Kashmir's Fruit Economy: Need to Reassess our Options

Covid-19 adversely affected all walks of life across globe. There is hardly any human activity that has been left out from its impact. Not just the virus but the fear of this virus has proved to be equally, if not more, dangerous. This fear has ruined economies across continents after respective Governments were forced to impose lockdowns. This has led to slashing down of GDP estimates by countries, closure of businesses and layoffs owing to and resulting in sluggish market activities. Both consumption and production of goods have slowed down mainly due to non availability of labour, access to raw material and markets. Jammu and Kashmir is not an exception to this onslaught of the virus.

Jammu & Kashmir in general and Kashmir in particular is an industrially backward region for a multitude of reasons. Non availability of cheap labour, raw material, facilities like affordable electricity, access to markets and no upgradation of technology on one side and frequent shutdowns, curfews, and unrest have all led to industrial backwardness of the region. The economy of the region is heavily dependent on agricultural output of the region; particularly that of fruits and other cash crops. As per Government estimates, horticulture sector contributes significantly to the state economy and is a source of livelihood for 3.3 million of the population. Kashmiri Apples earned Rs 6,500 crore in exports in 2016-17 and contributes about 10% of the state’s gross domestic product. (cited from The Wire 26.09.2019). As per another Report published in Economic Times in 2019, the apple economy employs an estimated 3.5 million people in various stages of production and sale. (Cited from The Economic Times August 9 2019). However the economy of the region was under severe strain since August 2019. The area was under severe lockdown since August 2019 post abrogation of Article 370 and 35A. With imposition of further lockdown due to Covid 19, economy of the region has been crippled further posing a new set of challenges for the region and to the survival of its inhabitants.

The consecutive lockdowns have thrown open new challenges to the economy of the region in general and fruit economy in particular. One such challenge is inability of producers to have access to markets outside the territory of J & K. This is more true in the context of fruits like apples produced in the region. Apple producers of Valley have suffered huge losses due to the lockdown imposed since August 2019. First, the fruit could not reach mandis in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere in time due to frequent blocking of the only Highway linking Kashmir with outside world. The trucks carrying loads of fruits were stranded for days on highway leading to rotting of the fruit. Secondly, once the highway was opened intermittently, a huge volume of fruit reached these mandis at once resulting in more supply than demand and consequent fetching of lower prices. A good portion of fruits were stored in cold storages intended to be sold after relaxation in lockdown after during the months of March and onwards. However, due to Covid19 and resultant lockdown the fruit could not reach markets outside the region resulting in more losses to the business community associated with the trade.

There are, however, important lessons that need to be learnt by the business community of the region. They need to reassess the whole situation and sharpen their skills to take these challenges head-on. Such challenges can be tackled and its adverse impact may be mitigated if not totally overcome. While on the one hand the agricultural produce of the region is heavily dependent on the markets located outside the region, on the other hand recent years have witnessed huge local demand for such produce. There is certainly a change in pattern of consumption in the region. This needs to be studied scientifically. As per a Report published in Greater Kashmir in 2019, Kashmir Valley imports 230 trucks of melons daily. (Cited from Greater Kashmir May 26 2019). As per another estimate in the year 2017 Kashmir consumed melons worth 2.7 core rupees each day (cited from Kashmir Life June 14 2017). This must be true for other fruits like banana, mangoe and grapes etc. This implies that local population spends a good amount of money on purchase of fruit imported from outside the region and has the potential to consume locally produced fruit in good quantity as well. Therefore the producers of the valley need to pay their attention towards the local available markets as well. If the data given above is to be believed there seems to be huge potential in our local market as well. The local market has its own advantages also. It is easily accessible, less expensive owing to less transportation costs, less or no storage costs due to favorable climatic conditions, lesser taxes in the form of tolls etc, and lesser middlemen are involved. Further, the option of sending fruit to markets outside is always available to any trader if local market gets saturated or fetches lesser price. Such an option is not available once the fruit (being of perishable nature) is sent to mandis outside the region. Going through social media posts on different platforms, recently the campaigns like Consume Local Apples were trending. People of the valley are willing to consume locally produced fruit provided that quality of the fruit is good and the prices are affordable. Though many people have voiced their concern on the availability of quality apples at affordable rates, in my opinion, given the benefits of supplying fruit to local markets, both these problems can easily be managed. Let the local market be the first desired destination of the local produce. This will help prevent local producers from being over dependent on markets outside the region one the one hand and generate more local employment on the other.

The way this pandemic and consequent lockdowns have shaken economies across the world, it is high time that all local stakeholders involved in the trade come forward and make combined efforts to tap the potential of home markets first. In this, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Fruit Growers Associations and Retailers bodies need to come together and study this option jointly in a scientific manner and devise methods to exploit local untapped market.

Showkat Hussain Shah works  for J&K Bank (Law Department).