First, it was the political turmoil of 2019. Then, the pandemic of 2020.

Just when Shakoor Ahmad Reshi thought his troubles were over, a new threat surfaced: Iranian apples.

Reshi grows apples on three and a half acres of his orchards in Kashmir’s Shopian district. He is part of an industry which accounts for three-quarters of the total apple production in India and supports the livelihood of 33 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir.

This industry is now dealing with anxieties over illegally imported Iranian apples flooding the Indian market.

“Iranian apples are being imported first in Afghanistan and then these apples are being re-branded as Afghanistan-produced apples,” claimed Bashir Ahmad Basheer, chairman of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers-cum-Dealers Union, which represents all fruit traders’ associations in the region. He said trading agents and customers in Delhi’s Azadpur fruit mandi alerted them to the imports. “When a different type of apple consignment reaches the mandi, it is easily discernible to the people there,” he explained.

The colour and texture of the Iranian apple closely resembles the Kashmiri apple, which is famous for its juiciness and distinct flavour. Kashmiri horticulturists are worried about losing market share to the imported apple this year – because it is cheap.

“Since India and Afghanistan have a zero-import duty agreement, these apples are not taxed,” said Basheer. This brings down the cost of a box of 10 kg of imported apples by 250 rupees, he estimated. “So if a 10 kg-box of Kashmiri apple is sold at Rs 1,000 in New Delhi markets, the same quantity of Iranian apple will sell for only Rs 750 per box,” he said.

Reshi, the apple grower, expressed alarm: “When these import duty-free apples enter the market, they are cheap. Who will buy our apples then?”

A view of the busy Srinagar Fruit Mandi in Parimpora area of Srinagar. Photo: Umer Asif

An annual cycle

In October, Reshi stocked up 9,000 tonnes of apples in a cold storage facility in Pulwama. This included his own harvest as well as produce purchased from other farmers.

“The supply of this stored apple in the market begins in February and continues till May,” he explained.

But before he could dispatch his stocks, he heard Iranian apples had swamped Delhi’s Azadpur fruit mandi. “When we heard about it, our entire family was worried,” said Reshi, who supports a family of ten members by his apple business. “If we are not able to sell our produce at some profit, we will be at loss.”

Reshi’s family is not the only one worried. According to Basheer, the chairman of the fruit-growers union, around 2-2.5 lakh metric tonnes of apple are currently in cold storage across the Kashmir Valley.

Traders protest

Fruit traders and growers in Kashmir were quick to react to the inflow of tax-free apples in Indian markets. Since last month, traders have held protests, met government officials, written letters to the central government and the union territory administration.

“This is not only our loss but the country’s as well,” said Basheer, pointing out that the Indian government was losing revenue by way of import duty on the apples.

In the first week of February, a delegation of traders from Kashmir travelled to Delhi to meet government officials. “We went to at least 11 government departments which are involved in this industry and raised our concerns with them,” said Majid Aslam Wafai, President of the Jammu and Kashmir Apple Cold Store Association.

Wafai claims the delegation was assured by the officials of the Ministry of Commerce and the Customs department that imported apples will be subjected to proper assessment and custom duty at the time of entering Indian markets. The Kashmiri traders asked for the recently announced Agriculture Infrastructure and Development Cess of 35% to be levied on the imported apples.

“We are not against the import of apples from other countries but like with every other country, these apples should be properly valued and taxed by the government,” said Wafai.

But the assurances were short-lived. On February 5, the Union Finance Ministry issued a notification waiving off customs duty on select imports from five neighboring countries, including Afghanistan. One of the exempted items are apples entering India from Afghanistan.

Another concern that the delegation raised was the sale of imported apples at Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees or state-regulated markets like the Azadpur mandi in Delhi. “We told the officials to show us under which law imported apples can be sold at a market meant primarily for indigenous traders,” Wafai recalled.

Trucks struggling to make their way on Srinagar-Jammu national highway during winters. Photo: Umer Asif

A preemptive fight

Horticulture forms the backbone of Kashmir’s economy. Despite setbacks and disruptions caused by the conflict in the region, the Valley’s horticulture production increased 36% over the last decade.

In 2019 alone, Kashmir produced over 19 lakh metric tonnes of apples – the highest in India. While apples are grown in other states like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir dominates the Indian apple market.

Despite that, horticulturists in Kashmir say they receive little support.

“For years, we have been raising the issue of crop insurance with different companies but no one is ready to offer insurance services to us,” said Basheer, the chairman of the fruit traders’ unions. Even the government-owned Jammu and Kashmir Bank did not devise an insurance scheme for the growers, he added.

The other problem they face, say apple growers, is the absence of an all-weather highway connecting Kashmir Valley with the rest of India. Every winter, the 270-km Srinagar-Jammu national highway closes down for long stretches.

“Has anything changed about this road in the last 70 years?” Basheer asked.

After Jammu and Kashmir lost its special constitutional status in August 2019, apple growers say they were facing the added trouble of explaining their concerns to an administration run largely by officials from outside. “They don’t understand the dynamics of a local sector like horticulture,” Basheer said.

Therefore, apple growers decided it was best to travel to Delhi to register a strong pre-emptive reaction to the Iranian apple imports. “If this import of Iranian-apples happens at the time of harvest season in October or November, Kashmir’s horticulture industry will collapse,” said Basheer. “The ultimate impact of this disaster will be on a small farmer on the ground. We are talking about more than seven lakh families here.”

Bashir Ahmad Basheer at his office in Srinagar Fruit Mandi. Photo: Safwat Zargar

A double whammy

When 40-year-old Javid Ahmad of Pulwama district came to know about the import of Iranian apples into Indian markets, he was furious: “I completely lost it. I felt like someone was slaughtering my conscience.”

An apple grower himself, Ahmad has been trading a higher volume of the fruit every year – at diminishing returns.

“Every year, I buy and sell around 80,000 boxes of apples,” Ahmad said. “But would you believe I am becoming poorer every year and my debt is increasing?”

Ahmad supports a family of five through his business. He pointed out that the apple industry in Kashmir has been struggling since the floods in 2014. Then came the Burhan Wani uprising in 2016. “And since 2019, all we have known are just lockdowns,” Ahmad said, referring to months-long lockdown after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked on August 5, 2019, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The entry of tax-free Iranian apples is the latest in a long list of crises, Ahmad rued.

“Over the years, I have seen flourishing apple growers and traders winding up their businesses and staying home,” said Ahmad. “If this continues, many more will quit.”