Jubbal-Kotkhai (HP): The large hoardings of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) along the 80-km Theog-Hatkoti road adjacent to the famed apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh declare “Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar”.
To local apple farmers, they bring back the several unfulfilled promises made by PM Narendra Modi in 2014 — promises that, if kept, would have probably spared them their current misery, they say.
As they prepare to cast their votes for the Lok Sabha elections on 19 May, their shrinking prospects seem to be the primary driving force for the 1.7 lakh Himachal families involved in apple farming.
However, neither of the state’s two major players, the Congress or the BJP, have made the simmering distress in apple orchards a part of their campaign. And there are fears among farmers that as voting day nears, their concerns will get drowned out as national issues take centrestage.
Dozens of apple farmers across the state are yet to get the roughly Rs 100 crore in dues from buyers and commission agents who purchased the last two years’ produce, according to the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, a Shimla-based fruit-growers’ action group leading their campaign for payments.
Most cases date back to the tenure of the Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government voted out in 2017-end, but farmers remember Modi’s 2014 promise that his government would build adequate cold-storage facilities for apples, which it didn’t.
In the absence of these facilities, farmers allege, many sold their produce to buyers with unverified credentials just on the promise of a good price.
“There is no facility of AC storage in the state. The growers, thus, have no other option than to sell the produce in the orchards during the season or fall in the trap of con-buyers who offer lucrative rates,” said Prakash Thakur, an orchardist.
“Thereafter, nothing comes to their hands,” he added.
The apple economy of Himachal Pradesh is valued at Rs 3,500 crore, according to government data, and apples account for 49 per cent of the state’s total fruit produce.
The apple-harvest and sale season runs from July to September, and almost the entire produce is immediately sold in the absence of storage facilities.
Once harvested, apples are packed in cardboard cartons of 20 kg each, after which the produce is either dispatched to wholesale markets in the state and outside, or bought directly at farms.
Commission agents, locally known as ‘arthiyas‘, serve as mediators for sales, and either sell the fruits in open auctions at market yards or strike a deal with big buyers at agreed rates. Once the arthiyas receive the money, it is passed on to growers.
Theog MLA Rakesh Singha of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an affected farmer himself who is at the forefront of the agitation over unsettled dues, told ThePrint that demonetisation was a factor in their current situation.
The arthiyas, he said, had long been an integral part of the apple economy in Himachal Pradesh, giving farmers an advance before every crop season.
However, as demonetisation was declared on 8 November 2016, he added, they ran out of capital and stopped buying apples directly from the orchards.
According to Singha, the vacuum thus created allowed “an unregistered army of buyers-cum-commission agents” to mushroom.
“They control the local markets,” he said.
Singha said these agents got in touch with farmers at orchards or nearby areas and pitched a high price, which was enticing to those who didn’t want to carry their produce to far-off markets in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata or Ahmedabad. The farmers claim that though they handed over the apples to these agents, they were never paid the money.
For Himachal Pradesh farmers, already reeling under such factors as unpredictable weather that take a toll on the harvest, this lost money is an added jolt.
Looking for justice
Over the past two years, farmers in Himachal’s apple pockets of Kotkhai, Theog, Rohru and Chopal have been running around to get the money owed to them.
Jai Ram, a Kotkhai grower who claimed a Mumbai-based buyer and two others owed him Rs 42 lakh, told ThePrint that he was forced to sell his house in Shimla for Rs 35 lakh to repay his debt to escape legal action.
Almost out of hope after allegedly being deprived of payments for two successive seasons, he is looking at the upcoming crop to clear his debt.
So far, 32 local growers have filed four FIRs at the Kotkhai police station to claim dues to the tune of Rs 1.62 crore for sales made in 2017 and 2018. More than 101 growers have filed complaints with the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC), Shimla, a government entity responsible for fruit and vegetable marketing, accusing commission agents of cheating.
About 85 growers who were issued postdated cheques that allegedly turned out to be fake have filed cases in the civil court at Theog.
The fallout of unpaid apple sales is now obvious in the orchards. Many small and marginal growers have no resources to buy inputs such as pesticides or employ labour. Their failure to repay debts, including via Kisan credit cards, has closed off the potential to avail of further credit, and a large number of growers, labelled defaulters, are facing FIRs and recovery cases, both in courts and at the Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT) in Chandigarh.
Exasperated, the growers are now planning a demonstration Monday against “open loot and exploitation” taking place under the nose of the state’s Jai Ram Thakur-led BJP government and the APMC.
Sanjay Chauhan, a former Shimla mayor and secretary of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, said both the Congress and the BJP were hand-in-glove in the farmers’ exploitation.
“If one goes out of power, the other comes. They employ their own cronies in the APMC and start looting,” Chauhan told ThePrint. “You will see its serious impact in the polls this time. Is anyone listening to farmers’ woes?”
“Farm distress here is a big issue because apple is the principal crop, and backbone of the state’s farm economy,” Chauhan added.
Talking to ThePrint, state agriculture minister Ram Lal Makanda acknowledged the problem.
“The government records also confirm 102 cases of non-payments. Those are growers who lodged complaints. There could be more who sold the produce outside the market yards where we don’t have control,” he said. “This is a big problem but we will act tough if we get specific complaints.”
No one is off the hook
As Modi arrived in Himachal, a state where he served as the BJP in-charge in the late 1990s, for the 2014 campaign, he laid out a host of promises meant to secure the fortunes of local apple farmers, including raising the import duty from 50 to 100 per cent.
But while trade tensions with the US have seen import duty on apples from the country rise to 75 per cent, that for other countries stays the same.
“Though the Modi wave was certainly an overriding factor, but his (Modi) promise to raise apple import duty from 50 per cent to 100 per cent did impact the BJP’s prospects,” said state Congress president Kuldeep Rathore.
“Modi also promised to make a law to ensure that all soft-drinking manufacturers in India mix 25 per cent fruit juice [sic, Modi actually said 2 per cent],” Rathore added, saying none of the promises had been fulfilled.
These unfulfilled promises, he said, would be the Congress’ major poll flank in the state’s apple-growing areas.
“Let Modi give a report card, explain what he did on the promise to raise import duty on apples, or setting-up processing industry in the fruit-growing areas,” he added.
Former state horticulture minister Narinder Bragta, the BJP MLA from Jubbal-Kotkhai, said the problems could be traced to the Congress’ tenure in Himachal.
“Instead of strengthening the available marketing infrastructure, the government made zero contribution to horticulture,” he added. “Licences were issued to apple commission agents on political considerations. They played foul with the growers,” he said.
The duping of growers, he added, is “an alarming matter for the government, also the BJP”.
“I can only educate the growers and ask them not to fall into the trap of fly-by-night operators who set up shops during the apple season and thereafter quietly disappear without paying for the farmers’ produce,” he added.
The growers’ admit that much of the non-payment cases date back to the Congress’ tenure, but are unwilling to let the current administration off the hook.
According to them, it’s the responsibility of the incumbent government to see that all erring commission agents and wholesale buyers are brought to book, and their money recovered from them.
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