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Enough cherry picking, India needs to aim for the cake. Start from Baramulla mishri

A robust quality control mechanism needs to be put in place before Baramulla’s canned cherries can access global markets.

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(The only cherry most Indians have tasted is the maraschino — a bright red, artificially colored, preserved and sweetened canned variety used in baking that is imported into the country. That might change if Jammu and Kashmir’s mishri variety makes it to markets across India and the world, with help from a sustained promotion campaign. In this week’s installment of the District BarCode, we look at the prospects for Baramulla’s signature ODOP: cherries)

In Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 Palme d’Or winning cult film, Taste of Cherry (Ta’m-e-Gilas) the protagonist, Mr Badii, a middle-aged man fed up with the monotony of daily existence, drives around the streets of Tehran contemplating suicide, and looking for someone who will bury his corpse. He encounters all sorts of people in the process, but in one of the most moving scenes of the film, Mr Bagheri, a taxidermist, dissuades Badii by talking to him about cherries.

“If you look at the four seasons, each season brings fruit. In summer, there’s fruit, in autumn, too. Winter brings different fruit and spring too. No mother can fill her fridge with such a variety of fruit for her children… You want to refuse all that? You want to give it all up? You want to give up the taste of cherries?” Mr Bagheri says.

This is an eloquent poetic tribute to the power of cherries, a fleshy, pitted fruit of the prune family that grows primarily in colder, temperate northern regions. Cherries come in over 400 varieties — sour to dwarf to sweet to bitter to tart. Unfortunately, for most Indians, cherries are a rare treat — unavailable, imported, expensive and perennially out of stock. These maraschino cherries, which Indians are familiar with the most, are loaded with red food-dye and preservatives meant to extend shelf life. They are not only carcinogenic but also considered by connoisseurs to be at the bottom of the cherry pecking order.

Also read: India, say cheese: How a new White Revolution is transforming a nation of paneer eaters

Cherry and India

All this is set to change soon, with the newly announced government thrust to promote cherry cultivation in India, particularly in the Himalayan districts of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. Under the One District One Product (ODOP) initiative, the district of Baramulla decided after extensive consultations to promote cherries as their signature product.

Cherries are not new to India. Kalhana’s celebrated Sanskrit text, the Rajatarangini talks of the King Lalitaditya’s love for cherries (kapitha) and calls them the gift from a messenger of Indra himself. Yet, they were never widely cultivated or consumed. In recent years, indigenous cherry cultivation has shown significant fluctuation due to extreme weather events, lack of adequate demand, absence of perishable storage and transport infrastructure, and a general preference for other horticultural crops such as apples and plums.

India produced 10,936 metric tons of cherries in 2019 and was the world’s 26th biggest producer of cherry fruit, with Turkey being the world leader in this space. Almost all of India’s cherry production was centered around four districts of the Kashmir Valley, namely Ganderbal (3,610 MTs), Shopian (3,000 MTs), Srinagar (~1,500 MTs) and Baramulla (~1,500 MTs). With a short cultivation and harvest cycle, cherries are primarily harvested in the warmer months during the local Ratkol crop cycle (Mid May-July), which is when they enter the market.

The cherries of the Kashmir valley are known for their sweetness. Four varieties are widely cultivated — Mishri, Makhmali, Double and Italy. As the name suggests, Mishri is extra-sweet and is unique to Kashmir, while Italy is a recent variety introduced from Europe. While other varieties like ‘black gol’, and ‘awal number’ were once cultivated, these have seen a decline as demand for mishri increases. In 2021, APEDA debuted Baramulla’s mishri variety in Dubai for the first time, flying in a trial batch to UAE, where it was extremely well received. The Union territory’s horticulture department, buoyed by the success of mishri’s foray into the Middle East, proceeded to sign an MoU with GoAir to supply Middle Eastern markets with fresh seasonal cherries.

Also read: Why India’s beautiful flowers miss the plane of exports while Kenya & Ethiopia fly high

The local push

A sustained push to promote cherry cultivation, and more importantly, dedicating resources towards setting up canning units is underway in Baramulla. While Ganderbal remains the largest cherry producing district, its cherry orchards are yet to recover from a devastating plant disease, ‘Krankh’, which led several farmers to abandon cherry cultivation in favor of the ubiquitous apple. Baramulla has adopted a slightly different approach, promoting apples and cherries together, with a focus on developing infrastructure such as canning and food processing units.

Baramulla and Kupwara districts have been selected under the Aspirational District Programme of the NITI Aayog, which seeks to transform the 112 most under-developed districts in the country through sustained and targeted central assistance and convergence, and saturation of centrally sponsored schemes. Over the last few years, Baramulla has made significant progress on several indicators, particularly health, nutrition, and financial inclusion, and is now focusing on livelihoods and agriculture infrastructure creation. In the last two years, it has made strides in promoting cottage apiaries, and Baramulla’s honey is now an emerging success story.

It is too early to tell which way Baramulla’s foray into cherry promotion will play out, but it has made all the right moves so far, fully utilising support from the central government, and making inroads into new and unexplored international markets.

However, several challenges remain – a robust quality control mechanism needs to be put in place before its canned cherries can access global markets, and farmers need to be incentivised to boost cherry production.

The biggest challenge that Baramulla’s cherries face comes not from other districts, but from the competition within the district — the local apple. The introduction and success of new cropping practices in Baramulla, such as high-density apple planting (which leads to significantly higher yields), may end up squeezing out more vulnerable fruits like cherries, unless a coordinated and integrated horticulture strategy is evolved at the ground level.

Today, Lalitaditya’s favorite fruit, the gift of Indra himself, has managed to make a mark in Middle Eastern markets within a span of a few years. With sustained promotion, Baramulla will successfully aim for the cake with the cherry on top.

District Bar Code is a series on the One District One Product (ODOP) scheme by the government of India. Read all the articles here.

Sanyukta Samaddar is an IAS officer who is currently a Nodal Officer (SDGs), at NITI Aayog. She tweets @SanyuktaSam1. Adhiraj Parthasarathy is a Director in the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog where he works on the evaluation of government schemes. He koos @adhirajp. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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