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Himachal’s fruit of labour

Himachal Pradesh, which produces more than one-third of the apples grown in the country, has seen output drop by half, causing prices to go up by five times, reports Archana Phull.

india Updated: Nov 19, 2009 00:43 IST
Archana Phull

“Last year, apple production in Himachal Pradesh was 21 million boxes. This year, it fell to 10 million boxes because of less snowfall in winter and drought in the ensuing months.” —Horticulture department Director Gurdev Singh

Drought this year has reduced apple production by 50 per cent in Himachal Pradesh, causing the price to go up nearly five times.

The quality too has declined even at higher altitudes.

Ageing orchards, labour problems, rising costs of inputs and increasing temperatures are taking a toll on apple productivity and produce.

As a result, consumers have to pay a heavy price. In Delhi, the current retail rate for apples from Himachal Pradesh is Rs 80 a kg.

In Shimla the price has gone up from Rs 20 a kg to Rs 100 a kg.

“It (price rise) happened this year due to low supply. We have to find solutions to problems in apple cultivation,” Ram Lal Chauhan, 48, an apple-grower in Kotkhai, 65 km from Shimla

“Global warming has made apple cultivation unsustainable at a height lower than 5,750 feet.”

This year the Himachal region saw the temperature go up to 33.5 degree Celsius, the highest on record.

Annual apple productivity has been dipping since 2003, when it was 6.46 tonnes per hectare. This year it is likely to be 4.31 tonnes per hectare.

A box contains 20-22 kg of apples. In a year of normal production, a box of apples sells at Rs 500-700. The price at which apples are sold varies from place to place.

The state’s highest apple production so far has been around 30 million boxes.

According to figures given by the horticulture department, Himachal Pradesh contributes 35-40 per cent of the apples produced in the country. Other contributing states are mainly Jammu & Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.

But, apples from Himachal Pradesh are the most preferred for their colour and taste. The state produces the Red Chief and Royal Apple varieties mainly.

Apple is grown on 94,726 hectares in the state. The area under apples was 400 hectares in Himachal Pradesh in 1960. The entire area is rainfed.

One hectare is a little more than 100,000 square feet.

Over 70 per cent of apples are produced in Shimla district.

An orchard of one bigha has 18-20 apple trees. On average, apple production in a bigha is 150-160 boxes (if trees are not very old), which is 3,520 kg.

One bigha is 8,355 square feet.

The age of an apple tree is 40-45 years, and its produce is the highest when it is 15-25 years.

In Shimla district, however, a good number of orchards have trees as old as 60-65 years, and this has reduced their production drastically.

A number of orchard-owners are in the process of re-growing them. Normally, a tree takes 10-12 years to start producing.

Maintaining an apple orchard involves preparing tree basins, pruning trees, fertilisation and spraying pesticides.

Workers from Nepal do the job of maintaining, plucking and carrying the fruit from orchard to grading centre and then getting the apples on to trucks.

“We have to hire them almost round the year on a daily wage of Rs 130. In the apple season, they are paid Rs 150 per day. Some do the job on contract. This is because of shortage of labour; of late, with workers from Nepal are increasingly getting jobs in cities,” said farmer Bhagat Ram Tajta, 69, in Kotkhai.

Apples are durable for 10 days.

Most of the apples from Himachal Pradesh are sold in Azadpur Mandi in Delhi. However, with local mandis (markets) in the apple belt coming up, the farmers are at an advantage.

It reduces transportation cost and saves them the 4-6 per cent commission paid per box on selling cost.

“Buyers from Delhi, Kolkata or even Bangladesh come to local mandis, private or government. And they pay agents a commission of 2-4 per cent per box,” said Kuldeep Mehta, who runs a private market at Narkanda, 63 km from Shimla, and auctions 100,000 apple boxes every year.