Lassipora, (Pulwama): Kashmir's impeccably delicious and off-seasonal apples have hit the COVID-19 bump, prompting growers to pitch a bailout call to locals.
Apple growers were anticipating selling the held-back produce at good prices but the coronavirus lockdown has dashed all their hopes. With severe restrictions across the country, traders and farmers are neither finding old and dependable market chains nor affordable transport to ferry the apples even to Srinagar or big towns of the Valley.
The thought of incurring more losses looming large have forced some traders to relay distress calls to fellow Kashmiris to buy apples in bulk in the month of Ramzan. This, they hope, will help them recover losses and tide over debts incurred on pesticides and cold storage.
"A 15kg box in cold storage is charged Rs 30 to 32 a month and you can calculate how much we have spent in the last six months just to keep the apples fresh and retain their hardness," said Shabaz, an apple grower.
"We can at least recover some losses if locals consume apples during Ramzan," said Afroz, a fruit trader.
Kashmiris devour dates, watermelons, muskmelons, grapes and cherries to break their fast during Iftaar. Afroz and others want them to include apples in their menu too.
Tanveer ul Haq, an apple trader from Shopian, put up an emotional message on social media asking locals to buy apples instead of other fruits, which any way are not reaching Kashmir in adequate quantities due to the pandemic.
"I pleaded to the Kashmiris to eat as many apples as they can. Our growers have suffered immense losses and they need your help to pay back loans," he said.
The fruit growers in the Valley were able to ship out a huge chunk of the total 2.2 million tonnes of apples from October to various ‘mandis’ across the country. They held back 1.3 lakh tonnes of top-notch Red Delicious for six months in controlled storage with an eye on the summer market, when apples sell at roaring prices.
Usually, apples stocked in October are released from April, but in the last one month only 30,000 tonnes could hit the ‘mandis’ in Punjab and Delhi that opened intermittently due to the restrictions.
Meanwhile, in Pulwama’s Lassipora village, 18 of the Valley's 22 cold storage plants still hold close to a lakh tonne of produce, waiting to be shipped out.
"It is very tough to send fruits from here. One, mandis across India don't open regularly and two, the transport is a big deal. If some truckers want to ply, they charge you two to three times more than normal," said Nazir Ahmad, a grower from Keegam, outside a cold chain plant while hauling up boxes of apple carton in a small loadcarrier. Albeit, he wasn't sure where to take it.
"If allowed, will take it to city and sell. But inter-district movement is not allowed," he added.
Apart from transportation, apple growers have been left aghast as some police checkpoints have stopped them to reach the storage plants where their fruit has been locked since the last six months.
"The police does not allow us to enter Pulwama," lamented Yasir Ahmad, a trader from Shopian. They have been told to stop the entry of people from Shopian into Pulwama district.
"The reason could be that Pulwama has no coronavirus positive cases, while there are a few red zones in Shopian, including a case of community transmission in Hirpora village," said Mohammad Gafoor.
Akeel Hassan, a manager of cold storage plant told News18 that looking at apple growers’ issues, they have decided not to charge them for the extended period they deposit fruit there.
"Our agreement to retain fruit was till March end but because they don't find buyers they have kept it here. We have not charged them for this period. They are already in loss and that is why we are asking the government to bail out the fruit industry," Hassan added.
Taking cognizance of the matter, Deputy Commissioner of Shopian, Yasin Chowdhary, said that his team has taken up the issue of movement of fruit growers from Shopian into Lassipora with his Pulwama counterpart and they have worked out an arrangement of allowing 10 growers per day.
"We don't want many people to crowd in the area due to the pandemic protocol, but 10 growers will be allowed every day to collect apples for selling," he said, adding there are around 30 to 35 growers from Shopian who have stocked their apples in the cold storages.