Apple industry, which is by and large concentrated in Kashmir valley, contributes nearly 8% to the domestic product of the UT of Jammu and Kashmir.
As against this, tourism sector, which has a presence in both regions of the UT, contributes 6% to the domestic product (GK Oct 24, 2022).
This figure may change slightly, with the phenomenal increase in the number of tourists visiting the valley, of late, but horticulture sector will continue to be a core sector of the economy, because the area under cultivation of fruit crops is increasing every year and modern technologies of cultivation are also being employed for increasing the rate of productivity.
The concerned departments are taking various steps for increasing the rate of productivity from the present level of 10-11 NT/ha, towards the international level of 15 MT/ha.
According to Prof Nissar Ali, a well known economist, ‘horticulture represents the backbone of Kashmir’s economy’. Timely transportation of fruit to the market has always posed a challenge, for one reason or another, which will come under discussion later in this write up.
I recall that when I was first posted as Agriculture Production Commissioner in 1985, one of my major challenges that stared me in the face, was on account of the system of Duty Slip System, for allotment of trucks for carrying fruit to Delhi, which the erstwhile state government had introduced some years back.
Although this system was meant for making the allotment process equitable, in practice, it introduced a huge element of corruption and patronage, making the grower community weak and dependent on money and/or favours.
I lost no time in recommending abolition of this system, disappointing a huge army of officials and political cronies, who had pinned their hopes on milking the system for funding of various personal desiderata.
Application of the principle of demand and free supply of transportation vehicles, generally worked well thereafter, till other challenges cropped up from time to time, mainly on account of the mismatch between the limited road surface available and the whopping increase in the number of vehicles plying thereon, made worse by the unsettled condition of the national highway between Srinagar and Jammu.
During the current year transportation problems of fruit industry started manifesting as early as September, with more than 5000-6000 fruit laden trucks parked on the national highway on the valley side of the Banihal Tunnel. Out of this, 300 were bound for the India-Bangladesh border.
This hold-up was caused by a shooting stone issue of around 153 metres on the other side of the tunnel. In another instance, the movement of fruit from the valley was impacted as a result of allowing upward movement of traffic when the downward movement of convoys from Kashmir was scheduled. Some intervention from higher levels of administration, especially the Chief Secretary, helped in easing the situation.
The problem of transportation would have been far bigger, had the Government of India not taken a decision in 2018, to increase the axle load capacity of trucks by 20-25 per cent.
Such a decision was much needed because of the technological improvements in transport industry as well as quantitative changes in highways since 1983, when the previous review had been carried out.
The multiple hold ups in the supply of fruit to the market, coupled with excess supply after the resumption of supplies, aggravated by the inflow of untaxed Iranian apples, caused a slump in the market for apples this year. The rate obtained per box of apples (16 kg) this year, on an average, was reported to be ₹ 900-1100, as against ₹ 1200-1400 last year.
Lack of adequate storage capacity
The total storage capacity of Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage facilities in Kashmir is just about 2 lakh MT, much less than what is required, estimated to be about 5 lakh MT.
The real problem, however, is the distance between the location of apple farms from the location of markets. Although fruit growers store their apples, in CA storages, at huge cost, when they take out this fruit for dispatch to the markets, sometime in late March, or thereafter, it is already hot in the plains. Fruit thus gets exposed to very high temperatures and registers a trauma, reducing its shelf life and quality. Consequently, the prices fetched by Kashmiri apples are generally lower than those from Himachal Pradesh.
A Way Forward
It is well known in Kashmir that in early times, when the supply lines from the plains would remain closed, sometimes for weeks and months at a go, Kashmiris would relish almost fresh fruits and vegetables, stored in underground chambers, called ‘khev’, which used to last with them for several months, even upto March-April. This concept had also been known and practiced in some parts of China, as a rudimentary refrigeration technique.
Way back, in mid eighties, when Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST), was still in a fledgling state, this concept was referred to them for further study and advice on providing for on-farm cool storages for the fruit industry in Kashmir. If I recall correctly, the University did start some preliminary studies, but unfortunately, nothing conclusive materialised because the Agriculture Department also went slow on follow-up.
Recently, the concept of low cost refrigeration techniques for storage of high quality apples, has successfully been applied by a Chinese commercial enterprise, Zhaotang Caoyne Agriculture Company, based in Zhayong district, with the support of a British company, Guntner. Under this venture, apples are being stored upto eight months.
Reverting to the problem at hand, I should like like to say that it is for our post harvest technology experts to come to the rescue of our fruit growers, with innovative solutions, which can enable fruit growers to store store their fruit, soon after its picking, in properly designed underground chambers, fitted with facilities for air circulation, with the ambient lower temperatures.
SKUAST, which has made an impact by playing an important role in supporting the growth of agricultural sector sector as a whole, especially horticulture sector, ought to revive interest in this concept of utilising low cost techniques of refrigeration, so that the supply and despatch of apples to the market, can be regulated in an orderly manner. This will enable the fruit growers to fetch optimum prices and they shall no longer remain at the mercy of the middlemen from the markets.
(Mohammad Shafi Pandit, IAS (Rtd), Former Chairman, J&K Public Service Commission, has served with distinction in various departments.)
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.