The pandemic, subsequent restrictions imposed on transport, and lack of access to markets, has spelled doom for orchardists in Kashmir.
Unlike the past, birds like the Bulbul, are enjoying a gala feast of red, glossy, and mouth-watering cherries. There is no scarecrow, and no caretaker chasing them away this year.
Most of the orchards spreading over acres of land in the picturesque cherry-growing belt of Dara Harwan, in the outskirts of Srinagar, have been left unattended. The growers say the lockdown imposed as a response to Covid-19 has hit their sector hard.
Abdul Rashid Mir, an Orchardist and a cherry dealer for the last 25 years, had been buying sizeable loads of the crop from growers in this area. He says he used to hire labourers to harvest and pack the fruit. But the present economic turmoil and closure of sustained transport services have put him in a dilemma whether to harvest the crop or leave it unattended.
As the lockdown and partial communication blockade have left him clueless, he says that fruit-growers are uncertain about the future.
“I used to send 15,000 boxes of fresh cherry outside the state on order, but the present crisis coupled with the closure of markets has resulted in no business this year,” Abdul says.
Having paid advances to growers, with no or fewer trucks on roads to ferry the fruit, Abdul has decided to avoid any further loss like labour and packing costs, and has left the crop intentionally unattended.
The situation is no diifernt in Tangmarg – a belt which grows quality cherries, that are large in size and fetch good rates in the markets.
Like many parts of Shopian and Srinagar, popular for growing Awal Number and Mishri (Quality Grade) Cherries, this area mostly sells its crop locally, in retail, at many makeshift roadside fruit kiosks along the highway, connecting the capital city of Srinagar to the hill resort of Gulmarg.
Unlike other places, most of the customers for Tangmarg cherries are locals and tourists heading to Gulmarg.
However, with no visitors this year, the cherry crop did not avail any substantial economic benefit to the growers. A large portion also went to the dumps.
A cherry box of 1 kg earlier would fetch Rs 180-200, but this year the rate per box is not more than Rs 50, a local fruit grower and the seller says.
“Leave profit aside, I am trying to earn the cost price, to recover the money I spent on fertilizers and pesticides by selling the harvest at very cheap rates,” laments Bashir Ahmad Dar, a farmer selling his fruit at a makeshift kiosk on the road passing besides his orchard.
Kifayat Khan, a regional manager for a Delhi based company Tasty Agro Foods dealing in canned cherries, mushrooms, and tomatoes, voices the same concern.
“My company used to buy 30-40 truckloads of fresh and ripe cherry from Parimpora and other fruit mandis of the valley. But this year the number is at 7 trucks currently. This is only due to the prevailing uncertainty and the restriction measures put in place to tackle the covid-19 pandemic,” Kifayat says.
Lack of adequate local canning and processing facilities in the valley is one of many reasons for the crop wastage and economic loss to cherry growers, Kifayat says.
Despite having good scope for development in the sector, both private and public players have so far lagged behind in tapping the full potential.
Units operating within the valley at Zainakote and Lassipora industrial areas have not proved sufficient to process even a fraction of the cherry crop, for want of capital and availability of low-cost machinery.
In 2017, the valley of Kashmir produced about 11,000 metric tons of cherries, which rose to 12,000 metric tons by 2019, exporting a major portion to the markets in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, and Ahmadabad. This contributed to the economy and helped livelihoods.
However, the season in 2020 arrived with COVID-19. Coupled with poor food processing infrastructure, and lack of direction from the authorities, the orchardists and farmers say they have brought to their knees.
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