Less than six months left for the assembly polls and the Jai Ram Thakur government in Himachal Pradesh is facing massive protests from apple growers, a significant electorate that holds the keys to at least two dozen constituencies in the state.
On Friday, under the banner of Sanyukt Kisan Manch, an umbrella body of 27 apple-growing organisations, held one of the biggest protest rallies since 1990 right outside the secretariat. With the election tempo picking up, the presence of leaders from the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, and Communist Party of India (Marxist) is giving the BJP government some anxious moments. The apple growers have given the administration ten days to resolve their grievances.
For the Thakur government, the resolution of the crisis has become critical. “There is a significant section of the electorate which is directly linked to the apple trade. The state besides tourism relies heavily on the apple industry. The angst building up amongst growers doesn’t augur well for the party ahead of elections,” admitted a BJP leader.
The apple industry in Himachal is worth Rs 5,000 crore. The state delivers 20-25% of the country’s total produce while Kashmir tops the list with a market share of 70-75%. Of the total apple production of around 20-25 lakh MT, Himachal Pradesh produces 4-7 lakh MT.
The growers are feeling the heat due to various factors. The imposition of GST on packaging material, a deluge of apple stocks from countries like Iran, climate change, and an increase in input costs are some of the factors that have reduced their income and made the trade less profitable.
The rates of cartons for packaging the apple crop have increased substantially with a hike in GST rate from 12 to 18 per cent. Besides, the manufacturers say that paper too has become expensive.
“We protested in 1990. Our livelihood had come under threat then and we had no choice but to fight. The situation is the same today, and we will again fight it out,” said an apple grower, Anil, from Kotgarh.
“Instead of looking for jobs, our youth take up horticulture as a means of livelihood. They know it’s their future at stake, so they are out on the streets to save it,” said another protester.
What could be worrying for the BJP government is that the issue is snowballing into a major political controversy with opposition leaders joining in. On Friday, CPI(M) MLA Rakesh Singha, Congress MLA Rohit Thakur, and AAP leaders attended the protest rally. “The government is merely making announcements to distract farmers. If the government was serious about providing relief to the growers, it would have taken it up with the Centre before the harvesting season,” said Rohit Thakur.
But the government alleges politics and says that the demands of the growers have been considered. Senior BJP leader Khushi Ram Balnatah alleged that the agitation was politically motivated and aimed at misleading people.
“The government had released the pending arrears of Rs 8.59 crore for apples procured from growers under the Market Intervention Scheme. The HPMC and HIMFED had been directed to release the dues of apple growers within a week,” he said.
Balnatah said that the government has been sympathetic towards the problems faced by apple growers. “The government has decided to revert to the earlier system of pesticide distribution and Rs 20 crore has been released to the horticulture department for procuring anti-hail guns and other equipment,” he added.