Ongoing season, everyone around has just one word to say, “This apple season is unique and memorable one. We never experienced one like this before in our lifetime and hope that there shouldn’t be one like this in future either”.
Undoubtedly, year 2010 has to be the one, unique and unforgettable apple season. The initial charm of over production, of bumper crop, was subdued by the subsequent unending woes starting with an awakening drought like conditions in early summer and then the uninvited spells of hail stones doing an early damage and all the growers were eagerly looking for long promised anti-hail guns. It was closely followed by the incessant rains (July onwards) doing the lingering damage, thus adding the missing feather on the apple growers’ already spoiled hats, hardly leaving any time for spraying of pesticides and other necessary fungicides to protect the bumper crop and make it a quality one. Consequently the brackishness and over coloration of pigments at an early stage of apple growth was seen across all major apple growing belts.
Prolonged inclement weather condition of excessive rains in upper Shimla area and across the apple growing belts caused damage to the already pathetic conditions of link roads and the SH-10 from Theog to Rohroo, which is being widened by the Longjian Road and Bridge Company (LRBC) and its sub contractors. Although the company had taken care of constructing retaining walls and culverts at few problematic locations but that could not help rather added to the monsoon mayhem.
If I am not wrong, there has to be a clause in the RFP/Tender document of the SH-10, which talks about ‘providing an alternate route for commuters to pass, in case there is substantial damage done to the existing Right of Way (ROW). The damage mostly was done to the mere negligible existing carriageway all along. Whatever existed before was either damaged by the heavy machinery or was covered in debris and loose soil which added to the woes of growers and truckers. But no one ever pointed about any such provision of ‘hindrances free ROW to be provided 24×7 throughout the stretch by the contractor’. But at the same time mere scale of landslides and the consequent jams couldn’t be ignored and averted.
After the very initial spell of rains our PWD ‘babudom’ was able to assess the cumulative losses to roads to about Rs. 332 Crores, within 24 hours. What an efficient department! Hats off! Perhaps, they were busy negotiating the number of contracts and the subsequent commissions they would receive. Apples are none of their business, I think. If one would assess the losses incurred by apple growers throughout the seasons the figure would surpass the whooping 332 Cr. amount. PWD was able to assess the losses within 24 hours but our horticulture department is still sitting blindfold, perhaps adopting wait and watch policy. Had there been any commission involved like one being milked by PWD, our minister Saab would have been more proactive in field and not been sitting in office issuing statements after statement of “All is well in apple belt”.
Consequently, most of the produce was on road for 7-10 days and this delay in taking produce to the markets within and outside the state due to shortage of vehicle caused by jams and the incessant rains caused an early ripening and even rotting in most of the cases. In fact there have been cases of jams due to rains, where in an older consignment reached market after a fresh consignment from the same orchard was even sold.
Under the prevailing pathetic plethora of the major arteries leading to Rohroo and the link roads as well, there was an acute shortage of trucks for transporting apple boxes, which consequently led to the competitive bidding right in backyards of the respective truck unions to hire these numbered trucks available. Thus the exorbitant rates, almost double the union rates were paid to the truckers, which initially growers agreed to pay to somehow take their ripening produce to market. Soon this bubble inflated beyond apple growers control and was taken advantage by the truckers and the union men, acting hand in hand to milk apple growers and they did rise to the occasion. But at the same time when the ripened consignments reached market there have been cases reported, wherein growers could barely just break even or were mostly in losses. This critical situation was created by human error. Market was such, people indulged in spraying their apples for early coloration with a clear side effect of ripening.
At the same time few smart growers who initially agreed to pay double the market freight to truckers, on reaching market indulged in forgery and treachery of all kinds. There are cases reported by commission agents and truckers wherein, upon reaching market, 20 to 30 apple boxes went missing from trucks and consequently truckers were made to pay for the loss. A loss manipulated through unloading clerks and the laborers. Perhaps, we should not forget that everyone today has a price tag; one has to be smart in evaluating same, and our growers played over-smart to smart truckers. In fact, I too have received such advices from growers I met at random throughout the season, to save some money from truckers, but all I could do was turn a deaf ear to them.
There has been cases where just to earn handsome freight truckers indulged in basking for more than double the union freight repeatedly and growers had no option than to go for it. In one such case which, I heard from one of my close friend, the truck driver indulged in overloading rather than under loading considering pathetic condition of roads and the consequent incessant jams all along the eighty kilometer stretch of SH-10. Unfortunately, the truck met with an accident, rolling down a nalah and the driver ended up losing both his legs along with the yearlong hard work of some apple growers. The driver was earlier advised and cautioned by his friend, not to charge such an exorbitant rate and not to take undue advantage of these unavoidable circumstances created by nature and also not to indulge in over loading. But the greed to earn more had an edge on his human feelings and he got his price for life.
Drenched in tears, the driver called and spoke to his friend, “You were right. Just for few rupees more, I have lost both my legs. I was greedy and I have got my reward for life.”
There are countless such live case stories from nooks and corners of Himachal Pradesh during this ongoing apple season. Perhaps, these were the crisis time. Rather a difficult situation, a natural calamity and unfortunately it was accentuated and converted into a fully blown crisis by us humans; the politicians, the growers and the truckers alike mulling over the ideas of earning a few rupees more.
Looking at the transportation side of this season, I think the double axel vehicle (10 and more tyre vehicles) has been causing major jams across SH-10 from Theog to Rohroo. Mostly travelling in a caravan of five to six and always overloaded and almost occupying the whole right of way (ROW) of the serpentine narrow road, created constant bottlenecks throughout the 80kms stretch. Things would have been far better if such big trucks were not allowed on SH-10 and rather transit truck terminals were made operational at Theog or may be at Shimla on NH-21 and one at Nauni or Solan to tap the Rajgarh Road.
Jams, jams and only jams. There have been times when it took more than 24 hours to reach Jubbal and Rohroo from Shimla. For last thirty days or may be more, average time for one way journey between Shimla and Rohroo have been more than 12 hours instead of regular 4-5 hours. There have been times when passengers were stranded for nights in middle of jungles from Jubbal to Kotkhai and even at Kufri sometimes, without any respite for hours. Children, girls and ladies suffered the most, and over that our ministers feel happy in printing statements after statements that “All is well in apple growing belts”. Perhaps, for them it was ‘all well’ on the day of their official visit, I hope. On visit day all concerned departments indulged in saving their dark rotten skin of inabilities and inefficiencies and hiding their utter failure in managing the deplorable conditions faced by common man; apple grower and the commuters.
Let’s keep aside the visits during the apples season. Let’s talk about such ministerial visits during summers. Why it was only on the day of minister’s visit to Kotkhai or to Jubbal, that the water sprinklers of Lonjian Road & Bridge Company or the local sub-contractors were most active? Not a single instance of dust filling the valley on the visit day. But, on any other normal day, common man had no respite from the dust laden faces and the clothes; let’s forget about ours lungs. As if only our ministers and their pawns has the only lungs to run this state and the country. Common man’s lungs can survive the dust storms. These are very important things of the Environmental Impact due to such mega projects which came into limelight very late. Perhaps, I tend to prejudice myself by thinking and analyzing that in glam and glitter of the so called ‘easy apple money’, we the residents of Kotkhai, Jubbal and Rohroo region are turning a deaf year to the intricacies of such development project and a far sustainable development issues. Why not? Perhaps our lawyers are busy sorting out some individual criminal cases where they can mint big fat money rather fighting for such larger social collective issues facing common man.
Perhaps, our leaders of yester years played a perfect “politics of wines, pines and the apples”, and the development issues of better roads and consequent opening up of economy in the region were sidelined and ignored by the common man in lieu of devouring more wines, cutting more pines and planting more apple saplings. There goes an anecdote about our region which I often heard from my mentor. When a college was being setup in one of the most famous princely states of independent India, the local residents opposed it. The reason being;”Our kids especially our girls would indulge in love affairs and elope with boys from other areas”. If better higher education development can be sidelined for such reasons, we better forget about roads and the so called economic development. But even after decades the situation has not changed for good. The girls and boys are still eloping, but uneducated, unemployed missing the charm of good education and a secured better life, which was only possible had the college been established there.
Coming back to apple season, under such fully blown critical condition which we faced this season, the rich were not affected much but the poor and the middle class people were. The produce of their yearlong hard work was left to rot on road sides for days and even weeks and went unnoticed by the ruling government. To add fuel to the fire, the shortage of packaging materials like cartons, trays and separators created a black market bubble which exploded and spread like a wild fire. A desi tray bundle was being sold for double the actual market price and the branded ones like Claridges and Mohan Fibre, were being sold even higher sometime thrice the actual rate. Once again the common man was made to pay and suffer.
I tend to question that, “Was there really a shortage? Or was the bubble created by the nexus of wholesale and retail dealers in concatenation with the bureaucrats and the political goons?” When the experts of horticulture department of our so called most efficient, ‘Golden State’ Government had already given their estimates of ~ 4.0 Cr. plus boxes for this season way back in April-May, I hope all preparation might have been done to meet this demand well on time by the manufactures across north India. Then how can just in very first few weeks of apple season there be a shortage of trays and other packaging materials? Is the nature to be blamed or the market especially the black one, thriving on the commissions of politician and the beaurocrats? Perhaps we tend to forget that we are living in the times and the ages of ‘commission’; the rot thriving within leading to vicious cycle of crippling corruption.
On a quick glance if 75% of the total apple boxes (~4.0 Cr) were transported to the markets on an average 100% higher freight,(assuming Rs.50 as the average freight) we the growers of Himachal collectively have ended up poorer by Rs. 150-175 Crs. at least. On similar grounds the packaging material especially the trays on an average were sold for double rate (Rs 600) than the market rate (Rs 300) and the losses can be calculated to about Rs. 60-75 Cr. (Assuming that only 75% trays used during the apple season were sold for double the market price). The cumulative losses of machine and other such unaccounted losses might take the figure beyond Rs. 500 Crs. (the calculations are on a conservative side though) Loss of life I don’t think can be calculated in monetary terms, although any XYZ life insurance company agent can always tell you about your net worth. How smart!
One can notice a stark difference between the apple season 2009 and 2010. One such difference is the apple production figures and the prevailing average market price fetched by each box. As reported by many growers, in year 2009 few residents of apple growing belts indulged in thefts of apple from farms of their neighbors as the market was such. One box could easily fetch you thousand rupees or may be more. In 2010 no such case has been reported yet. The rot is thriving within. This rot is in innate human nature; the greed for more and more money, by hook or by crook.
On one hand I tend to appreciate police dept for trying their best to manage the situations but they too have lost their nerves very often under such demanding conditions resorting to extreme measures like beating and using disparaging abusive language to drivers and the common man in open. Their efforts were commendable throughout the season.
In all, people I have met during this apple seasons were right in claiming that apple season 2010 is one like never before and we hope that there shouldn’t be one like this in future either. Although god gave us a chance to earn but at the same time he made it sure that it won’t come so easily. There is a little bit of pain, hardship and struggle which we have to endure.
When everything in market is available for double the price except apples, the truck union operators too were milking the situation. Perhaps, it was season of the ever hungry and greedy or rather ‘opportunistic people’ and this lot are not hard to find today. Perhaps human race is infested with such people who se opportunity and business in a natural calamity. But such businesses won’t thrive for long, I hope.
We must accept the fact that, there has been a lackadaisical approach by Government in handling this live crisis under which apple growers are reeling till date without any respite.
When on a day there are 2-3 lakh apple boxes left to rot on road side it is called CRISIS FOR GROWERS. When the packaging material is available for double the market price, it’s CRISIS! When truckers indulge in basking for exorbitant freight rates, it’s CRISIS! But day after day government officials and the politicians had one word to print on newspapers “ALL IS WELL IN THE APPLE BELT”. The real scenario, the ground reality was undermined and ignored under nose in bright day light. And we the residents are happy with it as we always have been to the larger collective social issue. Not a word, not an awakening calls from any corner of the apple growing state. What a tragedy for a democracy thriving on commission?
Perhaps, the market is being controlled by the commission agents and the Ladanis/Merchants, working in collaboration, fooling the so called simple, innocent growers of Himachal. One of the best mechanism devised is the fad quite common prevailing amongst the Grovers,”High Grade”. Who actually is responsible for this? No one but us growers. A standard box is meant to carry 20-22 kgs of apples depending on the size. But we the growers are adopting the fad of ‘high-grade’ to fetch a better market price thus 27-30 kgs boxes of apple are being marketed. The emphasis is more on quantity not the quality. Eventually who is at loss? None but us growers. Extra 5-8 kgs of apples in a box has a marginal impact on the market rate, may be 50 to 100 rupees at the max. If a good quality lot of say 100 standard boxes (20-22 kgs) is sold for Rs 700 in the name of low grade, in case of similar 100 boxes of high-grade (27-30 kgs), we end up fetching a 100-120 more at the max. First 20 kgs @ Rs 35 and additional 7-10 kgs @ Rs 12-15) isn’t it a losing proposition for us growers. All we care about is quantity not quality and we growers only take pride in telling each other that “my boxes are 5” higher” indicating with our clenched fists held atop other. But we are not clever because we have already willingly thrown the ball in Commission Agents’ & Merchant’s court, in the name of ‘High-grade’. But is that really needed? Perhaps its a million Rupees question which, I think, every grower should ask himself.
Contrary to our Indian practice, if one checks apples from Newzealand, Australia, USA and China (brands like Stemmit, Nordic, Dole, Washington apples etc.) one can observe their emphasis on quality of apples and the level of inner and outer cartons, almost of the same size taking the load evenly and they avoid the spending on steeping etc. and not to miss the quality of packaging. Perhaps we need to compete with them for a long term market and to bring in quality revolution. During March this year, I happen to compare Indian packaging being done by Reliance, Adani Agrifresh and some independent Growers, with the imported brands. Perhaps after four-five months of store half of our apples in a box are badly damaged and rotten, whereas the imported brands are quite safe and fresh. The high-grade is to be blamed in our case. Perhaps, we as a grower unions/council in collaboration with our horticulture universities should come forward to undertake a rigorous research and devise such parameters where in all boxes are well designed and standardized to avoid the ‘high-grade’ fad and the quality is emphasized rather than the quantity. But with the current scenario and level of awareness and the mad rush for money, we will never awake to such quality issues. We are happy with ‘high-grade’, who cares about quality. For us, it’s always good to have a 6” high box so that two layers of rotten apples at the bottom can be siphoned to markets. How smart!
Let’s talk about the much hyped and celebrated project of Apple Mandi at Kharapathar which was suppose to be operational this season but is running behind the schedule. How could it be? Was it delayed for a reason? One can explore this angle as well beyond the rain issues. On one hand if Kharapathar Mandi was operational this year, many things would have been better but at the same time it would have created bottlenecks on SH-10 as there isn’t sufficient parking space for trucks and jeeps along the Highway and this may have surely led to choked artery like one being experienced daily at Rohroo Mandi, the new Dhali mandi and very often at the Solan Bypass Mandi even. Thus, it is expected from Government not to underestimate such projects and carry out a comprehensive demand assessment study of the same and plan for parking of sufficient number of trucks and jeeps along with sufficient circulation space and to ensure an effective implementation of the same during peak seasons hours. Perhaps the Grover community should take initiative to make the ruling governments to work and sort out such important issues in advance rather later creating maddening chaos.
Perhaps the songs of creating a separate ‘Hill council’ and a separate statehood and some more ‘separates’ for apple growing districts is not going to change the game for better unless we the people, the growers come forward to persuade the ruling government in working towards our genuine realistic concerns on priority basis.
Things can be better if we as collective citizens of the hills know our rights and then make the ruling government work for a common goal of infrastructure development in the apple belts in specific and state as a whole. Better roads, better transportation facilities, better education, better efficiency and all those little things which matters for a progressive community. Not jams at least! Perhaps, we need to grow beyond the irrational unrealistic upper and lower Himachal divide for a collective gain for our future generations to reap the harvest of same.