Kashmir's rich apple harvest comes as unexpectedly sweet news for Centre, arrivals pick up at Azadpur mandi

Praveen Swami

New Delhi: Kashmir's apple harvest is expected to match production in 2017-2018, say figures released this week by the Jammu and Kashmir government's horticulture department €" belying fears that anger against the Centre's decision to end the state's special status, as well as labour shortages and violence, were forcing farmers to leave their fruit crop, valued at Rs 1,200 crore, to rot.

The government estimates the fruit harvest will hover around 1,956,331 metric tonnes in 2018-2019 €" similar to the 1,973,326 mt recorded in 2017-2018.

Figures for trucks with cargoes of apples, maintained at the Lakhanpur excise barrier, show 34,599 trucks crossed Jammu and Kashmir's largest commercial transit point until 9 October, carrying over 440,000 metric tons (mt.) of fruit to nation markets: 124,000 mt. of that since 1 October alone.

"We've seen a huge surge in fruit shipments this past week," said Farooq Khan, an advisor to the Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik. "This is partly because the crop ripened late this year, and partly because growers have been able to hold out for better prices, because of price-support measures introduced for the first time."

Thursday, government sources said, saw over 2,300 fruit trucks cross Lakhanpur, headed for markets in New Delhi and further south. Between between 1,200 and 1,400 fruit trucks have passed through Lakhanpur each night this fortnight, figures similar to past years.

Apples are, as usual, expected to make up the overwhelming bulk of this year's fruit production, with the government estimating production at 1,851,723 mt, marginally lower than the 1,860,463 mt recorded in 2017-2018.

The bulk of production comes from the districts of Baramulla, Kupwara, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag €" all politically-sensitive areas where economic hardship could have fuelled Islamist-led mobilisation against India.

The robust apple harvest is rare good news for the Union government, whose decision to de-operationalise Jammu and Kashmir's special constitutional status sparked a backlash that has led to educational institutions being closed since August, and crippled the tourism industry, with several top hotels downing shutters.

In addition, the government has faced sharp criticism from significant political forces in strategic allies like the United States, and there have been reports of large-scale infiltration across the Line of Control, sparking fears of a sharp escalation in violence come spring.

The apple production figures, some in the government believe, could be the first sign than the worm is turning. Less than a fortnight ago, one major international newspaper reported that 'Kashmir's apple harvest turns sour with fear and anger', one major international newspaper had reported last month, saying fear had "left fruit trees across the state bent with ripe, unpicked apples".

Fruit yields in Kashmir, however, have generally proved resilient against political conflict, government figures show. In 2016-2017, when the region was torn apart by violent protests following the killing of jihadist Burhan Wani, Kashmir produced 1,780,561 mt of fruit, including 1,688,413 mt of apples, state government figures show.

That figure marked a 10 percent decline from 2015-2016, when Kashmir's fruit orchards yielded 1,973,326 mt €" 1,860,463 mt of which comprised apples.

However, the robust yields in 2016-2017 demonstrated that farmers were able to find means to work around large swathes of rural Kashmir being being cut off by Islamist-led protestors, and migrant agricultural workers fleeing the region.

"The summer of 2016 also saw poor weather conditions for fruit production," a senior government official noted, "so the dip in production in 2016-2017 might have had more to do with the climate than political conditions."

Local newspaper reports show several apple-growing areas were hit by hail €" devastating for fruit €" even as the harvest ripened in May 2016, with orchards in central and southern Kashmir.

Inside a year though, the 2017-2018 data shows, levels of production had recovered to their 2015-2016 levels €" figures that demonstrate growers had the confidence to invest in production despite disturbed political and security conditions.

Part of the reason for this year's success, Farooq says, is the government's decision to offer price-support for apples. The Jammu and Kashmir government and the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India have partnered to ensure floor prices for apples€"peaking at ‚¹70 per kilo for the top superfine grade€"with payments made directly to growers' bank accounts.

In 2006, an Indian government task force set up by then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to revitalise Kashmir's economy reported that its fruit sector "as a whole is locked in a sub-optimal cycle of low productivity and low investment." "Productivity has been hovering at 10 tons/hectare compared to 26 tons in USA, Australia and New Zealand."

The task force, among other things, blamed this on terms of trade stacked in favour of intermediaries and commission agents, and called for a support price to be provided to growers, along with institutional credit measures.

Even though progress was made on some of the task force's recommendations, like expanding cold storage facilities, the United Progressive Alliance government failed to act on its price-support proposals.

Long-term investments are needed, though, to secure the Kashmir fruit industry's prospects, says businessman Khurram Shafi Mir, who has been working to introduce imported, high-yielding varieties that are more resistant to climate impacts and pests. "There is a lot of potential here," Mir says, "but both the political situation and the business climate have worked against it."

Following Wani's killing by the Jammu and Kashmir Police in 2016, mobs had turned their anger on Mir's experimental orchards near the village of Bamdoora, burning down workers' huts and uprooting saplings. He has, however, persisted. In 2006, an Indian government task force charged with revitalising Kashmir's economy reported that the fruit sector "as a whole is locked in a sub-optimal cycle of low productivity and low investment". The task force noted, "Productivity has been hovering at 10 tonnes/hectare compared to 26 tonnes in the US, Australia and New Zealand."

The Manmohan Singh government succeeded in implementing some of the task force's recommendations, notably by increasing the number of cold-storage facilities available in Kashmir, thus insulating farmers against supply-chain problems. However, little progress was made in implementing other key recommendations of the task force, notably expanding fruit-processing industries to pick low-grade apples, and the lack of an institutional structure for credit and inputs that stacked the terms of trade in favour of commission agents at the Azadpur wholesale market in New Delhi.

This year, the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India was for the first time involved in large-scale apple procurement, in an effort to ensure a fair floor price for the apple harvest.

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