118 years of Trust


Saturday, September 19, 1998

This above all
regional vignettes



The man behind the success
story of Kotgarh

By Pamela Kanwar

WALK into an apple orchard, small or large, in the upper hills between July and October, and the conversation inevitably veers around the ‘season’. Whther it is good, bad, or indifferent, whether there are gains or losses, whether the prices are soaring or have crashed. The ‘season’ is the period during which the apples are picked, sorted, graded, packed, dispatched to the market and finally sold. It has meant a whole year’s wait and marks the culmination of the multifarious activities of manuring, pruning and spraying. Most of these bear the stamp of the practices introduced by Satyanand Stokes.

Stokes introduced both apples and the culture of growing apples as a commercial crop for small farms at heights above 6000 ft in Himachal Pradesh. Working with his own hands, he pruned the trees, and introduced the practice of meticulously grading apples, according to their size, colour and quality before packing them for the market. It benefited farmers who had marginal, unirrigated lands where they grew a single crop of wheat or barley.

"If I can find anything which will yield the farmers here a larger crop per acre, I shall be doing the people a real service," Satyanand Stokes wrote on the eve of a visit to the USA. He selected several varieties of fruits — apple, cherry, pear, apricot, etc. — for trial in Kotgarh.

Ten years later, once the grafted seedling had turned to fruit-bearing trees, the field experiments yielded results. Of all the imported varieties, the Delicious apple, Red and Golden, patented by the Stark Brothers, were the most productive.

Samuel Evans Stokes, (1882-1946), was the son of a wealthy Philadelphian engineer-businessman of Quaker antecedents, well-known for his contribution to the elevator technology. Young Samuel was not interested in following his father into business, and at 22 gave up his studies at the University of Yale, and opted to serve mankind. He set for sail to India and arrived at the leper home in Sabathu in 1905. He was sent for relief work to Kangra , then devastated by a severe earthquake. Thereafter, he came to the Christian Mission House at Kotgarh.

In 1910, he bought a dere lict tea garden, got married and made Barubagh in Kotgarh his home. But Stokes was of a reflective and enquiring mind and although he described himself as a "lover of Christ" he could not shut his mind to Indian metaphysical thought. He learnt Sanskrit, studied eastern and western thought, and expounded his philosophy of life in a book entitled Satyakam. In 1932, under the aegis of Arya Samaj, he became a Hindu, and converted from Samuel Evans to Satyanand.

Initially, Stokes took to conventional farming, and grew wheat and barley at Barubagh, (derived from the fact that on the level land (bagh) he, could grow a bhar of wheat). In addition, he planted vegetables, including peas, beans, lima beans, pumpkins and cabbages. "I, sometimes when loosening up the soil around plants, feel as if I were arranging their bedclothes and tucking them in like babies, up to the chin."

He identified with the local farmers of the Kotgarh area, adopted their lifestyle and relaxed in the evenig with a hookah. He also realised that at the upper hieghts conventional crops yielded a small return, barely enough to sustain peasants, and absolutely inadequate to generate the cash they needed to pay the land revenue.

Kotgarh’s first encounter under colonial adminstration was one of unmitigated impoverishment. The Kotgarh people attributed it to begar, forced labour, which they had to serve on the Hindustan-Tibet Road. Roads like the Hindustan-Tibet road served to distance rather than link rural villages to new urban centres.

Lakshmi Singh (84), an orchardist, recalls, "My father, carried baggage and brought his cows to the Thanedhar rest house so that touring officials could be supplied with fresh milk."

At 2 annas a day, villagers were hauled up to serve as begar coolies along the Hindustan-Tibet Road. They were meant to carry baggage and other sundries. They were also expected to provide fresh milk to the touring officials, shikaris, holiday trippers and the men accompanying them.

Stokes was sensitive to the political changes sweeping across the country, especially after the Jallianwala Bagh shootout of 1919 by General Dyer. Addressing himself to the problem of the exaction of begar from villagers, he articulated and mobilised the growing disaffection to a non-violent protest.

His efforts merged with the Non-cooperation Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi with whom he was in constant touch. Inspired by the Mahatma, he began to wear khadi, and made a bonfire of his western clothes. He was convicted for his nationalist activities and, in 1922, imprisoned in Lahore jail for six months. Begar was abolished from Shimla district because of his efforts.

Apple had always been grown in the hills. The varieties popular in England were introduced by the British in Kulu and the Mission House in Kotgarh. The favoured varieties were Cox’s Belnheim Orange, Newton and Russet that tended to be tart and sour. The American Starking Delicious varieties were red and sweet.

Starking Delicious underwent mutation in the Indian milieu. In 1925, many people overlooked the significance of the imported seb varieties. And not all shared Stokes’ punctilious concern about patented plants.

Satyanand Stokes, was close to American national hero Johnny Appleseed, who sowed apple plants grown from seeds collected at cider presses in the early 19th century America. By the early 20th century, however, America had entered the age of commercial cropping and patents for grafted varieties. Stokes in field trials had selected the newly patented Delicious variety of apples from the Stark Brothers.

In 1925, at the cost of a dollar a plant, Stokes imported and distributed the nursery plants free to the farmers who had ordered them. Stokes also adapted the American practices of grading, packing, and marketing. During the early years, each apple was wrapped in a green tissue paper, and each box was stamped "Kotgarh Apples". "I am working to make Kotgarh the headquarters of this fruit for India", he wrote in 1926, in order to increase "the prosperity of this locality."

Today’s orchards bear the impress of Stokes’ efforts to standardise the quality and size of the apples sent to the market.

Enter a godown during the apple season, and one has to pick one’s way across different heaps of apples! Almost every family member is working in the godown, usually on the ground floor of the house or a shed a little away from the house. Some one is emptying out the apples from the kilta, conical basket, in which the fruit is brought from trees to the godown. Someone else is sorting the quality of the fruit. If it is pockmarked by hail stones, has beak-marks where a hungry bird has savoured the fruit, or has been licked out of shape by an aphid, it is set aside in one heap. It would be packed into gunny bags and sold either to the itinerant contractor from where it finds way to the rehri markets of North India, or to juice factories.

The rest of the fruit is then further graded. If the apple has a uniform colour and perfect shape, it is graded AA. The remaining less endowed apples are graded A or B.

The apples are also graded according to their sizes by machine or manually. The apple is held in one hand, and depending on the number of fingers used to encircle it, the size is determined. Four fingers means the apple is "extra-large, three fingers "large", two "medium", one "small" Smaller than that that are pittu. Every apple is placed in its respective heap. Each has a market where it secures the best price.

When trucks are being loaded with the packed crates of fruit, the work can continue till wee hours. But then that is all part of the "season" for the orchardist and his family.

Stokes believed in the ethics of manual farm work. He personally pruned apple trees. His family, including his wife, joined in the work of picking, sorting, grading and packing. He wanted to insist in his children, "the dignity of manual labour".

Double standards are so much a part of today’s leader — the village school for village children, and the public school for one’s own. Stokes, on the other hand, set up a school both for his seven children and for the 30 children of the village in 1925. The apple business in the initial years, met the expenses of his school. Stokes insisted that every child, including his own, should work for 45 minutes in the orchard.

As the village children at Kotgarh learnt the ‘three Rs,’ they also imbibed the techniques of modern farming. Over a generation, many of the unlettered, small and marginal peasant farmers forced to work as begaris transformed into literate orchardists, skilled at picking and grading fruit, adept in the techiques of manuring, spraying and pruning and learning to cope with the wily arhtiya in the market.

It was this generation of farmers which transformed the economy of the area. "Apple has changed the minds of the villagers of Kotgarh and neighbouring places of Thanedhar to a great extent. There was a time when all these people were in abject poverty and depended for foodgrains on the people of the lower valleys", mused an old teacher from Kirti village. "We were hesitant to marry our daughters to them, but the position has reversed".

Stokes’ efforts virtually forklifted the economy from subsistent farming to modern commercial cropping of fruit in the upper hills. He adapted the American practices of production and marketing, but unlike America where the fruit is grown in multi-hectare farms, it was suitably adapted into a crop for marginal, small as well as large farms. Today it is not unusual for farmers of small orchards, to pick, pack and dispatch their own crop to the market, and then work in larger neighbouring farms.

The development of the temperate heights transformed the economy of the people with unirrigated lands. The success story of Kotgarh was to be replicated in most other parts of the temperate ridges.

Apple has become the dominant crop in the temperate heights above 6000 ft. At present, about one-eighth of the total cultivated area of Himachal Pradesh is under apple cultivation, and much of it is concentrated in Shimla district. The cultivated area has increased to over 78,000 hectares, with an annual average production of 15 million boxes, and higher whenever weather conditions are ideal.


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