ON September 12, Mohammad Ashraf, an apple cultivator from Shopian, some 52 km south of Kashmir, dispatched a truck full of apples to Gujarat, hoping to sell them at better prices amidst jacked up input costs.
However, it took nearly a fortnight for the truck to reach its outstation destination, and by then, almost the entire produce had gone bad. It was sold for a song.
“I was unable to recoup the freight and other production costs”, says Ashraf.
The lorry was stuck along the arterial Jammu-Srinagar National Highway for more than a week as the administration did not allow the trucks to move forward.
Over the past two weeks, the frequent disruption in the movement of trucks had led to huge tailbacks. Some truckers complained that they were stuck for a full week.
“I was stopped at Qazigund and was allowed to travel towards Jammu after seven days”, says Remesh Kumar, a Rajasthan-based trucker. Kumar said that the fruit had already begun smelling bad in his truck.
The halting of trucks has precipitated protests by fruit cultivators, traders and transporters across the Valley. The growers also shut all fruit mandis for two days, demanding the seamless movement of apple-laden trucks along the National Highway.
The farmers complain that they suffered huge losses due to the frequent stalling of fruit-laden trucks.
Bashir Ahmad Bashir, chairman of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers cum Dealers Union, told The Leaflet that the apple industry suffered losses of over 100 crore rupees over the past 10 to 12 days.
“At least 8,000 fruit trucks were stranded for six to eight days along the National Highway”, he said.
Bashir said that the apples ferried by these trucks had spoilt when they showed up at their destinations.
Every day, around 1,500 to 2,000 apple trucks leave for different outstation wholesale markets from the Valley.
The disruptions in the movement of the fruit trucks first began in July this year, when the administration stopped the trucks to facilitate the seamless movement of Amarnath pilgrims. Consequently, truckloads of perishable stone fruits like cherries, apricots and plums went bad before reaching the outstation mandis.
“The trucks were allowed only after the farmers hit the streets in different districts of the Valley”, said Bashir.
The farmers are also compelled to sell their produce at dirt cheap rates as the duty free apples from Iran via Afghanistan flooded the wholesale markets in India.
The fruit industry has been caught in the throes of crisis over the past four years.
The run of bad luck for the farmers began in October 2019 when militants attacked non-local truckers and traders in the Valley. These premeditated attacks unleashed a bedlam among the farmers in the Valley as outside traders briefly stopped showing up amidst a long-drawn-out lockdown spurred by the scrapping of the special constitutional position of Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, militants put up posters in south Kashmir’s apple-rich districts, asking the farmers to not harvest their produce. However, the growers defied these threats and harvested the crop.
“Whatever happens in the Valley, it is the apple industry that has to bear the brunt”, said Arjumad Ahamd, an apple grower.
In 2020, during the COVID-induced lockdown, millions of apple cartons remained stuck in different cold storage units for want of transportation, incurring heavy losses to the farmers. Similarly, in 2021, an unseasonal snowfall in the month of October spelt doom for the apple orchards, particularly in the Shopian apple belt area.
Around 1,64,854 hectares of land is under the cultivation of different varieties of apples in Jammu and Kashmir. The region produces 77 per cent of the total apples across the country, providing livelihood to nearly 3.5 million people.
“The industry is the mainstay of the economy of the people here and needs to be promoted”, said Mohamamd Amir Peer, president of the fruit mandi in Shopian.
He said that the government must come up with pro-farmer policies and ensure timely transportation of the produce.
Criticising the halting of trucks
Political parties in the Valley called out the disruptions in the movement of apple trucks.
Senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohamamd Yousuf Tarigami held a day-long convention of apple growers in Kulgam and upbraided the government for blocking the free movement of apple trucks. He also batted for rolling out of a market intervention scheme so that the farmers were not forced to sell their produce at cheap prices.
Parliamentarian and former Chief Minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah said that the government had miserably failed to ensure the seamless movement of trucks. He said that the blockade would have a deleterious effect on the economy of the region.
Another former Chief Minister and Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti, while visiting the Shopian fruit mandi, said that if the government did not ensure the free movement of trucks, she would join the people in blocking the highway.
Official version and action
Officials in the Jammu and Kashmir administration have blamed rolling stones and subsequent roadwork for affecting the free movement of trucks. In an interview with Greater Kashmir, Inspector General of Traffic Police, Vikramjeet Singh said that the administration was making efforts to ensure the seamless movement of trucks, and that arrangements had been made to ply the apple trucks via the historic Mughal Road.
An advisory has also been issued for the trucks with ten tyres to use the Mughal Road.
On September 27, the Jammu and Kashmir government transferred Senior Superintendent of Police, Traffic Highway, Shabir Ahmad Malik, and attached him with the police headquarters of Jammu and Kashmir.
The fruit growers, however, said that it should be made mandatory for non-fruit trucks and oil tankers to take the Mughal Road to reduce the strain on the national highway.