According to farmers, production cost has risen but profits have decreased, hitting their pockets hard.
NEW DELHI: Recently, the Sanyukt Kisan Manch appealed to apple farmers to cast their votes after considering what a particular party has done to protect their interests and the promises it makes in its manifesto. As Himachal Pradesh election is approaching, apple growers have started making up their minds. According to farmers, the production cost has increased but profits have decreased and this has made a big hole in their pockets.
The Sunday Guardian reached Saroga village, approximately 73 km from the state capital Shimla, to know what problems they are facing. The village is situated in the politically important Theog constituency. Hari Chand Roach, a progressive apple farmer, has been growing apples for the last 60 years and currently he is in his eighties. But according to him, various factors like outdated plant material, disorganized market, inefficient transport, value eroded market and zero post-harvest technology have made apple growing a loss-making business.
“Today in India, farmers are using the seedling method to grow apples, but other progressive apple growing nations have moved to the rootstock method,” Roach said. According to farmers, the rootstock is far better than the seedling method. Rootstock has 2 to 3 times more production and its apples have the same size and colour. The farming season for apples starts in March when flowers start coming out and by August, the fruit comes out. Apple growers rue that there has been no support from the state government.
The World Bank Horticulture project was started to bring innovation in apple farming and introduce the elite class to disease-free crops. But according to Roach, this project brought about disaster for many farmers in the state. “The plant material was imported from Italy. But plants with the disease were imported. According to the project, plants should be imported from the nursery directly but the government directly bought them from the middleman trader “Vita Fruit”.
The left-out stock imported from Vita fruit had virus. Later, the National bureau of genetic plant resources found four viruses and asked to keep plants under observation for two years. But the same samples were sent to Palampur Agriculture University, where samples were cleared,” Roach said.
But quarantine rules were violated and plants were distributed after six months of observation. “I went to the High Court against this but to date, we got no justice,” said Roach. Apple farmers in the state form a strong vote base and in the past also, they have changed the political climate of the state. In 1990, apple farmers wanted the Shanta Kumar-led Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government to fix a minimum price for the fruit.
On 22 July that year, hundreds of farmers gathered in Kotgarh, calling for their demands to be fulfilled. In the heat of the agitation, Himachal police fired shots, leaving three farmers–Govind Singh, Hira Singh and Tara Chand–dead. The incident resulted in discontent with the saffron party as the Congress, under the late Virbhadra Singh, came back to power with a bang– winning 60 seats in the 68-member Assembly. According to SKM, apple farmers have a presence in around 30 constituencies and around 2 lakh families are directly dependent on the fruit trade.
There are eight types of diseases which impact apple cultivation. According to apple farmers, they are getting no support from the government. Many farmers believe that the Himachal Pradesh government has neglected them and because of this, their profit has shrunk. The government took away the subsidies on fungicides and other things and increased GST on items essential for the industry, and this has irked many farmers.
“Earlier, we used to get subsidies on pesticides but now the government has taken it. Earlier, we were getting pesticides from the horticulture department but now we are handed over to market forces. They charge us more and they decide the prices,” Kaushal Kumar, an apple farmer, said.
Roach has around 14 acres of land and from this land, he makes 12 lakh rupees but his income fluctuates. According to Roach and Kaushal, every five years, three crops are successful but the rest two are rendered bad due to weather or plant disease. But the alternative market has brought some respite to farmers. “Earlier, middlemen use to decide the price of apples, but now after the entry of corporates, the competition has increased and because of this, some farmers are getting a good price. Alternate market, farm grade market and the rural market should be developed,” Roach said.
“Storage units should be developed so that they can accommodate 50% of products to control supply and demand,” Kaushal said. According to farmers, an apple touches the hands of 14 people and it provides employment to them. They are asking for rebates and subsidies from the government. Currently, no party has a clear mandate of apple farmers in Himachal Pradesh.