In Kashmir, the lockdown and the crisis in the nurseries

Gulzar Bhat | Updated on May 08, 2020

Lost cause: Hundreds of private nurseries supply saplings to orchardists in Kashmir, says the state’s horticulture department director, Ajaz Ahmad Bhat (right)   -  GULZAR BHAT

Lockdown during peak demand season has hit the earnings of nurseries in Kashmir that supply apple plants and seedlings

In springtime and early summer, it is difficult to find Waseem Raja at home. The 32-year-old plant supplier is busy all day selling saplings, mostly of apple trees, to farmers who grow fruits in Kashmir. This year has been different. For the last several weeks, Raja has been sitting at home without work, staring at irreparable losses.

And he does not know what the future holds for him. “This baffling disease will hit us heavily,” he says.

Like Raja, several of his fellow villagers in Qaimoh in Kulgam district, some 50km south of Srinagar, grow and sell plants for a living.

Last year, Raja’s earnings touched ₹14 lakh. This year, cooped up at home because of the countrywide lockdown, he has not been able to approach farmers.

“Only a few people in my village were able to sell some hundred plants in all. Horticulture activity has suffered badly and the plantation season is almost over,” he says.

The ideal season for planting different varieties of apple and other stone fruit saplings in the Valley begins in March and lasts barely till the end of April. Although plum, apricot, cherry and pear — and even some varieties of apple — can be planted in December, farmers couldn’t do so last year because of bad weather.

Nearly 80 per cent of the people living in the villages of Kulgam plant saplings for a living. They belong to hamlets such as Qaimoh, Matalhama, Chadder Ban, Hawoora, Danew, Akhran Navpora and Kujjer. The district produces more than 20 lakh apple and stone fruit saplings annually. The region’s soil and weather are believed to be conducive to the growth of healthy saplings.

“It is a major source of livelihood for thousands of people living here. We have been severely affected by the lockdown. Many of us cannot make ends meet. This year the district sold less than one lakh plants,” says Sharif-ud-din, another resident. In the past years, he sold his carefully nurtured plants in the open markets in the neighbouring apple-rich towns of Shopian and Pulwama. But the markets are not open, nor accessible, any more.

According to Horticulture Kashmir director Ajaz Ahmad Bhat, there are hundreds of privately held nurseries in the region. These supply plants to orchardists. Some of the nurseries are accredited to the National Horticulture Board.

Around 7 lakh families in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) are directly or indirectly associated with the horticulture sector, a mainstay of the local economy. According to official sources, around 237,000 hectares are under fruit cultivation. Apple is the largest cultivated crop. In 2018-19, the Valley produced around 18.5 tonnes of apples.

The prolonged lockdown has affected orchardists and nursery owners. Bhat says the horticulture department was able to distribute 4 lakh plants to growers, under a programme called the Backyard Horticulture scheme, before the government announced the lockdown in March to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Lockdown and farming

The Valley has witnessed many protracted lockdowns over the past several years. Last year, on August 5, when the Centre revoked the special status given to J&K, the Valley remained closed for almost six months. The farming community, largely the apple growers, had then suffered huge losses. There were attacks by unidentified militants on traders and truck drivers from outside the region.

The farmers, and others associated with the sector, once again find themselves in trouble. Though the government has exempted the farming community from the lockdown, the villagers complain they are unable to go out and sell their crops.

“Despite being exempted from the lockdown, we cannot move out and work in our fields freely,” says Abul Hameed, a resident of Shopian. The villagers say that the police stop them from venturing out.

The lockdown has greatly affected farmers whose fields are located outside their home districts. They have to overcome the stringent restrictions to be able to reach their farms.

“I find it extremely difficult to tend to my orchard, which is located some 17km from my house. Only today, somehow, I was able to reach the farm and spray the plants with pesticides,” says Javed Ahmad, another Shopian resident.

Some officials from the horticulture department, who declined to be quoted, also complained that they were not allowed by the police to undertake field trips.

Apple farmers were severely affected by the lockdown that began in August and led to a ban on telephone, Internet and people’s movement. Heavy snowfall worsened matters.

For those nursing plants, too, this has been a season of sorrow.

Gulzar Bhat is a Kashmir-based journalist

Published on May 08, 2020

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