Kashmir: COVID-19 Lockdown Adds to Woes of Apple Growers and Traders

Apples from the last harvest could not be sold because of restrictions imposed after the dilution of Article 370 and the COVID-19 crisis has come as a double whammy.

Shopian: With apple blooms sprouting, growers are worried that they may face huge economic losses due to disruptions in the supply chain due to the continued nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, which has been extended until May 3.

Even as they spray pesticide and fertilizer in their orchards, a considerable number of growers are worried. Many of them are yet to sell their produce from the last year, held in cold storage. They are neither able to send their produce to different mandis across the country nor are there any buyers due to the intense lockdown.

Ghulam Mohammad, a grower from the district is busy spraying the second round of pesticides in his orchard. He is among hundreds of growers who stored their produce from the last harvesting season, storing around 600 boxes. In normal circumstances, he says he would have sold them by now. But he is a worried man now. “How will I pay for the fertilizer and pesticide that I have used if I am not able to sell the fruit?” he asks.

He has made frantic calls to other growers, enquiring if they have sold their produce but has found that they are facing the same fate.

For the sector, which was already facing the economic consequences of the Centre’s decision to impose a lockdown after the dilution of Article 370, the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic coinciding with the spring season has come as a double whammy. Orchardists in the region fear these developments will have serious repercussions for the Valley’s economy. Although the authorities have eased restrictions for the operators of cold storages, in the absence of buyers and trucks to carry the produce to other stations, farmers are left in limbo.

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Anil Anand, a forwarding agent based in Delhi said, “The government is allowing us to open our outlets from 2 pm to 6 pm only. There are no buyers around that time. Usually, we sell during the morning hours.” Traders based at the Sabzi Mandi in Delhi’s Azadpur said that one firm is allowed to transport goods only from one vehicle in a day, which affects the whole supply chain.

Another trader said that in case no buyers come, the fruit boxes are kept in the mandi, where the hot temperature spoils the fruit. This again results in losses to the growers and traders who send it to Delhi.

As many as one lakh tonnes of apples are stored in cold storage units based in Lassipora in Pulwama and Aglar in Shopian and other areas of north Kashmir. According to the traders, before the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, the demand for the stored apples was satisfactory. With the lockdown, their hopes of making up for the losses incurred in 2019 due to blockades imposed in the aftermath of the dilution of Article 370 have been washed away.

Izhan Javid, a Lassipora based cold storage chain owner, said that the current lockdown has had a worse impact on the sector than the one imposed after the August 5, 2019, decision.

A desolate road in the Khanyar neighbourhood of Srinagar. Photo: PTI

“Last year, the closure of highways and the government-imposed ban brought havoc to the sector. Now the COVID-19 lockdown is doing it,” he said. He says usually, the fare for transporting apples is around Rs 15,000 per truck around this time of the year. Now, drivers are charging around Rs 35,000, he says, adding that even at the inflated cost, there are few trucks available.

One of the biggest worries for the traders and growers is that ideally, the fruit should not be stored in cold storage for more than seven months. “After seven months, the fruit begins to sustain damage. That period has already ended for the previous harvest,” said Abdul Hameed Bhat, a trader who has been in the business for a decade. He says there are no hopes of any relief from any quarter, not even the government. Like him, Ghulam Mohammad too isn’t expecting any relief, claiming that the government has not even compensated him for the damage caused by early snowfall in November last year.

Cold storages charge growers Rs 30 per box every month. For seven months, they have to pay around Rs 215 for a 16-kilogram box, which is in addition to the expenses spent on fertilizer, pesticide, labour and transportation. By this metric, the charges to store one lakh tonnes of apples will cost Rs 100 crore. Whether they sell the apples or they rot, these are charges that the growers must pay.

Experts estimate that the apples stored in cold storage units are worth Rs 900 crore. The loss of such a huge amount will wreak havoc on the sector.

In 2019, a record 1.5 lakh metric ton of apples was stored in cold units in Kashmir. The post-August 5 circumstances forced most growers to store the produce rather than selling it.

Many traders and growers who spoke to The Wire said that only a relief package from the government will help the sector. Otherwise, most of them will go bankrupt as the losses are not bearable.

Bilal Ahmed has stored around 1,500 boxes at a Lassipora based cold storage in 2018 and 2019. “There are many people who have stored 10,000-20,000 boxes of apples in cold storage after buying it from growers. Where will these people go, who will support them?” he asked.

According to official data, Kashmir produced around 23 lakh metric tonnes of apple last year, of which around 4% was stored in cold storage units.

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Last year, apples from Kashmir were sold at their lowest rates in a decade according to people associated with the sector. According to experts, the demand and supply parameters were not maintained in the fruit supply chain, leading to losses.

Most traders have taken business loans from banks and financial institutions, while growers have taken Kisan Credit Card (KCC) loans from banks. As they sustained losses, most of them have failed to pay their debts from last year.

According to the government’s figures, early snowfall last year saw 38% of the trees sustaining damage. It not only damaged the standing crop last year but also reduced the fruit-bearing capacity of trees.

Apples damaged by early snowfall in Kashmir. Photo: Reuters

Impact of continued lockdown

During the COVID-19 lockdown, many mandis across different states in the country, like in Maharashtra, are not allowing fruit-laden trucks.

Even those apples that are able to reach markets are going for significantly lesser rates due to a dip in the demand. The grade A apples, which are usually sold for Rs 1,000-1,200 around this time of the year are now going for Rs 500-600.

For now, the farmers are eager for some good news. With the detection of more COVID-19 cases in the Valley, their spirits are down. If the spread is not contained, the growers will be forced to throw away their produce.

Professor Imtiyaz Ahmad, from the Department of Economics at the University of Kashmir, said that Kashmir’s economy depends on the horticulture sector. If this sector faces any issues, it will percolate to the other sectors. “There is no indication that the government will provide relief to the affected people,” he said, adding that 70% of the economy is directly or indirectly dependent on the apple industry.

Raashid Hassan is a journalist based in South Kashmir and Ishtiaq Wani is a freelance journalist.