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A glut, low prices & high costs — why Himachal’s apple farmers are a bitter lot as polls near

Shimla: With a little over a month left before assembly polls are due in Himachal Pradesh, the state’s unhappy apple farmers have been in talks with the Jai Ram Thakur-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to combat low apple prices following a glut in production.

The apple season in Himachal runs from July to October. Traditionally, the crop is sold at 10 Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis across the state, where rates are decided in an open auction based on quality, size, and colour specifications.

According to Digvijay Kalta, president of the Rohru fruit market, this year the market arrivals are expected to cross 4 crore boxes (of 20 kg each), much higher than last year’s production of around 3 crore boxes.

“Apart from the record harvest in Himachal, the importation of duty-free apples from Iran and a good harvest in Kashmir have also led to local prices crashing,” Kalta said.

There’s such a glut of arrivals that no one wants to procure the inferior-grade apples generally used to make juice, said Anup Koshmishon, a trader at Dhalli and Parala mandis. “So, in many packaging centres, apples are rotting.”

Sohan Lal Thakur, whose family has been growing apples for three generations in the state’s Theog constituency, has a 16.5-acre apple farm and, till about a decade ago, he and his family used to live off the earnings from the orchard comfortably. “There was a time when we used to earn good returns, but for the past 10 years, farmers have been getting the same price for their produce,” he said.

With prices crashing, some of the farmers’ ire is directed towards Adani Agri Fresh, even though the company buys just about 25,000 tonnes, or 4 per cent, of the state’s annual production of 6.25 lakh tonnes. Adani Agri Fresh, which directly procures the harvest from growers, opened its procurement prices for the current season with a range from Rs 76 per kg for A-grade apples to Rs 15 per kg for C-grade apples, and slashed prices later as arrivals surged.

“The company procures only 25,000 tonnes of apples in the entire season, but has distorted prices in the entire market with its low buying price. If things don’t improve, the apple industry will be destroyed in four to five years,” complained Thakur.

Kishan Verma agrees. He farms on 3.3 acres of land in Sarog village in Shimla district and bemoans the costly packaging material and low farm-gate prices, i.e. the net price of a product when it leaves the farm, after subtracting marketing costs.

“The government knows the apple industry is the bread and butter of the Himachali people. Yet, they don’t bother to frame policies that will make the lives of apple growers better,” he said, asking: “Why can’t the government promise a minimum support price (MSP) for apples?”

In response to the farmers’ complaints, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur told ThePrint, “As soon as the farmers raised the issue of (high) input costs, we gave a (6 per cent) subsidy on Goods and Services Tax (GST). The state is working to resolve issues for the welfare of apple farmers.”

According to reports, Himachal Pradesh’s apple economy is estimated to be worth Rs 5,500 crore, and Himachal’s apple growers have considerable political clout in Shimla district — where up to 70 per cent of the state’s apples are grown — along with Kinnaur, Solan and some parts of Mandi and Sirmaur.

Together, these districts comprise the apple belt in Himachal and account for 20 of the state’s 68 assembly constituencies. The party currently holds only two of the eight assembly seats in Shimla.

In August, the state government formed a committee — comprising farmers, representatives of the state government, and private players — under the chairmanship of Rajeshwar Singh Chandel, the Vice-Chancellor of Dr Yashwant Singh Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan district, to address concerns raised by the apple growers and monitor wholesale prices.

Now, with less than two months to go for the poll season, the BJP has little time left to address the farmers’ issues. The state government has already convened three meetings of the committee in the past month in a bid to resolve issues.

Also read: There’s a saffron surge in Kashmir this year, but it’s the spice, not politics

Anger towards Adani Agri Fresh

According to Sanjay Chauhan, convenor of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM — not to be confused with the body of the same name that was involved in the anti-farm law protests), an umbrella body of 27 apple growers’ associations in the state, the opening price for apples fixed by Adani in 2017 was Rs 85 per kg. “Now, five years later, while input costs have grown by more than 50 per cent, the procurement price has come down to Rs 76 per kg,” said Chauhan.

The SKM has been leading protests against the lack of MSP for apples, the 18 per cent GST on packaging materials, and Adani Agri Fresh slashing procurement prices.

Chauhan added that farmers tend to their orchards for the entire year, but the bulk of the harvest is sold at Rs 30-40 per kg, which does not cover the costs of farming.

In September, Adani Agri Fresh further reduced its procurement price for all categories of apples as the supply glut intensified. However, the company defended its actions.

“Procurement prices are always discovered by the market on the basis of prevailing conditions, which include demand and supply, the total yield, and the quality of the crop. In Himachal Pradesh, this year’s harvest is better in both quality and variety of apples than in past years. Besides paying the apple farmers higher prices than prevailing market prices, we also offer them several other facilities, such as free crates and hail nets, timely payments, and more,” said Anshuman Gunjan, a spokesperson for Adani Agri Fresh.

Negotiations with the government  

Speaking to ThePrint, Lokwinder Singh, a farmer and a member of the state government committee, said: “We have demanded that there should be one procurement price for the entire season. This will help farmers and procurement agencies.”

Two other key demands farmers have put forth are a uniform box size for apples, and relaxation in the ‘colour classification’ criteria, which also influence prices.

Private players procure apples based on various criteria, and one of these is colour. Apples have three colour categories — 80 to 100 per cent red, 60 to 80 per cent red, and below 60 per cent red. Apple growers have demanded that stores revise their colour classification to the following: 70 to 100 per cent, 50 to 70 per cent, and up to 50 per cent.

Apart from this, the farmers have also asked for the following: Fungicide to be made available in government shops, relief from GST, a horticulture board to address the concerns of apple and other fruit growers, an increase in import duty on apples coming in from Iran and Afghanistan, procurement of apples by a state agency at MSP as in Kashmir, and the development of small cold storage units.

The government has accepted some of these demands, including setting up a horticulture board, instituting a sub-committee to revise colour classifications, and GST relief.

According to the SKM’s Chauhan, though, at a 2 September meeting of the government committee, the matter of colour classification of apples was discussed, but without any result.

“Now, the apple season is about to end and the price in large mandis has come down from Rs 2,400-2,200 (for 20 kg) boxes to Rs 1,400-1,800 (for 20-25 kg) boxes,” the convener said.

The chairperson of the government panel, Chandel, told ThePrint that “it is not feasible to fix the procurement price for apples”.

“Prices are driven by demand-supply factors. We can only fix issues like colour-classification and incentivise cultivators through subsidies on packaging material and fungicides. The government has formed a sub-committee for the colour classification issue and we have asked private stores to revise the colour classification,” Chandel said.

Also read: Apple trade from Kashmir sees a 44% dip in October-end, militant attacks blamed

‘Exploiting farmers’

The farmers are also unhappy with local and outstation buyers and other private players who procure apples from them through wholesale mandis.

“While Adani Agri Fresh procured 24,000 tonnes of apples till September, other private players did not begin procuring when the price was high. They have only started buying now, in September, when the prices have fallen to Rs 40 a kg,” said apple grower Verma, who was quoted earlier.

Farmer Pradeep Tamta, who comes from the Kotkhai region to sell his apple crop in Shimla’s wholesale mandi, said: “Only small, local buyers and middlemen are making money. They are stocking the crop to make larger profits later. While we sell at Rs 50 per kg, they sell apples at more than Rs 120 per kg in Delhi and Mumbai.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Naresh Thakur, managing director of the Himachal APMC, said the government is looking into grievances. “As soon as the farmers’ association raised the issue about 18 per cent GST on packaging material, the government announced a 6 per cent subsidy,” he said.

But Rakesh Singha, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA from Theog constituency and one of the forces behind the farmers’ agitation, called these efforts “a lot of eyewash”.

“Getting a subsidy is a tedious process and the apple season is about to end. The government committee could not even suggest a minimum price for procurement in two months,” he said.

Himachal’s apple politics

The Congress, which is looking to return to power in Himachal, and which during byelections last year won three assembly seats as well as the crucial Lok Sabha seat of Mandi, has been targeting the BJP for “ignoring” the concerns of the apple growers.

CM Thakur, on the other hand, said the Congress,is trying to exploit the farmers’ issue for political gain.

According to a BJP leader, who wished not to be named, the “Congress is making apple farmers’ problems an election issue”, adding that “former Himachal CM Virbhadra Singh’s son Vikramaditya is himself taking part in the SKM protests, and even the Left is eyeing more seats by raising the apple issue”. Theog MLA Singha is currently the Left’s sole legislator in the state.

“It shows that they want to take advantage of the resentment, but we are careful and the state is working overtime to address the concerns of cultivators,” the BJP leader said.

A Himachal state minister told ThePrint: “Since this is election time, the government can’t afford to ignore the farmers, so the majority of their demands have been accepted in the last two meetings of the committee.”

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: Fake pesticides sold during Covid lockdown hit Kashmir apple quality, price

Source: The Print

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