In Kashmir, ‘black plague’ is eating away apples

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As the harvest season is ready to set in, Rs 8,000 crore business supporting lakhs of people through the length and breadth of the valley is overshadowed by a fungal disease.

On a hot and humid autumn day, a man sporting hennaed beard is hysterically holding and freeing a fruit-laden branch at the foothills of picturesque Pir Panjal range.

An orchardist in his mid-sixties from the apple belt of Shopian, Mushtaq Ahmad isn’t making peace with his scab-plagued fruit garden.

“How is it possible that it developed the fungus,” Ahmad wonders.

“I had sprayed the orchard with the prescribed fungicides.”

Moving his fingers over the dark spots on the apple—symbolising the disease, Ahmad says, last November’s untimely snowfall has returned to haunt his tribe.

“After devastating apple trees,” the thoughtful orchardist avers, “that chilling snow has now plagued our crop.”

Apple scab—Venturia inaequalis—is a serious endemic disease of apples which attacks both leaves and the fruit. The fungal disease forms pale yellow or olive green spots on the upper surface of the leaves.

Scabby spots on the fruit are sunken and tan, and may have velvety spores in the centre.

Severely infected fruit becomes distorted and may fall from the tree early.

The condition of most of the orchards in South Kashmir’s Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama, is more or less the same.

“A large portion of apple fruit is scabbed this season,” an orchardist from Kulgam says. “My only source of livelihood has been dashed by this black plague.”

On an average, the government figures reveal, Kashmir exports 20 lakh metric tonnes of apples every year to mainland India and, lately, to markets in the Middle East.

Apples provide a major economic boost to J&K. The horticulture industry is pegged at a whopping Rs 8,000-9,000 crore, including the employment it generates.

But the pervasive black spot plague has today threatened the already lockdown-battered economy.

“The causes for the spread of this fungal disease are purely natural,” says Dr Nisar Ahmad, Head of Department, Plant Pathology, SKAUST, Shalimar.

“Since scab is an endemic disease, resurfacing of the fungal pest is a norm under conducive environment. Spores of fungal mycelia breed well on leaf surfaces under moist conditions.”

Normally, after fall, the professor explains, farmers burn the fallen leaves, a tradition that reduces the chances of infection in the next season.

“Moreover, a series of periodic anti-fungal sprays at different stages of fruit formation, makes the chances of any infection negligible,” he says.

Explaining the major causes for the spread of scab this year, Dr. Nasir blames the untimely snowfall last year.

The dried leaves were buried under the early November snow which preserved the spores on the leaves, within the vicinity of apple trees, he says.

“Aided by the favourable factors for its growth, like low temperature and wet conditions, fungal spores flourished during the month of March and April this year,” the professor details.

“Breeding of fungus was further helped by incessant rainfall, which lashed the valley during spray stages resulting in the washing away of the fungicides sprayed. As per our assessment, 15 to 20 percent of the apple crop has been affected.”

However, the plague isn’t restricted to south Kashmir’s apple bowls only. Central and northern Kashmir orchards are equally affected by the disease, the rotting crop.

“My high-breed apple orchard was producing a good crop, until the catastrophic snow last year unleashed a scab storm and undid my source of income,” the orchardist laments while alluding towards the broken branches and scabbed fruit in his orchard situated at Tailbal on the foothills of Mahadev Peak in North-east Srinagar.

Thirty five kilometres away from Tailbal, Haji Ali Mohammad, an orchard owner from Shadipora, in the neighbouring district of Bandipore, is also staring at the glum garden.

“I had leased my orchard for Rs 2.50 lakh this season to a local trader,” he says. “Unfortunately, in the eleventh hour now, he has refused to pay or harvest the crop, citing scab and low yield.”

In a neighbouring area of Sopore, known as Apple Town of Kashmir, the concerns of apple growers are the same.

“God is angry with us,” orchardist Abdul Hameed says. “First ill-timed snowfall, now scab and pandemic have made our lives miserable.”

Seconding Hameed, Mohammad Latief, sharing a common boundary with the former’s orchard also decries the colossal loss to apple growers.

“Scab coupled with low-crop yield will hit my income,” Latief laments. “I don’t think that the fruit with dark spots would even return the amount I’ve spent on the fertilizers, pesticides and other sprays.”

The upshot of the orchard plague is already glaring and telling.

“We used to ship 200 truckloads of apple during this period which has come down to 60-70 loads only from this largest Mandi of Asia,” says Kakaji, President of Sopore Fruit Mandi Association.

“The Government should launch MIS (Market Intervention Scheme) to procure the scabbed part of the yield to support the apple growers in these trying times.”

As the harvest season is ready to set in, the Rs 8,000 crore trade supporting lakhs of people—growers, transporters, fertilizer and pesticide dealers, packagers, commission agents and the labourers—through the length and breadth of the valley is overshadowed by the fungal disease.


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