Apple Anguish

23 July 2014
Greater Kashmir
Hazeen A Drabu

Srinagar: The horticulture sector in South Kashmir, especially in Pulwama and Shopian is in the throes of a crisis. What started off as a problem of low and stagnant productivity - 11MT-ha as against the international average of 60 MT-ha - has due to apathy now become a business viability crisis. The orchards, which provide livelihood to more than 7 lakh families and nearly 35 lakh people, are not able to provide basic subsistence and sustenance. More than 75 per cent of the country's apple production is from J&K. Almost 90,000 acres of land in Kashmir are under apple cultivation. As a thumb rule, one hectare of the orchard generates employment of 400 man-days; at the present level of spread and production, this sector contributes 15 crore man days per annum. In terms of aggregate state income, horticulture contributes 10 per cent of the gross domestic state product. This means that it generates incomes of Rs 5,000 crore per annum. With an estimated income multiplier of 1.68, it actually generates factor incomes of nearly Rs 9,000 crores. This is especially important since 70 per cent of the apple produce is exported; more than 7 crore boxes get exported annually. With this kind of a dominant role in the state economy, it is crippling that at the farm level this commercial activity is now giving returns lower than that of subsistence agriculture. Sooner than later, the market forces will play out at the farm level and that will trigger off a macroeconomic crisis. The sheer size and scale of horticulture and its significance, not just in the local economy but even nationally, should wake up the government to the incipient crisis. The last four years have been exceptionally bad. Not only has the production plummeted, there has been input inflation which far outweighs the output price escalation. With squeezing margins and low production the business model of this sector has virtually collapsed. The apple crisis is particularly pervasive in Pulwama and Shopian. The reason for this in this is that the orchards in the 'original apple belt' have aged. The same is not true of North Kashmir where the apple cultivation is of more recent origin. It may be recalled that the origins of the modern horticulture in south Kashmir lie in the implementation of land reforms. With horticulture being exempt from land ceiling, there was a massive conversion of paddy fields into orchards to avoid the land ceiling. This suggests that the average of the orchards is more than 60 years. To address the structural crisis and circumstantial problems, both short run and medium terms measures need to be taken. In the short run, there is need for a package to give relief in the form of income support to the growers. In the medium term there is need for an orchard replantation and restructuring scheme. As such, the Centre and State governments must design a 'Relief, Restructure and Replant' scheme for horticulture. While it is easy to work out a relief package, greater attention must be given to designing a plan for restructuring and replantation of the apple orchards. It must be ensured that over the next three years the age profile of the orchards is productivity optimal. For this, apart from finance, there is a desperate need for technological and scientific interventions. The replantation and restructure scheme must factor in some basic principles. First, the existing plantations which have been raised on seedlings rootstocks. These not only result in variable shapes and sizes of trees, but have long gestation period of 7-8 years. As against this, plants raised on dwarfing clonal rootstocks not only have shorter gestation, they also have much higher yields of 40-50 MT-ha. Second, while replanting and restructuring increase in productivity can be ensured by importing virus free dwarfing clonal rootstocks from advanced countries. Also, for competing internationally there is need to import the latest internationally liked premium apple varieties and establish their bud bank for mass multiplication and for providing to the growers. Third, in order to reduce the incidence of diseases like scab, strict quarantine and selection of elite disease-free mother plants is very essential to build a robust new orchard economy. In the pre-bearing stage, certain practices must form a part of the restructuring. The trees raised on seedlings rootstocks are not being dealt with scientifically. This results in development of cage like branching structures with number of scaffold limbs arising at one point only with weak crotch angles which succumb to heavy snowfall during winters. These scaffold limbs do not allow proper air circulation of the trees and also do not allow solar radiation to penetrate in the interiors of the trees resulting in production of low quality fruits and also hinder penetration of fungicides and insecticides into the inner portion of trees resulting in inadequate control of diseases and insect pests. In addition to these structural interventions, there is need for improving basic management practices. For instance, there is need for proper nutritional management. Due to non-availability of adequate soil & leaf testing facilities, the growers either apply excessive doses of various fertilizers in their orchards resulting in sickness of soil or apply low doses resulting in poor health of trees and their susceptibility to various diseases and insect pests. As such, there is an urgent need to establish state of art soil and leaf testing laboratories for estimation of major as well as micronutrients within shortest possible time so that growers apply judicious nutrients to their trees to improve the health of trees and produce quality fruits. Similarly, there is need for holistic pollination management. The nursery growers do not raise and advocate use of pollinizers to the farmers that results in lack of pollination management. It should be mandatory for nursery growers to provide adequate pollinizer varieties to farmers for meeting the optimum pollination requirement. Besides pollinizers, it is imperative to have pollinators in place to pollinize. At a fundamental level, the lack of above mentioned scientific processes emanates from lack of training and skill development. In the course of replanting, the fruit growers need to be provided with trainings and skill developments on trainings & pruning of trees, multiplication of rootstocks, raising of pedigree and quality planting materials, maintenance of bud banks, establishments and operation of drip irrigation system, nutritional management, protection from diseases and insects, pests, harvest management, grading, sorting, Value Addition, storage and market management. For protecting the apple crop from various disease and insect pests, there are large number of fungicides and insecticides available in the markets. Many a time sub-standard fungicides and pesticides are being used by the growers which result in crop losses and ill health of tress and poor crop production. As such, there is need to establish state of art laboratory for testing of these fungicides-pesticides before these come to the market. There is also need to test the residual effect of fungicides and pesticides on fruits so that consumers get quality & healthy fruits. If all these measures are not taken up in a concerted and coordinated manner, it won't be long before one hears of grower suicides in Kashmir.