The apple industry in the state is facing acute labour shortage that has forced owners of orchards to find ways to overcome the problem.
Apple-growers are becoming technology savvy as the state government has received around a dozen applications for setting up grading plants for sorting the fruit crop. Labourers from Nepal form a major chunk of the workforce in apple-growing areas. But over the years, there has been a decline in the flow of Nepalese labourers.
Land reforms in Nepal led to labourers opting out of the orchard work. Better facilities and more job opportunities in foreign countries is also a factor that is dissuading the Nepalese workers from seeking employment in apple orchards.
According to records, there are around 40,000 Nepalese labourers registered with the government. The Nepalese workforce is mainly concentrated in the Shimla-Kullu-Kinnaur belt, the major apple-growing areas in the state. The Nepalese labourers are also scattered in areas where hydel projects are located.
Apple-growers have struggled for years with the problem of labour shortage, but they say this harvest season is one of the toughest. Farmers say they have tried to employ local workers, but with little success. Many orchard owners have tried to replace Nepalese labourers with those from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
"The labourers from Jharkhand are not trained for apple orchards. Only Nepalese labourers can handle manual operations in apple orchards," says Chattar Singh Thakur, an apple grower in Chirgaon area of Rohru tehsil.
In wake of the labour shortage, many orchard owners in Kotgarh have installed small single line units to grade apples.
Ramesh Bhalaik, a progressive apple grower from Bhutti village, is one of the many to have set up single line grading unit in his orchards. "These days, it has become difficult to get labourers and those employed in orchards are used for plucking fruit," says Bhalaik.
The Himachal government is also aware of the labour woes in apple orchards. The State Horticultural Produce Marketing Corporation is setting up state-of-the-art grading units at Oddi in Shimla, Patlikhul in Kullu, Jarol in Mandi, Gumma in Kotkhai and in Kinnaur. Each computer-controlled grading unit will cost Rs 1.65 crore. Officials say each plant can grade about 200 apple boxes in an hour.