Why are fruit growers in Kashmir protesting against the Farm bills.

A kashmiri woman plucking apples in orchard.

The Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers Cum Dealers Union, an umbrella body of all fruit growers associations in Kashmir had announced its support in a statement issued on 6 December, requesting fruit farmers to “kindly close all their shop sites and their business 8 December 2020 in view of the strike call given by kisans (farmers),” the statement quoted the union’s president Bashir Ahmad Basheer. This is the first time since June that Kashmir has come forward to support the farmers agitation.

Kashmir depends on FCI procurement by government and has very little or negligible cultivation of wheat and paddy. The villages in North Kashmir where cultivation of paddy is done, it is mainly used for personal use. This can also be understood from the fact that Kashmir grows a different variety rice crop which is either exported or used domestically. It is however not purchased by government on large scale. Kashmir’s staple food might be rice and wheat but these are not the crops that are cultivated in abundance.

Then why are Kashmiris protesting against farm bills?

Kashmir supported the Bharat bandh call given by farm unions on 8th and all the major fruit Mandis remained closed, fruit mandis at Srinagar’s Parimpora, in north Kashmir’s Sopore, and south Kashmir’s Shopian, Kulgam, and Pulwama districts were all closed.

Kashmir relies heavily on its horticulture industry. The fruits apples (its all varieties), walnuts, pears, grapes, plums etc are sold by the growers in the government Mandis with the help of byopari (an arthiya in case of fruits). Some orchard owners with large orchards engage in contract farming with byoparri (someone who grows & takes care of orchard according to an agreement). This byopari system is the backbone of large scale growers and orchard owners. Byopari passes on an advance of 6-8% at the start of the season and takes care of plucking, packaging and transporting of fruits at the end of the season. Introducing new farm bills which were not applicable on this season’s crop because bills came in around September when the crop is majorly packaged and in the Mandis. The fears of the growers are genuine in kashmir that the new system will make them slaves to the private players.

With the abrogation of article 370, private players are free to trade in kashmir which is indeed a progressive step but this has created fears in the orchard owners who believe that quality of crop is not something that they can control because it depends on rains and sunlight in addition to other factors, private players unlike byoparis will not purchase crop which will lead growers to stress of storing and transporting perishable crop like apples. Please note that kashmiri growers have faced huge losses in recent times due to blockades and abrogation of article 370.

Fayaz Ahmad Malik, President Association of Fruit Growers, Sopore said that the farm laws will convert fruit growers into the laborers of big corporations. Fruit growers of Kashmir, as per Fayaz, operate on a 6 to 8 percent advance on the auction of the apple crop—the remaining amount is paid after traders sell the produce—given by the traders in mandis.

Even if they [farmers] don’t take loans, they receive the payment within fifteen days of selling their apples,” said Fayaz. “This law will cause trouble because when the growers will need more money, they will be dependent on these big corporations and hence, that will create their monopoly.”

Another plus point of having local mandis as per Fayaz is that the fruit growers are not forced to invest on transportation as the process is taken care of by the buyers themselves at the mandis. “Transportation costs them very little as the Mandis are always nearby,” he said. “If a fruit grower works under the corporations and doesn’t receive his amount on time, he will starve and die.”

Zahoor Ahmaf Tantray, a fruit farmer in north Kashmir’s Sopore, concurred with the importance of the mandis and feared that his profits would dwindle if big corporations took over the market. “Mandis function on auctions and the sales are based on demand and supply,” he said. “There are thousands of buyers but [because of the farm laws] we will have few corporations and we will be forced to work under them. Options are always better. Farm laws end them for us.”

Ghulam Nabi Malik, General Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir Kisaan Tehreek (JKKT), a Jammu and Kashmir based farmers association believes that government has ended the fair price system that growers needed. He believes that there is no way to determine fair price for fruits and there is no baseline set by government due to which private players will manipulate the prices.

Conclusion

Kashmir depends heavily on fruit growers for its economy and their concerns regarding the farm laws are legitimate because the laws lead to a tunnel which has been experimented by one and all in Kashmir. A lot of people have taken the route of selling their crops directly to private players and they have come back to the already existing system for a reason.

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