As thousands of trucks laden with apples were struck on the Srinagar-Jammu highway connecting the Valley with the rest of the country, resentment has been growing over the closure of the road during apple season.
While the fruit growers say they are suffering losses in crores as the quality of apples deteriorates after apple trucks remain stranded for days together on the highway, the government says it is clearing the road.
Prominent political leaders have joined the issue with former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti threatening that she would hold a protest against it on the highway. She accused the government of turning Kashmir into a big prison. “If you will not open the national highway for fruit trucks, we will block the highway for all,” she said. “I want to warn Governor Sahab (Lt Governor Manoj Sinha) not to test the patience of Kashmiris,” she said. She accused the government of restoring economic terrorism to punish Kashmiris economically. “We will defeat this conspiracy,” she added.
Fruit growers of the valley say over 8,000 trucks carrying apples were stranded on the highway for the past two weeks causing harm to the produce.
Fruit growers on Monday shut down mandis in Kashmir for two days in protest against the disruption of traffic along with the Srinagar-Jammu highway.
They say thousands of trucks carrying apples were getting stranded along the national highway, particularly near the 20km stretch from Qazigund to Banihal. They further add that after the long delay when apple reached the mandis in Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, fruit starts rotting and its prices go down.
At the Sopore Fruit Mandi in north Kashmir, considered one of the largest fruit mandis in India, the traders say their vehicles are deliberately being stopped. “Why our vehicles are detained for long on the highway?” Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, president of Sopore Fruit Mandi, tells Outlook. He had sought transfer of the SSP highway. On its part, the government Wednesday morning removed the SSP Highway Shabir Ahmad Malik. In September alone, Bhat says the fruit growers of the Valley have lost around Rs 700 crores on account of detaining of apple trucks for the days together on the highway. Bhat says drivers were being thrashed and harassed.
A delegation of the fruit growers had met the senior officials to redress the issue. “They are telling us across Ramban district traffic jam occurs. But our argument is that why this traffic jam is not cleared for several days and it is harming the quality of Kashmiri apple and reduces its price drastically when it reaches mandis,” Bhat said.
Bhat says normally the trucks should reach Delhi in three days, and Kolkata in six to seven days but when trucks are stopped on the highway for ten days, it harms the production and causes huge loss to the apple industry. “Our export to Bangladesh is going to suffer as the country is closing border on September 28 for six days. We had planned to dispatch apple trucks in a way as they would reach to India-Bangladesh border before September 28. The whole schedule was disrupted by halting of the trucks at the highway,” Bhat adds.
On Tuesday evening, the Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Pandurang K Pole claimed almost all Jammu-bound trucks were cleared and normal traffic on National Highway has been restored. Pole said more than 4,000 trucks were sent through the National Highway on Tuesday and 1250 vehicles were sent through Mughal Road to the Jammu side. He adds that normal traffic on the national highway has been restored.
Kashmir’s apple economy faced a major crisis after the Centre government-imposed restrictions on public movement on August 5, 2019, to thwart protests against the abrogation of Article 370. With no labourers around, the delayed harvest that year led to losses.
In the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic lockdown fruit growers couldn’t visit their orchards to spray pesticides. This, according to them, led to scab diseases affecting around 60 per cent of the crop.
This year, however, fruit growers there have bumper crops but the highway closure is affecting its sale.
The annual production of apples in the Kashmir Valley ranges from 1.5 million to 1.8 million metric tons and the total cold storage capacity in the Valley is 1.20,000 to 1.30,000 MTs. The valley’s biggest economy, Rs 10,000 crore apple industry, provides a livelihood to around 3.5 million people in the region.
The apple story in Kashmir started in the 1950s, soon after the land reforms. Apple cultivation was confined to the Sopore area of the north Kashmir region and 12,000 hectares of the land was under the apple in 1952. For the next decade, the valley would produce around 48,000 MT of apples, which were locally consumed. In 1962, when the government established the Horticulture Department and two decades later the Sheri Kashmir University of Agriculture, Science and Technology (SKUAST) it turned the economy of the farmers. The horticulture area expanded to 2,19,723 hectares with 7 lakh families comprising 33 lakh people directly or indirectly associated with the industry. In 1990 the area under apple cultivation was 68,723 hectares. In 2016, the area has increased to 1.858 lakh hectares. In 2017 apple production was around 17 lakh MTs. In 2016 it was 16 lakh MTs. In 1999-2000 the production was about 11.06 lakh tones.