Rashid Paul

Lockdown, bureaucratic inaction bring disaster to Kashmir’s cherry crop

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‘With canning units shut and supply chain to outside markets blocked, crops rotting in farms’

Srinagar: Absence of a timely state intervention is leading to the destruction of the approximately 12000 metric tons of cherry in Kashmir amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, say the stake-holders.

Kashmir has 22 cherry canning units in the private sector that process almost 80 percent of the annual produce of this highly perishable fruit here. The failure of the government to facilitate operation of these processing units or easing the purchase of the fruit by outside players is resulting in wholesale destruction of the crop, they say.

The fruit growers and traders from Kashmir say they communicated their impending distress due to COVID-19 pandemic to every who is who from the Prime Minister’s Office to that of the local bureaucracy.

“We sought help for getting in the laborers, the packing materials and arrangements for transportation of the fruit to markets in and outside Kashmir but nobody heeded us,” said Bashir Ahmed Basheer, president Kashmir Fruit Growers and Dealers Union.

The communications (copies lying with this newspaper) were sent to the authorities in early April when cherry crop was still in the flowering stage.

Apart from other suggestions, the stake-holders demanded exemption of all the cherry canning units from lockdown besides facilitation of import of tins and other materials for the processing units.

“Bureaucratic inaction” in remedial response to the multi-crore cherry industry has now led to a situation where the fruit is rotting in the farms for want of market.

Parimpora Fruit Mandi, the main fruit trading center of Kashmir, has issued a communication to the cherry farmers to stop ferrying fresh consignments as all the forward supply chains remain blocked.

Kashmir is the lone cherry producing region in India. According to government statistics 11,789 metric tons of the fleshy stone fruit were produced by the region in 2018.  More than 2700 hectares are under the cultivation of various varieties of cherry in Kashmir.

The chief buyers of Kashmir cherry used to be the 22 canning units operating in the private sector. The units have been rendered dysfunctional since the lockdown imposed in the aftermath of the abrogation of the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir on August 05, 2019.

“Now the lockdown spurred by the coronavirus crisis has  made it impossible to acquire packaging materials like tin, other factory overheads including labor,”  said Dr Zain-al-Abidin, president Kashmir Food Processing Unit Holders Association.

“Declaring entire Valley of Kashmir as red zone for coronavirus without considering the issues of the fruit industry has worsened the situation for us,” said Ghulam Rasool, a cherry canning unit holder from Dara, a large village in north of Srinagar.

Rasool’s Dara Agro Products would process 4000 kilograms of cherry a day in normal times.  It provided market to cherry farmers of the area at their doorstep. The unit also engaged 100 technical and non-skilled persons, mostly the women.

The agro processing unit had its market in the Southern Indian hotel and bakery industry. “The lockdown has prevented us from getting workers, the input materials and subjected us to heavy losses,” Rasool said.

The distressed farmers are at loss as to why this year the air freight for carriage of their cherry has spiked so high.

Abdul Hamid, a cherry grower and trader from the north Kashmir’s Pattan area said that last year he paid Rs 25 to 28 a kilogram to the airliner for carrying cherry from Kashmir to Mumbai. This year the freight has shot up to Rs 75 per kilogram, he said.

In recent days, government, according to the players in the fruit industry, has allowed the operation of canning units. But thus far only four small scale units have opened up their factories while the major players are still off the fence.

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