By all accounts, Kashmir had a bumper apple crop this year. It should have meant a windfall for apple farmers and traders after several rocky years.

The Covid-19 restrictions of the last two years have been lifted. There is no communication blockade like in 2019, the year Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of special status and statehood. The weather, so far, has been favourable.

But apple traders in Kashmir are not happy.

“Our apple is rotting in trucks because it cannot reach markets in time as the trucks are not allowed to move on the highway,” said Bashir Ahmad, an apple grower in North Kashmir’s Sopore, often called the fruit bowl of Kashmir.

Road blocks

As tempers ran high, the traffic bottleneck became a battle between the administration and the public, with allegations of false propaganda and economic sabotage thrown about.

Kashmir’s main road connection with the rest of India is the 295-kilometre-long Srinagar-Jammu national highway. It snakes through the Pir Panjal mountains before reaching the plains of Jammu. The highway is key to ensuring the flow of goods and essential supplies into the Valley and out of it. From September to November, it bears the apple crop out of the Valley and into markets beyond.

Apples are the lifeblood of Kashmir’s local economy, forming an industry that ensures the livelihood of around 3.5 million Kashmiris, as per official estimates. A hitch in the apple trade inevitably leads to a public outcry in the Valley.

In the last week of September, the 10 fruit mandis in Kashmir went on a two-day strike against what they called an “unnecessary” delay in the movement of trucks from Srinagar to Jammu. By the end of the month, fruit growers claimed more than 8,000 trucks were stuck on the highway, carrying fruit that was quietly rotting away.

“The problem began around September 10, fruit trucks started to face inordinate delays in movement,” explained Fayaz Ahmad Malik, the president of Sopore fruit mandi. “The crisis cost Kashmir’s fruit industry around Rs 1,500 crores in losses.”

On September 26, traffic police authorities issued a statement saying the road blockade was caused by shooting stones in the mountains. Between September 1 and 26, the traffic police said, 45,923 trucks had moved from Kashmir to Jammu. Around 18,000 were carrying apples.

However, the traffic police also asserted that no trucks were stuck at Qazigund – the last major town in Kashmir before the highway enters the Banihal tunnel to Jammu – for more than two days. They rejected accounts of 8,000-10,000 trucks stranded on the highway for weeks as “propaganda that is being spread by vested interests”. The police also warned of strict action “against individuals who are spreading false and unverified information regarding the movement of apple trucks.”

There was immediate outrage. Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti called the curbs on movement “economic terrorism.” “An attempt is being made to destroy our economy and make people completely dependent,” Mufti alleged. “Just like Jews blockaded Palestinians and destroyed their economy, a conspiracy is happening here to destroy Jammu and Kashmir.”

On September 26, the Union Territory administration announced all the Jammu-bound trucks stranded on the highway would be cleared by that night.

“The claim made by certain Fruit growers association on the halting of fruit trucks is half truth and natural reasons are hindering traffic,” tweeted Kashmir Divisional Commissioner Pandurang K Pole on September 26. “We have difficulties in the movement of traffic on the highway due to rains and resultant shooting stones which is beyond human control.”

The administration also argued that traffic was held up as the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal communities had started their seasonal migration to Jammu with vast flocks of sheep.

The capacity of the Srinagar-Jammu national highway is limited even when there are no landslides, shooting stones or repair works. Pole said 3,000-3,500 heavy motor vehicles can pass through the road on a single day. “Anything above the capacity disturbs the whole cycle of up and down release of traffic and this may result in the piling up of traffic on the national highway,” he added.

According to traffic police authorities, the movement of heavy vehicles is allowed on alternate days because at several points the highway narrows to a single lane road. “Further, the NHAI [National Highway Authority of India] since September 23, had also initiated urgent repair works at these single stretches of the NH, requiring the stoppage of traffic for a part of the day,” the traffic police said in a statement last month.

However, on September 28, the government transferred Shabir Ahmad Malik, senior superintendent of police for highway traffic. No reasons were spelt out for the sudden transfer.

Trucks on the highway on September 26. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

Beating Iranian apples

But it is not just traffic that has held up the apple trade this year. A mix of external and local factors have created the perfect storm.

First, traders had a bumper crop on their hands but few markets for it. According to Pole, Kashmir annually harvested around 17 to 18 lakh metric tonnes of apples. This year, it was over 21 lakh metric tonnes.

“Unlike last year, the weather was favourable for the crop, which also helped reduce the use of pesticides on the trees,” explained Samiullah Bhat, an apple trader and grower in Sopore. Less pesticides meant less input costs, so Bhat was looking forward to a wider profit margin this year.

Kashmir accounts for more than 75% of India’s total apple production. But it has been crowded out of the market by Iranian apples.

In January last year, apple traders and farmers in Kashmir rose up in arms against the import of cheap Iranian apples. “Iranian apples are being imported first in Afghanistan and then these apples are being rebranded as Afghanistan-produced apples,” said Bashir Ahmad Basheer, chairman of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers-cum-Dealers Union, which represents all fruit traders’ associations in the region. “Since India and Afghanistan have a zero-import duty agreement, these apples are not taxed, which makes them cheaper than our apples.”

According to Bhat, the fear of Iranian apples had prompted apple growers in Kashmir to harvest their crop early so that they could beat the Iranian apples to the market.

“Iranian apples reach the Indian market in November. Therefore, many apple growers in Kashmir want to send their produce to the country’s market before that,” he explained.

Ripening early

The urge to flood the market before Iranian apples arrive has also led to the rampant use of artificial chemicals to ripen the fruit prematurely, several apple growers and traders conceded. The commonly used ripening agent is ethylene.

“Ethylene is a natural hormone in a plant which is responsible for the ripening of fruits,” explained a fruit scientist at one of the universities in Kashmir who did not want to be named. “If an artificial ripening agent is used on the trees and apples, it drastically reduces the shelf life of the produce as well as the trees’ productivity in the longer run.”

Fruit that does not last long needs to be transported swiftly if it is to fetch returns. “On an average, 2,000-2,500 apple trucks leave from the Valley,” explained Malik. “But still, a truck remains stranded on the highway for at least three to four days on average. This delay spoils the fruit even before it reaches the mandis.”

Malik conceded the crisis in the apple industry was not only about road blockades. “The quality of apples has already deteriorated because of substandard pesticides,” he said. “Then, we have seen growers rampantly using chemicals to ripen the fruit. That not only reduces its shelf life but also its quality.”

The artificial ripening also makes it impossible to put the apple in cold storage. “Many farmers put their produce in cold storage in order to sell the produce when there’s high demand,” explained the fruit scientist. “But if an apple has been ripened artificially, it cannot be kept even in cold storage. It has to be disposed of immediately.”

Once the traffic eases, Kashmiri apples flood the market at once, leading to a problem of plenty and a fall in prices, Malik explained further. “If a market which has the capacity to absorb 500 trucks daily gets 4,000 trucks on a single day, the rates crash. Our produce then sells for nothing,” he said.

While the traffic crisis has more or less subsided, growers are still apprehensive about future delays. “Sixty percent of the produce is yet to be harvested and the growers are already [reeling] under losses. We hope we don’t suffer more,” said Malik.