under the Sanyukta Kisan Manch ( SKM or Joint Farmers’ Front).This was the biggest protest of apple growers since 1990. Incidentally then too the protest was during the tenure of a BJP government.

The protest was further strengthened by the presence of important representatives of opposition parties including the Congress, the CPM and AAP.

Following talks with the government at senior levels, the SKM said that they are giving the government 10 days to resolve their problems and if satisfactory solutions do not emerge till then, then they will launch an even bigger protest including a jail bharo andolan ( a movement which involves courting arrest).

This protest has raised a range of demands which are related to their growing problems. One of the latest problems which came on top of other accumulating issues related to the rise in packaging costs and the raising of GST on packing materials. Hence relief on this aspect including GST exemption for packing materials of apples as well as other horticulture and floriculture produce was highlighted in this protest as well as other recent negotiations. The protest has cited all-round increase in input costs to demand more subsidies.

Several demands relating to better price and marketing such as payment of minimum support price for various crops have been raised now as well as earlier. A Market Intervention Scheme for apples similar to the pattern of Kashmir has been demanded, as also better implementation of agriculture produce marketing committee legislation. Much earlier the state government had facilitated the entry of big business interests in apple purchase by giving them quick NOCs and claimed that this will help to get higher price for apples. However this was soon followed by increasing problems of apple growers who complained that one of the big business houses was in fact responsible for setting a market trend towards lower price. Apple growers have been complaining that they get cheated in the arbitrary gradation of the farm produce as even better quality produce gets place in a lower category leading to lower price.

Another important demand Himachal apple-growers have been raising together with apple growers of Jammu and Kashmir  and Uttarakhand has related to significant increase of  tariffs on imported apples so that Indian apple growers do not have to face unfair competition. This demand was also repeated in the recent protest.

Other demands related to easier transport of produce, doing away with market fee at barriers, formation of a horticulture board, setting up committees to check the manipulation of private trading and business interests in purchase of produce, better adherence to spirit of law while acquiring land for various purposes.

Here it should be pointed out that apple orchardists as well as other farmers in the state have suffered much in recent times from increasingly adverse weather conditions, made worse by distorted policies and their even worse implementation, leading to increase in displacement and disasters like landslides and floods. Trucks carrying apples and other perishable horticultural produce sometimes face a lot of problems in reaching their destination due to landslides, leading to fruits and vegetables getting spoilt.

In these conditions apple growers and farmers have been looking to government for more help but more often than not they have been disappointed. Some of the policies such as import of foreign plant material and varieties have led to losses as these could not grow properly. Indiscriminate sprays of pesticides and plant regulators have also led to ecological problems particular the disruption of natural pollination processes as bees, other friendly insects and birds who are natural pollinators have been harmed. Hence both the government as well as farmers have to give much more attention to ecological aspects in order to promote sustainable livelihoods related to orchards and horticulture in particular.

Apple orchards and other monoculture  can be sustained in the longer term only if there is adequate protection of natural forests with their diverse local species so that overall biodiversity is maintained. Orchardists should grow a mix of fruits instead of concentrating mainly on apple. More of such fruit should be purchased by the state government  for supplying to anganwadis and mid-day meals, instead of processing this into wine, so that the trend of converting high nutrition food into harmful products can be checked.

Clearly while it is important to provide immediate relief to apple growers, wider considerations of environment, sustainability and nutrition should also get the due attention.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Only. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.


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