The precarious nature of walnut harvesting in J&K. How can that be changed?
By: Arka Chakraborty
The months of August, September and October in Jammu and Kashmir are marked by the harvest of walnuts, produced in large quantity in the Union Territory and are very popular all across the country, as well as in other countries around the world. The walnut trees are one of the most important horticultural resources of the region, grown in the fringes of Kashmir and parts of Jammu where almost no other crops can be cultivated. Due to its agreeable climatic conditions, Jammu and Kashmir dominates other walnut-producing regions of India. The yearly export of walnuts has earned a considerable amount of foreign exchange for the UT over the years and the trees have multifarious resource value for the local population as well. Given the economic importance of walnut production, it is rather surprising how the danger involving the traditional practice of walnut harvesting and the human cost it entails every year has been neglected by the authorities until recently. This neglect has led to the continued loss of lives and severe disabling injuries. As the J&K UT government took the initiative to address the issue by releasing a list of safety tips for the farmers involved in walnut harvesting, further steps are required to minimize the accidental deaths during walnut harvesting which has emerged as a seasonal and occupational hazard.
The Walnut Industry in Jammu and Kashmir
For years, the region of Jammu and Kashmir has been a leader in walnut production in India. It is only recently that states like Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have started cultivating walnuts. Even so, Jammu and Kashmir remains the chief walnut producing region in India. This dominance is partially due to the unique climatic condition of the Union Territory in India. Walnut accounts for 85.05% of the land under dry fruit cultivation in Jammu and Kashmir. According to official estimates, around 2.66 lakh metric tonnes of walnuts are harvested from an area of 89000 hectares, while the productivity of walnuts in J&K is 2.98 tonnes/ha. Walnuts are export commodities and bring in around 120 crore rupees per annum. About 98% of the walnuts exported from India are cultivated in Jammu and Kashmir, while around 90% of the total walnut production in India comes from the UT. Multiple food processing units scattered across the Union Territory depend on the continued production of this crop. Apart from walnuts, the hull, root, stem and leaves of the walnut tree are also used as economic resources: the hull is used as a colouring agent; the root and stem as a dentifrice and the leaves as fodder. A 2004 study stated that around 40000 people’s livelihoods directly depended on walnut harvesting which leads one to imagine that this number has only increased over the next two decades as the area under cultivation has expanded. However, recent years have seen a stagnation in walnut production and productivity. Experts ascribe this to lack of high-quality planting material, poor pollination, low tree density per unit area, predominant terminal bearing, long juvenile period, big tree size, poor filling, a poor success rate of grafting and climatic fluctuations, among other factors. While the stagnation of economic growth in the walnut production sector is a cause of concern and is much discussed, the terrible human losses that befall those engaged in the harvesting of the walnuts remain neglected.
Accidental deaths during walnut harvesting: Causes and consequences
The deaths that walnut harvesting exacts every year are largely ignored by the powerful stakeholders who can put a stop to this. A fortunate exception, however, is the medical community which has to deal with this yearly seasonal phenomenon and is aware of its consequences. In the past two decades, a number of research projects have been conducted by medical professionals exploring the causes of accidents involving walnut harvesting and the nature and magnitude of the consequences.
Unlike other fruit trees, the surfaces of walnut tree barks are slippery. This, combined with the traditional methods used to harvest walnuts, creates a high risk of falling from walnut trees. Usually, the walnut fruits fall after ripening, so simply picking up the walnuts without climbing the trees themselves seem to be an outwardly viable option. However, this method leads to heavy losses as the fallen walnuts are often misplaced or damaged. Moreover, sometimes the walnuts do not fall after ripening which leads a large part of the profits to chance. Hence, the farmers adopt the cheap, economic but highly risky alternative of climbing the walnut tree with nothing but a long stick to strike down walnuts. The slippery surface of the walnut tree branches leads many farmers to lose their balance and fall. Although studies on the accidental fall from walnut trees in Iran exhibit breaking of the branches as the principal cause of the fall, no such case has been observed in Jammu and Kashmir.
The results found from the studies on the consequences of the annual phenomenon of accidental falls from walnut trees are worrying, to say the least. The magnitude of the injury a person can suffer by falling depends on the distance (height) of the fall, the orientation of the fall and the nature of the surface on which one falls. The first significant study conducted on the issue was by Tabish et al (2004), which found a mortality rate as high as 24.13%. Moreover, around 18% of the patients under this study were paralyzed for life. Although the percentages mentioned in other studies differ, the method of walnut harvesting employed in J&K has not changed in the last two decades, leading one to believe that the percentage of deaths and disabilities occurring now is not too far removed from the results of this survey. The main injuries which are suffered from these falls are spinal cord injuries, brain and skull injuries, facial injuries, abdominal trauma and injuries towards the extremities of the body such as ankle injuries and injuries of the long bones. Among all these, spinal cord injuries have the most impact and, unfortunately, they seem to be the most numerous. In extreme cases, the complete severing of the spinal cord leads to death. Injury to the spinal cord towards the neck can lead to breathing problems. In other cases, such injuries result in the paralysis of the four limbs, leaving the patient unable to move and in a bedbound life. These patients can only speak, move their necks and chew and swallow food, making them a burden on their families. Spinal cord injuries towards the chest area result in paralysis of the legs, leaving the patient wheelchair-bound for the rest of his/her life and additional problems with difficulty in passing urine or stools. Abdominal trauma is another major category of injury resulting from falls from walnut trees and often entails significant damage to the liver or the spleen. Victims often die from renal failure. Other categories of injuries also may lead to significant organ damage or deformity. The farmers who fall from walnut trees are often in need of surgery which places a huge financial burden on both their families and the hospitals (as the latter bears part of the cost). The full magnitude of these accidents is, of course, felt by the families of the victims, as walnut farmers are mostly the sole earning members of their families. These families, with dead or disabled breadwinners, live in precarious financial conditions as there is little to no support system available for these families. The members of the families having to bear the additional physical, psychological and financial burden of caring for disabled family members (including the victims themselves) often end up developing neuropsychological problems, including suicidal tendencies.
This year, following a quick succession of reports of deaths and injuries resulting from accidental falls from walnut trees, the J&K State Emergency Operation Centre under the Department of Disaster Management, Relief, Rehabilitation& Reconstruction of the UT government of J&K has responded to the issue by publishing a notice for the walnut harvesters listing the dos and don’ts regarding the harvesting methods. The notice advises farmers to use protective helmets, safety harnesses, safety ropes, nets and wear non-slip boots while climbing the trees. Only experienced and trained climbers are advised to climb the walnut trees during harvesting season using a long ladder and that too, after determining a safe weather condition by checking the weather forecast by IMD. Logs, stones and boulders are to be removed from the base of the tree before climbing in order to ensure further safety. The knowledge of first-aid and its immediate application following an accidental fall before taking the patient to the nearest medical center by applying safe methods of transportation are given great importance in the notice. Moreover, victims or their associates are advised to call 102 for immediate medical assistance or ambulance service. Apart from this, the concerned people are advised not to climb walnut trees without the safety gears and accessories mentioned above. Climbing trees in wet weather is strongly advised against. Using metal poles for striking the walnuts is also forbidden due to the chance of electrocution. Going alone to climb walnut trees, wearing loose clothes and slippers while climbing the trees are advised against. It is strongly advised not to entertain distractions like phone calls while engaged in walnut harvesting.
It should be acknowledged that the present government’s initiative regarding the safety of the walnut harvesters is unprecedented and the recent notice can be a step towards ensuring the same. However, this is far from enough if the goal is to actually ensure it. A number of measures should be taken in this regard if the yearly loss of lives is to be prevented:
- The visibility of the recent notice informing the farmers of proper safety measures should be maximized. The notice should be translated into Urdu (the vernacular language that is spoken, read and understood by the majority of J&K’s population) and distributed widely. Newspapers, radio networks and television channels should be used to ensure that the notice reaches out to each and every walnut harvester or potential walnut harvester.
- Most of the studies conducted on the problem of walnut harvesting-related accidents have laid a special emphasis on providing the walnut harvesters with proper education and training as a decisively effective means to combat future occurrences of such unfortunate scenarios. Hence, the government should seriously consider setting up a centralized training facility that will provide walnut farmers with free (or highly affordable) but mandatory training before they can safely engage in walnut farming. The government’s official notice itself has recognized the importance of the presence of harvesters with sufficient training and experience. This training and experience can only be satisfactorily ensured through a training system.
- The adoption of safety gear such as non-slip boots, headgear, chest gear and abdomen gear is another effective measure to minimize accidents and minimize damage in case of accidents. A glaring problem, however, is that most walnut farmers come from poor families and cannot afford such gear to save their lives. The adoption of the present risky method of walnut harvesting, it should be remembered, is the result of it being cheap. In view of this, the government should provide the walnut farmers with free safety gear (or at least provide them in a subsidized manner in order to ensure affordability).
- If possible, the dangers of climbing walnut trees and the necessity for safety measures should be introduced as a part of the primary education curriculum of the region.
- Need-based financial, medical and psychological assistance should be provided to the families whose earning members died or were disabled as a result of the walnut harvesting accidents.
The accidental deaths and disabilities that accompany the walnut harvesting seasons every year in Jammu and Kashmir are the results of the continuing prevalence of a dangerously risky yet traditional method, the systemic poverty of the farmers that enforces this method along with a lack of awareness and, finally, the continued negligence exhibited by key stakeholders. However, the recent advisory issued by the UT government of J&K is a step in the right direction. A number of follow-up steps should be taken in order to properly implement the measures presented in the government notice. As the government is gearing up to revolutionize UT’s horticulture sector with the announcement of a new mega-scheme, the time is ripe for implementing these steps which will ensure the safety of those who serve as the backbone of the walnut industry. (www.jkpi.org)