BJP, Cong tug at Himachal’s apple heartland ahead of bypoll
Up until the mid-80s Himachal Pradesh’s apple heartland, Jubbal-Kotkhai, was the epicentre of the hill state’s politics with two former heavyweight chief ministers – Thakur Ram Lal and Virbhadra Singh – representing the high-profile constituency.
With bypolls round the corner, the constituency is buzzing with political activity as the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party try to capture the seat, which fell vacant when Narinder Bragta, the incumbent horticulture minister, passed away due to post-Covid complications.
The political tussle has brought orchardists’ issues to the centre stage. Even though Himachal’s farming community laid low when the farmers’ protests rocked the country, they have increasingly been plagued with challenges, particularly inflation caused due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hot button issues: Cost of packaging, state of roads
Orchardists say, of late, the price of packaging material has increased by 25%. Now, growers have to shell out ₹67 for the premium carton, which used to cost ₹53. They say the price of cartons is yet to come down despite horticulture minister Mahender Singh Thakur’s assurances.
“The rate of trays used inside the cartons has also increased by around ₹50- ₹70. This massive hike is burdening orchardists,” says Progressive Growers’ Association president Lokinder Singh Bisht.
Growers rue that there has been more politics on the state of the road than work to improve connectivity. The poor state of roads has been the hot button issue in almost all elections but little has been done to improve the state of the Theog-Hatkoti Road, which leads to Rohru and also passes through Jubbal-Kotkhai, thereby connecting the apple belt.
The government had signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Bank in 2007 to improve the road. The foundation stone had been laid by the then chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal in 2008. However, only 18% of the road was completed during Dhumal’s regime, around 74% of the work was completed during the regime of the Virbhadra Singh-led government, and the remaining 8% work remains pending during chief minister Jai Ram Thakur’s regime.
Upgrading Tikkar in Jubbal-Kotkhai to a tehsil ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 failed to bear fruit as the staff is yet to be appointed. The Public Work Division in Kotkhai is in the same boat.
Fruit, Vegetables and Flower Growers’ Association of Himachal Pradesh president Harish Chauhan says, “The state government should ensure good road connectivity during the apple season. Many roads, especially link roads, are in poor shape.”
Weather gives the cold shoulder
Untimely snowfall in April this year had cost the orchardists dear as around 60% of the crop had been damaged due to snow, hailstorms and rainfall. The state government had promised relief to orchardists in the aftermath, but none seems forthcoming . Orchardists have also demanded that the government increase apples’ rates under the market intervention scheme.
The kingmaker constituency
The Congress, BJP and the CPI(M) are keen on winning the constituency, which has the reputation of being a kingmaker. Veteran politician Thakur Ram Lal had became the second chief minister of Himachal Pradesh in 1977 and then 1980, while six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh, who had breathed his last on July 8, had contested three elections from his home turf, but lost in 1990. He was elected to the Himachal Pradesh Vidhan Sabha from the Jubbal Kotkhai constituency in 1957. Later, he was re-elected to the Himachal Pradesh Vidhan Sabha from the same constituency in 1962, 1967, 1977, 1980, and 1982.
While the BJP is planning on pitching Bragta’s son Chetan, Congress is backing former CM Thakur Ram Lal’s grandson, Rohit Thakur. The CPI(M) is also carefully weighing its options.