Jahangir Shah is a worried man. At Cheki-Hanjan village in the picturesque district of Kulgam in south Kashmir, Shah tends to his apple orchards, an 8-acre expanse that has long been the lifeline of his family. However, the burgeoning apple blossoms that should have filled him with hope have instead brought him a sense of foreboding, courtesy the recent revision of tariff on the premium Washington apple. The unease stems from a decision made in June when New Delhi slashed an additional 20 per cent from the previously imposed 70 per cent tariff on premium Washington apple during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States.
For Shah, the memory of last year’s tribulations looms large. Despite a bountiful harvest of 3,000 apple boxes, he found himself staring at a loss of Rs 3 lakh.
“The culprit was the duty-free entry of Iranian apple into the Indian market via Afghanistan, a development that dealt a severe blow to Kashmiri apple growers,” says Zahoor Ahmad Rather, president of the J&K Committee of Apple Farmers’ Federation of India, who sat alongside Shah.
Once priced at Rs 1,200, Shah’s apple crates were sold at a meagre Rs 300-400. It was a grim financial equation, with mounting expenses, including those for fertilisers and boxes, ultimately pushing him into debt. “I don’t know how I’ll manage to repay this debt,” Shah admits, worry etched across his face.
Drawing a sharp contrast between the imported apples and those cultivated locally, Zahoor Rather says, “Imported apples from the US and other countries boast of impeccable quality, exhibiting vibrant colours and substantial size. Our apples excel only in flavour. Obviously, consumers are attracted to the visual appeal of the apple.”
He says the growers in America and other countries receive substantial subsidies from their governments, while the farmers in Kashmir “bear the brunt of escalating costs, devoid of government support”. The imported apples, he adds, enter the market at significantly lower price points due to the subsidies provided to them by their respective governments.
“The slashing of import tariff has added to our woes,” says Rather. “The Indian market should prioritise indigenous growers, which is why we advocate 100 per cent import duty. Reduced prices may be beneficial for buyers, but they come at the cost of our livelihood.”
New Delhi’s decision to reduce import duties now allows imported apples to inundate the market at affordable rates while maintaining high quality, presenting an uphill battle for local growers. The challenges have been compounded by the government’s recent move to impose 100 per cent customs duty on apples exported to Bangladesh.
“We had a huge market for the locally produced apple in Bangladesh. The customs duty has pushed the prices from Rs 35 per kg to an exorbitant Rs 135, making it increasingly difficult for us to sell our crop in Bangladesh,” says Rather.
More than seven lakh apple-growing families are dependent on Kashmir’s Rs 12,000-crore apple industry. The region produces 22 lakh MT of fresh fruit annually.
However, the use of substandard pesticides due to a lack of regulations and import of high-density apple trees from Europe without quarantine measures have fuelled a surge in infections, severely compromising the quality of Kashmir’s apples. “Over the past three years, an unidentified pest has ravaged the foliage of apple trees across Kashmir, adversely affecting the quality. It has stumped scientists, leaving growers helpless and crops devastated,” Rather says.
In Kashmir, the price and quality of pesticides remain unregulated, lacking a standardised rate list. A pesticide that once cost Rs 400 has now inflated to Rs 600. After 16 rounds of pesticide spraying, the cost-benefit balance appears severely skewed.
“Premimum Kashmir apples reach the market at Rs 700 per crate but are sold for a mere Rs 400 due to increased competition and lack of government support, leaving growers with a massive deficit,” he claims. In contrast, he points out, the United States extends subsidies for machinery and fertilisers to its growers, resulting in competitively priced apples.
Due to the unregulated pesticide business in Kashmir, farmers and orchardists are duped with substandard products at higher prices. The substandard pesticides are causing a huge damage to crops and putting an economic burden on farmers and orchardists, who have been facing losses over the years due to bad weather and absence of insurance cover. In 2019, a video went viral on social media showing stained crushed stones being sold as fertiliser by a private company in south Kashmir.
Rather points out that in Himachal Pradesh, not many districts produce apples, yet the state has a horticulture university to combat infections and improve crop quality. In contrast, apples are produced in at least 10 districts in Kashmir but it lacks a horticulture university to support growers. Even the controlled atmosphere storage capacity, which according to official figures is nearly 2 lakh MT, falls short of ensuring an extended shelf life for apples and other fruits.
“Our crops get destroyed due to climate change-induced weather vagaries or sub-standard pesticides, but we have never heard of any government help,” he says. It needs to establish weather stations across Kashmir to forewarn the growers about impending weather conditions, he adds.
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