Despite an expected record production of apple in the current year, bulk producing state Himachal Pradesh is having problems harvesting the fruit due to labour shortage.
Apple harvesting, which starts in July and extends till October, has been badly hit in the hill state due to short supply of Gurkhas from Nepal, who excel in reaping, grading, packaging and transporting the fruit, Lekhraj Chauhan, president, Fruits and Vegetables Growers Association, Himachal Pradesh said.
"There is about 60 per cent shortage of labourers in the state, which is giving nightmares to orchardists," he added.
Chauhan attributed the crisis to the late arrival of the monsoon in Nepal, due to which labourers in the country are stuck with their own agricultural lands. The problem has been compounded by the fixing of the daily wage rate at Rs 120 in Himachal Pradesh, which they complain is inadequate in view of the food inflation.
The labour crisis has come as an anti-climax for a majority of the apple growers in the state, who were otherwise on cloud nine due to the record production.
A record high 6,53,689 metric tonnes of apples is expected in the state during the current year, figures provided by its Directorate of Horticulture said.
It would be over two-and-a-half times more than last season when it was 2,80,105 metric tonnes, they added.
Himachal Pradesh is popularly known as the 'apple bowl of the country'.
Helped by good rain and snowfall, particularly in high altitude areas, apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh has increased substantially this year. The estimated production in the apple zones of Shimla, Kullu, Kinnaur and Mandi is far more when compared to the past, directorate sources said.
Ravinder Singh Chauhan, president of Apple Growers Association of India, said that the shortage of Gurkha labourers is also being felt in other apple-producing states such as Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand.
Besides Gurkhas, labourers from Bihar and Jharkhand used to come to Himachal Pradesh to harvest apples. However, with the successful implementation of the UPA government's flagship scheme MGNREGA in those states, they don't feel the need to seek employment in Himachal Pradesh.
"Workers from Bihar and Jharkhand, who used to flock to HP in the apple season, are hard to find this year," Lekhraj Chauhan said.
Orchardists Parminder Singh Negi, Satyajit Negi and Ashok Kumar Negi from Kinnaur corroborated this contention.
Due to the piquant situation, apple growers are opting for Gujjars who have no experience in the business, Chauhan added.