Can Apple Farmers Revive the Congress's Fortunes in Himachal Pradesh?

It appears that the Congress is hoping for a repeat of the 1993 election when the BJP government had lost against the backdrop of a similar agitation by apple farmers in the state.

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Chandigarh: Apart from restoring the old pension scheme, the Congress in its manifesto released on November 5 promised to increase the income of apple growers in Himachal Pradesh.

The state is set to go to polls on November 12, Saturday. The counting of votes will be held on December 8.

Apple growers have a considerable political influence in around 18-20 constituencies in the Shimla region. These include Solan, Sirmour and parts of Kullu and Mandi districts.

In its manifesto, the Congress has promised to set up a horticulture commission with apple growers as its members. Based on the commission’s recommendation, the state will decide on the minimum support price (MSP) for each category of apple.

The party manifesto added that market players won’t be allowed to buy apples from the growers below the MSP, even if it is Adani’s company.

Adani Agri Fresh, a subsidiary of Adani Group, is among the major apple procurers from the Himachal Pradesh market.

The Wire had earlier reported that over the last few years, apple growers have been unhappy with Adani Group’s lower procurement rates, which had led to a huge uproar among the farmers.

In August, apple farmers had staged protests outside the Adani Group centres in the state, against lower procurement rates, rising input costs and depleting incomes. Later, they had also held protests against the hike in the goods and services tax (GST) on packaging material from 12% to 18%.

Apple growers protest outside Adani procurement centre in Rohru, Himachal Pradesh, on August 22, 2022. Photo: author provided

A similar agitation in 1990 had led to the downfall of the Shanta Kumar-led BJP government in the 1993 election. The violent agitation had left three farmers dead.

It appears that the Congress is hoping for a repeat of the BJP’s downfall in the upcoming polls. The BJP, on the other hand, seems to believe that the situation is under control as it has rightly addressed the growers’ concerns in its manifesto.

Also read: Ahead of Himachal Pradesh Polls, Congress and BJP Appeal to Religious Sentiments

Poll promises

In response to the Congress’s strategy, the BJP in its manifesto said that it will ensure that the apple farmers do not have to pay more than 12% GST rate on apple packaging material.

It also promised a market intervention scheme (MIS) for apples and other fruits to ensure the profitability of growers.

In 2020, the Union government had implemented an MIS in Kashmir to protect the interest of apple growers.

Under this scheme, government agencies purchase apples from the growers to stabilise the procurement rates, ensuring that the growers don’t face any losses. The losses, if any, are incurred proportionately by the state and the Union government.

This scheme is useful, especially, when there’s a drop in the prices of apples.

Reacting to the BJP’s manifesto, Rajiv Shukla, AICC in-charge for Himachal Pradesh, dubbed it as anotherjumla (gimmick), saying that the BJP should first present its report card for the last five years.

“The BJP is saying that 12% GST will be levied on the cartons of apples, while the Congress is saying that there will be no GST on the cartons and that whatever is applicable will be removed,” said Shukla.

Leader of Opposition Mukesh Angihotri said since the BJP has been insensitive to the demand of apple growers, it will face defeat in this election.

Chetan Bragta, BJP’s candidate from the Jubbal-Kotkhai constituency, one of the major apple belts of the state, told The Wire that the Congress’s narrative is misleading and lacked substance.

“I am not saying that apple growers don’t have issues. The BJP government was very supportive of the growers and addressed their demands on priority. We have rightly taken up their pending issues in our poll manifesto, which will be addressed by our government,” he added

Lokinder Bisht, an apple grower from Shimla and also president of the Progressive Growers Association, however, told The Wire that the growers’ resentment against the government cannot be ignored.

“The prime reason [for the growers’ resentment against the government] is the increase in input cost, which almost doubled, especially after COVID-19 and there was no relief from the government,” he added.

Sanjay Chauhan, co-convener of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), which had organised the protests against the BJP government and Adani Group, told The Wire that the government has been making a lot of promises ahead of the election but the question is, why did it not deliver on its promises earlier.

“It was due to our agitation that the issues of apple growers have become the focus of this election. The question is, who can deliver on their promises this time,” he added.

The election campaign is set to end on November 10.

On November 8, BJP national president J.P. Nadda made a last ditch effort to woo apple growers by addressing several rallies in apple orchard constituencies.

Addressing a rally at Rampur Bushahr, one of the major apple growing regions of the state, Nadda asked the people to fight for their future rather than get carried away by emotions.

Congress leader Sachin Pilot, while addressing a rally at Kharapathar, the main trading centre for apples in the Jubbal-Kotkhai region, said that the Rs 5,000-crore apple economy of the state has suffered adversely due to the ignorant attitude of the government.

“Apple’s economy is one of the biggest economies of the state. The BJP government abolished subsidies on the pesticides and fungicides in the state,” he said.

He added that the Congress will fulfil the commitments made to the people in its manifesto.