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A false apple dream?

At a time, when apple farmers across the Valley are preparing their orchards and spraying pesticides, hopeful of a bumper crop, Dar is waiting to uproot his orchard of around 1150 apple trees.

, ET Bureau|
Mar 29, 2019, 11.16 AM IST
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Huge number of high density plants, now in quarantine at Zainapora, were dried or diseased.
The onset of spring is the beginning of long hopeless winter for Nisar Ahmad Dar, an apple farmer of Kulgam in southern Kashmir. At a time, when apple farmers across the Valley are preparing their orchards and spraying pesticides, hopeful of a bumper crop, Dar is waiting to uproot his orchard of around 1150 apple trees spread on 10.5 kanals (1.31 acre) of land in Mohammadpora of Kulgam.

For Dar, the biblical adage, ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’ was proven literally wrong. In 2016-17, Dar planted what the department of Horticulture in Kashmir told him was the exquisite High Density variety of Apple, provided on subsidy under the scheme introduced in 2016-17 by the then PDP-BJP government. However, two years later, the plants in Dar’s orchard grew into cheap, unsalable and tasteless Golden Delicious (pollinator) variety. In the harvest season of 2018, Dar threw most of his produce into the water stream passing through the boundary of his orchard. The sapling of High Density apple imported from Italy, through private players costs any where between Rs 435 to Rs 500, while as the sapling of the apple plant , which Dar finally realized, he has been given by the department costs anywhere between Rs 2 to Rs 10 and is available locally.

Dar says he was mesmerized by the then government’s promise of greater benefits from High Density including increase in the produce and the returns. In lieu of the promises and dream shown by the then PDP-BJP government, Dar cut down his full grown orchard of ‘Kulu’ variety of apple--from which he earned good money-- to plant the ‘High Density Apple.’

Now, Dar visits concerned horticulture departments in Kulgam, Shopian and Directorate in Srinagar pleading for justice. He threatens to commit suicide along with the family and has repeatedly sat on the protest. However, his protests are just translating into the paper orders from one department to other, with no practical solution. The department has already accepted that Dar has been wronged and the plants given to him haven’t behaved ‘True to Type’. And his concerns were also proven by the scientists from SK University of Agricultural Science and Technology in Srinagar.

The Official Acceptance:
The official letter DHK/Pur/2019/8866 dated 01/03/2019 from the directorate regarding the orchard of Dar reads, “Chief Horticulture Officer Kulgam has informed that instead of 20 to 25 percent pollinizers, 69 percent pollinizers are existing in the orchard…Red Chief, 140, Gala Red Lum 116, Super Chief, 19, Red Velox, 17 and Golden Clone/ Reinders, 798.”

The department has also written to the Secretary to the J&K Government (horticulture) revealing that not only Dar but some other farmers have also complained about the same issue that the plants material supplied to them under the scheme are not behaving true to type.

The letter DHK/Pur/2018/10752 dated 12-11-2018 directorate of horticulture writes to the secretary horticulture under the subject ‘ Complaints from beneficiaries regarding plants not proving true to type under high density plantation program.’

“…During the year 2016/17 orchadists in various districts have established 32 hectares of orchards under High Density Plantation Program…Few orchadists have complained that some of their plants are not behaving true to type…after fruiting the Golden Delicious variety plants are found to be in very high proportion, than the required numbers that is putting them to losses.”

The letter also claims that the department has got the concern of the farmers verified through departmental officers as well as scientists of KVK SKUAST (K) and it has found that the complaints are genuine. The Golden delicious cultivator plants are found predominant and excessively more than the required numbers. The scheme was introduced to revolutionize and multiply the benefits of what is now Rs 4000 crore sector and backbone of the Kashmir’s rural economy.

Where is the Problem?
In 2015-16 budget speech, the then state’s finance minister Haseeb A Drabu had announced establishment of High Density Plantation Orchards and earmarked Rs 150 crore under the ‘Secure Horticulture Future’ initiative. It envisaged envisaged to raise average production from the current level of 10 MT/Ha to the international level of 40-70 MT/Ha.

In March 2018, Drabu in his infamous speech in New Delhi, which later got him sacked from the state cabinet, mentioned about the High Density scheme, saying, “We grow apples, surely we grow them we’ve been growing them hundreds of years. Can we get some knowledge of the best practices in? Yes we can. Will that have an impact? Yes it will. But its not just the fact of a high density technology coming in, along with that comes in a certain people’s contact, a certain relationships…”

For this scheme, the PDP-BJP government collaborated with and forged the relationship with Khurram Mir of Shopian, who had established a High Density Apple Orchard in Bamdoora of Kokernag of southern Kashmir with the help of the government. The then chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, who visited his orchard in 2015, was impressed and asked him to get ready for PPP model with the government. And thus Mir, became the main player or supplier for the scheme. Mir in his presentation before Mufti, stated that he has merely implemented the dream that Drabu—his mentor--has seen. He said that the High Density orchard using seven Italian varieties with drip irrigation and the European style farming was the first of its kind in the Valley. This Bamdoora orchard became the signature project of advertisement in horticulture sector for the PDP-BJP government and they would mention this in almost every political gathering attracting massive praise. However, in July 2016, the orchard also became the victim of both government’s propaganda and people’s anger against the government. The angry protestors in wake of the killing of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and his two colleagues burnt down the orchard, which for them was the nearest and most visible symbol of the ruling PDP-BJP government.

In 2016-17 H N Agri Serve Pvt Ltd, of which Mir was a top executive supplied high density plant material to the government. The invoice dated 16th of August 2017, H N Agri Serve Pvt Ltd, based in Lassipora Pulwama, mentions an amount of Rs 2.44 crore charged for supplying high density plant material with the quantity of 54121 (MM111, MM106) plants at Rs 439 per plant costing Rs 2.37 crore. And also cold storage charges Rs 0.4 per plant per day costing Rs 6.49lakhs for one month and maintenance charges for watering of plants for a month at Rs 30,000.

Another invoice of H N Agri Pvt Limited shows 37951 plants @439 costing a total of Rs 1.66 crore.

Out of the total 92072, paid for by the governments horticulture department the official record only mentions 91702 plants with 370 plants costing around 1.7lakh missing. And further out of this only 76479 survive with the 15223 plants dried, damaged and found less.

The government thus incurred the loss of around Rs 68.45 lakhs even before the sapling was supplied to orchadists for the final plantation.

In 2016, the invoice of another company Griba Nursery India Private Limited dated 1st of July 2016 for 121000 plants at the rate of Rs 460 per plant, with the total amount of Rs 5.56 crore. Out of 121000, as per the official records with the ET, only 85548 survived as around 35452 were dried, damaged and found less.

In this contract also government lost Rs 1.63 crore even before the plant reached the orchards.

What Now?

The farmers and the experts claim that the high density project which is aimed to transform apple production from Rs 4000 crore into Rs 15000 crore per year, according to Mufti’s prediction, has been badly implemented and has many lacunae.

At Zainapora advanced Horticulture center, where the imported high density plants were quarantined and then supplied to farmers, the officials inform that there are problems at various steps.

“We get the tagged plants from the private supplier and we keep it in quarantine. Later, we supply the plants to farmers after approval from SKUAST specialist scientist team. But then the plant doesn’t behave true to type. A senior scientist told us that they can tell the type only after plant grows. That a lay man can also do. The problem starts from here,” a senior official at the horticulture department told ET.

There is problem with the MoU with the private companies, who have no accountability before or after supplying the plant material. Besides these private players, who also offer complete package including irrigation system, wiring and other facilities to set up high density orchard quote different rates for the same job.

According to Muhammad Ashraf Wani, an orchadist from Shopian, “There companies quote rates from any where between Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh per kanal. The high density scheme should not be compromised just to favor some blue eyed persons. Horticulture is backbone of our economy and it cannot be taken for granted,” said Wani.

Huge number of high density plants, now in quarantine at Zainapora, were dried or diseased. The officials complained that they don’t have the man power to manage the whole area of the center spread over at least 2500 kanals. The irrigation system of the quarantine is dysfunctional, the generator installed isn’t working properly and the apple plants look like dense wild bushes, rather than scientifically kept imported plants in quarantine.

“And we also don’t know are these the plants that are mentioned on papers. We have to believe the tag of supplier. What are our scientists at SKUAST doing?” Wani asked. For now the department has given contract to supply the high density plant material and prepare the orchards to four private companies but the guidelines are still not clear and may end up hurting more farmers in next season.

At Srinagar, newly transferred director of horticulture department, Ajaz Ahmad Bhat said that he is in the process of evaluating all the schemes and would even consider reframing the MoU with private companies if needed. He claimed that all the grievances of farmers would be addressed in this season.

And outside his office Dar, whose protests continue, says that if he was not given the new plants immediately, his orchard would be a useless for the whole year. “Who will feed my children and how will I pay my loan?” he asks.
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