SOLAN: It’s time the hill state of Himachal Pradesh took a second bite of the apple. Known for its apple economy that is generally valued around ₹5,000 crore, the state risks upsetting its apple cart.

There are many indications of this, and apple growers here have been organising themselves of late, across political affiliations, to seek the required government intervention. They stand hit by multiple problems both natural and man made.

Fungal disease resurfaces

The latest malady emerged in the past week, in the form of the return of scab, a fungal disease. Reports of scab from some villages in the Shimla, Mandi and Kullu districts are reminding apple growers of the threat it posed in the 1980s, before being contained by a stringent, years-long spray regime of insecticides and fungicides.

“It needs to be understood that immediate intervention is the need of the hour. This could become a crisis where trees have to be chopped. Over the years growers have been misled in the name of zero budget and organic farming, and the spray schedule got disturbed,” says former Shimla mayor and Kisan Sangharsh Samiti leader Sanjay Chauhan.

“In addition to this, growers are being lured into purchasing fungicides produced by companies that aim only at quick profits. We are getting reports of scab being detected in new areas almost daily,” Chauhan told The Citizen.

J.N.Sharma, an expert on scab at the Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan, disclosed that “growers too have been taking the spray regime a bit lightly over the last few years. There have been sporadic reports of scab in the last three to four years, owing to changing climate patterns marked by more rain in the winter.

“Scab cannot be eradicated – it can only be controlled by following a strict spray regime.”

Some experts also point out that the growers have become less dependent on fungicides supplied by the government over the years. They say that it is pure demand and supply economics at work.

M.L.Dhiman, director of the state government’s horticulture department, said that teams had been constituted to visit areas where scab has been reported. “We have constituted a monitoring cell that is recording observations from time to time. In addition we are issuing advisories on a daily basis.”

He further said that as of now there is no shortage of fungicides.

Commission agents cheat cultivators

Then there is the very important issue of a large number of apple growers being duped of their payments by commission agents, many of whom have vanished leaving the apple cultivators high and dry. A sustained agitation is ongoing under the banner of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, and a Special Investigation Team formed after intervention by the state High Court is in the process of bringing the accused to book.

The matter was first raised in the state assembly by the lone CPM MLA Rakesh Singha.

It came to light sometime back that a nexus between the commission agents and local politicians, along with non-implementation of the Himachal Pradesh Agricultural and Horticultural Produce Marketing (Development and Regulation) Act of 2005, led to a scenario where licences to work as commission agents were issued to unscrupulous elements without the required verification.

These agents went on to cheat the unorganised growers.

The growers point to violations of Section 39 (2) (XXII) of the Act which says, “Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions, the Committee may with a view to maintaining stability in the market, take suitable measures to ensure that traders do not buy agricultural produce beyond their capacity and avoid risk to the sellers in disposing of the produce and grant licenses only after obtaining necessary security in cash as bank guarantee according to the capacity of the buyers.”

They say that the commission agents kept their payments on hold on flimsy grounds, knowing that the grower does not have the time or resources to pursue the matter for long. After a while, some of these agents simply vanished or refused to pay.

Growers also say that according to the Act the onus is with the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee authorities to ensure that all payments are made well in time.

Chauhan told The Citizen, “Till now there have been more than 400 police complaints and 100-plus commission agents have been identified.”

Problem of subsidised industrial plenty

The third major issue pertains to the demand of the apple growers that the government raise the import duty on apples coming in from Europe, America and New Zealand. They say that India is importing apples from 45 countries with a 52 per cent import duty, which should be raised to at least 100 per cent if the interests of local apple growers are to be taken care of.

Reports say that India recently hiked the import duty on apples coming from the US to 70 percent. The US reportedly accounts for 40 percent of apple imports in India.

But growers say that what needs to be ensured is that the same apples do not come in through other channels. They also want a resumption of the ban of imports from China, which was last imposed over quarantine issues in 2017.

Growers are apprehensive that their interests stand threatened by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership bloc regime, as apples would fall under the Free Trade Agreement being negotiated between the member states of ASEAN and six Indo-Pacific states.

Nature laughs last, laughs longest

Last but not least, is the havoc caused by the recent thunder and hail storms that have caused immense damage to fruit and vegetable crop in the state.

Farmer groups have been seeking adequate compensation for the losses they have incurred. In certain areas apple growers have lost a major part of their annual produce to the hailstorms, which have been a regular feature over the last couple of months.

The hill state that has made a mark for itself in horticulture must rush to put its apple cart back in order.