When Abdul Hamid Hajam visited his orchard in South Kashmir’s Shopian district on Monday morning, his heart sank. On Saturday, the season’s first snowfall had draped the Valley in white. For apple farmers like Hajam, it spelt disaster.

“Half of my produce is lying buried under snow,” said the 35-year-old as he threaded his way through uprooted trees and apples covered in snow in his orchard. “I couldn’t bear to stand here for more than five minutes when I came in the morning. Only a grower knows the pain of his damaged crop.”

On Sunday, a video clip of a sobbing farmer desperately shovelling snow off his apple crop with his bare hands had gone viral on social media. It drew attention to the devastation caused by the sudden snowfall in November, the first since 2009. Most of the loss has been reported from three districts in South Kashmir: Shopian, Pulwama and Anantnag.

“Preliminary reports received from various fruit associations including Anantnag suggest that losses over Rs 500 crore have been incurred and irreparable damage has been caused to trees, plantations and orchards,” the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in a statement on Sunday.

The state government has ordered an assessment of damage to the crop because of the snowfall and promised compensation. Syed Shahnawaz Ahmad Bukhari, director of the Jammu and Kashmir Horticulture Planning and Marketing Department, said the assessment would be completed in the next two to three days. “Once completed, we will put the report before the government,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology issued an advisory to farmers listing out various dos and don’ts: how excess water should be drained and seedlings transplanted, when garlic and potatoes should be planted next. But it is cold comfort to the orchard owners.

Abdul Hamid Hajam says half of his apple crop is buried under snow. (Credit: Safwat Zargar)

Apple season cut short

A small-time apple farmer, Hajam makes Rs 2 lakh to 2.5 lakh every year from his yield. With the snowfall this year, he expects to make just Rs 1.5 lakh. “That’s the loss for this year,” he said. Hajam, who supplements his income as a daily-wage worker in the health department, said that this wasn’t a one-time loss. “A damaged tree takes 8-10 years to recover and yield normally,” he said. “How can I quantify that loss?”

Mid-November marks the end of the apple season in Kashmir, after which the trees are pruned to battle the harsh winter. “Nearly 15%-20% of the apple was unharvested at the time of the snowfall,” estimated Fayaz Ahmad Malik, president of the fruit mandi in North Kashmir’s Sopore area. “For a sector worth Rs 20,000 crore, it’s a huge loss.”

Malik also pointed out that around 2,500 to 3,000 apple-laden trucks were stranded on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway, causing extensive damage to the produce meant for sale outside the state. The problem had started a few days before the snowfall.

“Ahead of Diwali, traders upped the supply due to increased demand,” Malik explained. “However, the trucks were stopped on October 31. They allowed Army convoys and durbar move vehicles but not the fruit trucks.” The “durbar move” refers to the annual migration of the state government from Srinagar to the winter capital of Jammu. It will shift back to Srinagar in April, once the snow melts.

Maik said he “literally begged” the authorities to allow the trucks to pass, but to no avail. Then, the situation on the highway worsened with the snowfall, he added. “When those trucks reach Delhi or Himachal Pradesh, it [the apples] will be trash,” he sighed.

On Monday, fresh landslides blocked the national highway again, shortly after it was opened for one-way traffic.

Traders at the Shopian fruit mandi complained of lack of infrastructure and the unkept promise of a larger market. (Credit: Safwat Zargar)

‘Nobody cares when the weather is fine’

Inevitably, the losses have led to fresh anger against the government. At Shopian’s Arhama fruit mandi, Gulzar Ahmad Dewan, a prosperous apple trader, is furious. “The problem is nobody cares about us when the weather is fine,” said Dewan, whose annual turnover runs into several crores. “I carry out business worth Rs 25 lakh every single day. Yet, I am sitting under a tarpaulin canopy. I don’t have any office. Can you imagine it?”

When the snow started to fall on Saturday, Dewan woke his workers up at midnight to strengthen the pillars of his designated stall at the mandi. Even then, it collapsed under the heavy snow. “See, we can’t fight nature,” he said. “And Kashmir is not the only place which gets snow. We need state-of-the-art infrastructure to deal with it. If an apple grower has a cold storage facility available in his village, won’t his crop be saved?”

Suhail Ahmad Malik, an apple grower and trader, chipped in: “Shopian’s apple is world famous and reaches every corner of the planet.” The 40-year-old added, with a wry chuckle, “More than a decade ago, we were promised a larger fruit mandi; it is still incomplete.”

Suhail Ahmad Malik, who holds a masters degree in business administration, harvests 10,000 to 15,000 boxes of apples each year. According to him, one way of preventing yearly losses to the sector is an all-weather route between Srinagar and Jammu. “It’s an irony that even after 70 years of being with India, we don’t have a single road which could remain open throughout the year,” he said. “Until then, our fruit will continue to rot in stranded trucks.”

The apple industry in Kashmir is worth Rs 20,000 crore and the crop damage this season has been estimated at more than Rs 500 crore. (Credit: Safwat Zargar)

According to the Jammu and Kashmir Economic Survey of 2016-2017, 70% of the state’s population draws its livelihood from agriculture and allied sectors. Despite setbacks and disruptions caused by the conflict in the state, Kashmir’s horticulture production increased 36% over the last decade. In 2016-2017, the state exported apples worth Rs 6,500 crore.

In spite of the fruit industry being a valuable source of income and revenue to the state, the government has done little to insure farmers against losses. “Jammu and Kashmir is yet to implement Restructured Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme,” said Fayaz Malik of the Sopore mandi, referring to the Central government scheme that provides crop insurance coverage for pre-sowing to post-harvest losses against natural risks.

“An apple grower in Kashmir has no cover against losses,” Fayaz Malik added. “Nobody in the government knows how difficult it is for the farmer.”

On Monday, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry appealed to Governor Satya Pal Malik to grant “in-principle approval” of the scheme. The state has been under governor’s rule since June.

What compensation?

Farmers and traders do not have much hope that they will receive compensation from the government. Imran Jabbar Sheikh, a 23-year-old apple grower from Veeri in Anantnag district, suffered losses worth Rs 3 lakh-Rs 4 lakh in the snowfall. When he heard about the government’s decision to assess damages for compensation, he was unmoved. “Nobody came to us,” he said. “At the very least, the government should send experts to give us advice this time on how to deal with the damaged trees.”

Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, who lives in Shopian town, had harvested only half of his apples before the sudden snowfall. He had expected days of dry weather ahead. “Whenever I look at my damaged trees, I feel like someone has put a dagger into my heart,” he said. “It’s crushing. This orchard is all we have.” The father of a two-year-old boy, Bhat lives in a joint family of nine.

“The government always talks about compensation,” he said. “Show me a single farmer who got compensation after the catastrophic floods of 2014? It’s just on paper.” He now fears his financial difficulties will spill over into next year. “I am worried that nobody will lend money to me to cultivate next year’s crop,” he said. “Who will give a loan to a farmer with damaged trees?”

“Who will give a loan to a farmer with damaged trees?” asked Zahoor Ahmad Bhat. (Credit: Safwat Zargar)

When asked if the government was planning monetary compensation for affected farmers after the damage was assessed, Syed Shahnawaz Ahmad Bukhari of the Jammu and Kashmir Horticulture Planning and Marketing Department said, “The government will take a decision on it after the submission of our assessment report.”

Zahoor Ahmad Bhat's apples are covered in snow. (Credit: Safwat Zargar)