Like most other apple growers in Himachal Pradesh, Vinod Chauhan from Ratnari gram panchayat in Kotkhai district is a worried man.
Although harvesting of the apple crop is a few months away, he is not sure whether the migrant workforce will be available because of the lockdown arising from the spread of the Covid-19 infection across the country.
Normally, these workers leave the State before the Dussehra festival and are back by April end or May. But there is a question mark on whether they will be able to make it back in time this season.
Chauhan has 2,000 apple trees and he hires at least 40 migrant labourers every harvesting season. The apple economy in the State is dependent to a large extent on migrant workers from Nepal, who are capable of carrying heavy loads of apples on the hilly tracts, and perform other harvest-related chores.
“Although for now it is a wait-and-watch situation, we have to be prepared for harvesting our crops without this additional workforce,” he says, explaining that if there are fewer hands for plucking, the apples drop to the ground after ripening and these fetch 10 to 20 per cent lower prices. In addition to this loss, other costs could also go up if the labour situation does not improve.
Most apple orchardists have what they call ghar Nepalis , which means a Nepali family that stays on the land and goes to its home country just for a visit. Apart from the Nepal migrants, every year, apple growers hire additional labour from States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for handling different aspects of crop management — right from spraying, plucking, packing, loading, grading and labelling and, lastly, fetching the produce for transportation from the orchards to the roadheads.
Vinay Sirkeck, an orchardist from Dalan village in Kotgarh, says that while the apple season is a few months away, the growers are tense because of labour uncertainty. He says this time at least 30 to 35 per cent cherry produce perished in his area and there are fears about other fruits that have a very short shelf life meeting the same fate. Although Sirkeck did manage to sell one batch of cherries to a buyer a few days back, he is not sure about the next batch. If no buyer comes, it would perish.
Param Dev Sharma, an apple grower from Bhatwari village in the Rohru sub division, says if migrant workers fail to come to Himachal Pradesh, growers like him will suffer massive losses.
His orchards are away from the roadheads and local hands cannot manage to carry the heavy load, nor are they trained in the art. “If Nepali migrant labourers don’t come, my apple crop will perish,” he says, stressing the need to construct link roads.
Transportation and marketing will also be a challenge in the prevailing circumstances, which do not look optimistic for now. Some orchardists are of the view that as the apple crop at different heights is harvested at different times, the work force could be deployed strategically. The low-height apple is ready for harvesting by mid or end of June and the higher altitude varieties are plucked starting from August till October.
The apple growers are expecting a moderate crop this year because of hail storms and now, with the situation arising out of Covid-19, they are looking to the government to provide subsidies so they don’t incur huge losses. They feel the administration must provide cartons and other packaging material at subsidised rates and assist in marketing the apple crop, one of the mainstays of the economy in this hill State. Dr Madan Mohan Sharma, Director, HP Horticulture Department, says the situation is dynamic as of now but the government is in touch with all stakeholders to see how it can facilitate apple growers. The flower growers in the State have already suffered a severe setback as much of their exotic produce perished for want of buyers during the lockdown. The need now is to ensure that apple growers do not suffer a similar predicament.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi