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Apple country has produced some formidable leaders

On Sunday, the Stokes family will mark their 100 years of living in Barubagh, a village in Kotgarh where an American, Samuel Evan Stokes, pioneered apple growing.

chandigarh Updated: Oct 14, 2012 12:24 IST
Gaurav Bisht

On Sunday, the Stokes family will mark their 100 years of living in Barubagh, a village in Kotgarh where an American, Samuel Evan Stokes, pioneered apple growing.

Stokes’ apple gift to Himachal Pradesh has gone a long way in transforming the fruit economy of the state. With growth in economy, the apple-growing belt became politically significant. Two former chief ministers, Thakur Ram Lal and his successor Virbhadra Singh, hail from the apple-growing region of the state.

The apple-growing region is scattered in Shimla, Kinnaur and Kullu districts comprising 13 assembly segments. Apples are also grown in parts of Mandi and Sirmour district, but it is only the above-said three districts that form the traditional apple belt.

In the pre-independence era, leaders from the apple-growing areas played a significant role in the country’s freedom. However, politics was not really the people’s cup of tea. Majority of the post-independence leaders from the apple belt made their way to the Vidhan Sabha on personal rapport with people rather than on the basis of party affiliation.

The apple-growing regions have produced some of foremost political leaders in the state, including five-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh, another former CM Thakur Ram Lal, who also remained governor of Andhra Pradesh, and Vidya Stokes, the leader of opposition in the present House.

Vidya Stokes’ mother Subedar Devi, a noted social worker in the area, was a nominated member of the Himachal Pradesh assembly. Former minister Pandit Padam Dev and Daulat Ram Chauhan were also from apple-growing areas of Shimla district. Satya Dang who married Himachal’s founder chief minister Dr YS Parmar was one of most powerful women leaders of her time.

Jai Bihari Lal Khachi was another powerful leader from the area. Master strategist, as he was known as, Khachi’s existence always threatened the Congress leadership.

Till the late 70s, the apple-growing areas produced mixed electoral results in the assembly elections. But since the late 80s, the Congress prominence began to grow in the area. In 1982, of the total eight seats in Shimla, the Congress secured six, the BJP won two. Kullu remained loyal to the BJP, where party won all the seats. It was the 1985 election that saw the Congress sweeping all the seats. It won all eight seats in Shimla, three in Kullu and the lone seat in Kinnaur.

In the 90s, the Congress was reduced to winning three seats in Shimla, while BJP secured four seats and Janata Dal one. But what again changed the political fortune of the Congress was the massive agitation by apple growers in 1990 against the Shanta Kumar government. To cripple the agitation, the government ordered firing in Kotgarh, where three farmers were killed and hundreds were jailed in Shimla. So bad was the situation that army contingents took out a flag march in the capital town.

The BJP did not return to power in the next elections and the Congress won eight of the 12 seats in apple-growing areas. In the 1998 elections, the Congress again maintained its dominance in the area by winning seven seats. It was the time when BJP formed the coalition government with Himachal Vikas Congress. Chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal gradually gained the acceptance in the apple belt. In 2007, the BJP secured six seats from the area and was successful in forming the government.

Political spotlight on the area further strengthened the apple economy. Apple constitutes about 48% of the total area under fruit crops and comprises 87% of the total fruit production. The area under apple has increased from 400 hectares in 1950-51 to 3,025 hectares in 1960-61 and 1.1 lakh hectares in 2010-11. However, the apple production has not seen a uniform growth as in 2011-12, it was 275,000 tonnes, 892,000 tonnes in 2010-11, 280,000 tonnes in 2009-10 and 510,000 tonnes in 2008-09.

In spite of the growth in the apple economy, the growers still have their concerns. Chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal’s image of “sarakwala mukhyamantri” has surely taken a beating in the apple belt. Bad condition of roads in the area will surely make tough the BJP’s road to victory.

The 85km Theog–Hatkoti road that connects Theogh-Chopal-Jubbal Kotkhai and Rohru is in a bad shape. In 2007, the Congress awarded a Rs 228-crore contract to Chinese Longjian Road and Bridge Company. The haphazard widening of the road led to traffic chaos and compounded transportation problems for the apple growers.

The road had remained a biggest issue for the apple growers even though Narinder Bragta, the horticulture minister, had made attempts to bring new innovations to the region. While the road condition could be a crucial factor in the apple belt in deciding the fate of the Congress and BJP, farmers are also skeptical about the FDI in retail. They feel that FDI will prove harmful for them as it would lead to increase in import of foreign apple to India.