Mohd Isaq Mir, 55, an apple grower in south Kashmir’s Shopain district is harrowed as his apple harvest is stuck in a cold storage in Lassipora industrial area of Pulwama district.

The COVID-19 lockdown has put hundreds of apple growers like Isaq in a difficult position. They don't know how to sell their stored apples, stuck in cold chambers now for more than 6 months.

Reports on the plight of apple growers in Kashmir emerged in the media following the abrogation of Article 370 and ensuing restrictions. Local mandis across the J&K were shut down, making business impossible and driving the multi-crore apple trade to a negligible all time low. Falling prices, closed mandis, and attacks by anonymous gunmen prompted distressed apple growers in the region to put apples in cold storage, as they were unable to send consignments out.

Unfortunately, the lockdown in Kashmir never eased, with coronavirus serving a double whammy.

"Apple growers were anticipating to sell their apple carton at good prices in the months of March, April and May but coronavirus lockdown is hitting us badly," said Isaq. "We are now in a situation where we are unable to pay rents of cold stores" he added.

Another grower Muneer Hussain, with 45 thousands cartons in cold chambers, says “we have to pay around 30 rupees per month per box as rent to cold stores but the lockdown is not allowing us to sell our produce, so we are unable to pay.”

“Due to restrictions we are not able to export to other states of India,” he said. “We request government authorities to allow us passes after proper screening of truck drivers so that we may send our stock to other stations of the country.”

Apples stored in wooden crates in a cold chamber

Ab Rashid Wani, hailing from Haram village of Shopain district, had with other two partners stored more than one lakh apple boxes in cold store chambers in Abraq cold store at Lassipora industrial sector of Pulwama district. "We have no option left but to sell them and we request government authorities to facilitate us in selling our apples which may help us at least in paying rents to cold stores. Making profit is no longer an issue. We just want to recover incurring losses; this if the government allows us to send trucks outside", Wani explained.

Shah Waqif, manager of Abraq Agro Fresh LLP cold store said that "last year at the end of April we had only one lakh cartons in cold chambers and growers were easily packing and delivering consignments to other parts of the country. But with the beginning of COVID-19 lockdown from mid-March, we still have more than 2 lakh boxes with us in chambers."

"Stations outside Kashmir are also locked due to the nationwide lockdown and the demand was high before lockdown. Government can avail market purchase by lifting restrictions on movement of trucks carrying apples" Waqif said.

"Around 15 to 16 cold stores in Lassipora industrial area of Pulwama have in-take capacity of 15 to 16 lakh cartons. It is estimated that around 15 lakh cartons are still in chambers" said one of the managers of the cold store.

Few growers are requesting fellow Kashmiris to buy apples in the month of Ramadan instead of other fruits like watermelons, bananas and mangoes. This may help them in recovering losses and enable them to pay debts on pesticides and cold storages.

Apples rotting in crates at a cold storage facility

In response to the crisis, some youth from the valley have attempted a novel solution - an e-fruitmandi, where Kashmiris are able to buy apples online from local growers and have them delivered to their doorstep. This initiative was welcomed on twitter and other social media platforms by users across the valley.

Others have spoken up, asking Kashmiris to buy locally. Nayeema Mehjoor a journalist from Kashmir valley tweeted: “Dear Kashmir, buy kashmiri apple only and support kashmir apple industry which has been deliberately ruined to cripple Kashmir industry. Plz trend it #Buykashmiriapples. I request all my followers to spread this and support apple growers.”

On Wednesday, director horticulture Kashmir, Ajaz Ahmed Bhat, had paid a visit to Lasipora cold stores and while inspecting, requested them to adhere to standard operating procedures given the pandemic. The director instructed managers of the stores to equip workers with proper PPE kits including gloves and masks.

Later, Bhat held a meeting with cold store unit holders and advised them to reduce the rent charged to apple growing given the prevailing circumstances.

Mir Zeeshan is a Kashmir based independent journalist.