What ails horticulture sector in Kashmir?

Horticulture, the cultivation of fruits, is a subsidiary of Agriculture. Earlier fruits were available to mankind in wild form; in abundance and Kashmir was heaven of fruits, a gift bestowed by nature to this once beautiful valley and its inhabitants. As Sir Walter Lawrence the European settlement commissioner of erstwhile maharaja of Kashmir has rightly said a century ago in his book ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ “That Kashmir is the country of fruits, and perhaps no country has greater facilities for horticulture, as indigenous apple, pear, vine, mulberry, walnut, hazel, peach, apricot, raspberry, gooseberry, currant, and strawberry can be obtained with out difficulty in most parts of the valley”. But Kashmir does not posses that diverse and abundant fruit any more. The reasons are clear, environmental and ecological degradation and peoples apathy towards the nature’s gift due to materialistic attitude and greed. How far Walter Lawrence’s century old saying and observations hold good today under the present scenario is beyond any body’s imagination.

Horticulture is the most vital sectors of agricultural economy in Kashmir instrumental in providing hundreds of crores of much needed cash to the agrarian economy. Walnut alone, exported to around twenty countries earns foreign exchange worth one thousand million rupees for the country. Jammu and Kashmir contributes about fifty percent of total temperate fruit production of India and is the largest apple, almond and walnut producing state in India. Around 220000 hectares of land is under the cultivation of horticulture crops in the state.

Earlier horticulture was almost in wild form, completely unorganized and in no way were source of substance, but a great help to the inhabitants of this once charming valley as food with variation. The visit (rather invasion leading to subjugation) of foreigners particularly the Europeans changed the shape of horticulture sector in Kashmir. The Europeans were the pioneers of organized horticulture in the valley of Kashmir. They exploited the resemblance in the climatic conditions (temperate climate) of Europe and Kashmir that provides congenial atmosphere and conditions for thriving of temperate horticulture, and started nurseries in the valley for introducing varieties with good genetic characters.

After independence of the united India the horticulture sector of Kashmir started showing signs of phenomenal progress, particularly in late sixties the area under horticulture increased many folds registering the interest of farmers in horticulture and its development. Two thrust areas of Sopore (apple town) and Shopian became quite prominent on the horticultural map of Kashmir for production of main horticulture crop, apple.

Till late seventies the horticulture boom in Kashmir was at its best and provided the maximum dividends to agrarian economy, with least inputs on account of plant protection measures (pesticides and fungicides) and reasonable cost of packing and transportation. Unscroplusness which has eaten the maximum of Kashmiri values and invaded every sector in Kashmir, after inception of so called democratic governments, did not spare this vital sector as well and seeped into it slowly and steadily and thus started the debacle of this once flourishing and developing sector of agriculture.

A new group of exploiters in the form of pesticide dealers, and middle men (ardti) made their presence on the scene of horticulture business, with innovative tricks and techniques to fleece the prospering horticulturists and ultimately weakening the horticulture economy. The horticulture was further detereorated by the greed of some unscrupulous farmers, who wanted to be rich overnight and resorted to deceptive grading and packing practices.

Earlier only a limited quantity of pesticides, particularly the fish oil soap emulsions and tree spray oils were used as plant protection measures, and meager amount of fungicides were required as plant disease were negligible. It was the casual quarantine measures regarding the import of new improved plant material, which lead to import of causal organism of diseases unknown to the horticulture sector of Kashmir. The spurious pesticides imported by the pesticides Mafia brought in further devastation. This Mafia did not stop here only but made a forward march by importing a fleet of pathogens through their products; created a market for their future products and ultimately became instrumental in fleecing the fruit growers. The horticulture sector became so overburdened by the cost incurred on new induced plant protection measures that cost benefit ratio of horticulture crops started showing down ward trend. These pesticide dealers and suppliers became parasites of horticulture industry, and overnight became rich by fleecing poor farmers.

The middlemen in the trade created a vicious circle of exploitation and greed, and resorted to malicious trade practices bringing havoc to otherwise prosperous horticulture trade. These middlemen not only mortgaged the holdings of farmers against high interest rate loans but even intervened and manipulated the marketing process and procedure of the horticulture produce as per their wish and will.

Government’s apathy and negligence is quite visible by way of faulty planing, lack of long term policies, lack of infrastructure, post harvest technology, proper storage and processing facilities of lower grade produce. Corruption has also played a major role in ruining the horticulture based agrarian economy. In early eighties of previous century an apple juice concentrate extraction plant was commissioned in private sector (Cadbury India) with out right support of the state government at Doabgah Sopore. This factory used even the lowest grade of apple produce as raw material, which otherwise got perished. But the political executive took the same under government control after paying a hefty amount to the private company, but against a consideration. Then for many years the plant was not run to its maximum potential, thus making lot of lower grade produce to rot. This is the glaring example of mismanagement, corruption and bad planing.

Marketing had always been a biggest bottleneck for the development of horticulture in Kashmir, and completely influenced by the middlemen. The clutches and nexus of middle men cum money lenders is so strong, that they don’t allow the growers (particularly small and marginal growers) to breathe freely and decide about his produce independently. No doubt government has a full flagged department of horticulture for development and flourishing of horticulture sector and other corporations and organizations like Jammu and Kashmir horticulture produce marketing and processing corporation limited (JKHPMC) and Jammu and Kashmir horticulture planing marketing (JKHPM) for planing, marketing and grading of horticulture produce. The horticulture department was and even now is the flag ship organization for the development of horticulture sector. But the other organizations, which were put in action to infuse fresh blood in this sector, proved to be white elephants and could not full fill the purpose. The horticulture department had talented human resource all along but they were never taken care off by the government as real technocrats, thus making depression and lack of interest to creep in to their psyche, culminating into inefficiency and ultimately had a telling effect on fruit industry. The other organizations were made defunct by putting non-technical people on job and giving political and bureaucratic nepots a place to relish as heads of these organizations from time to time. Unscrupulous and sycophant elements always encouraged political executive to use these organizations for establishment and development of their political constituencies. The much-publicized schemes of market intervention, establishment of co-operatives had failed miserably all along due to politicization of these schemes. Provision of subsidies also had a negative effect on the growth of horticulture sector, as the same was not handled judiciously. Instead of the real benefactors of subsidies, it landed in the hands of influential, rich and politically powerful growers.

Proper storage and transportation had always been the biggest bottleneck of this vital sector, a lot more needs to be done on this front to revitalize this otherwise ailing sector. Private sector could manage refrigerated transportation system with the assistance of government and patronage of political leaders but government itself is lagging behind on this front. So corruption plays a major role in deciding the priorities in this sector.

Working capital, in other words low rate loans is a must for development of horticulture in Kashmir. Majorities of fruit growers here are small and marginal farmers with small holding and poor economic status. Since long government could not motivate banking sector to put money in agriculture sector, as financial institutions consider agrarian financing bad loan and are apprehensive about financing horticulture. Unless and until this myth of financial institutions is not countered with logical persuasion and authority the middleman moneylender nexus will flourish and suck the blood of poor farmers and will ruin the fruit industry.

Nature has also been cruel some times and natural calamities can not be countered but damage control measures can be taken in hand by keeping provisions for the same.

Neglect and degradation of horticulture sector will lead to loss of millions of rupees as revenue to the state, and avenues of employment to major chunk of population in the valley. So we all, the growers, scientists, employees and political executive (government) need to rise to the occasion and save this vital source of subsistence, sustenance, development and above all much needed source of employment for the survival of mankind.

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