“Growers will starve to death”: Kashmir protests against central farm laws

In Kashmir, local fruit growers and mandi owners are worried about the future of the estimated 10,000 crore rupees horticulture sector — the region’s economic mainstay.

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On 8 December, mandis across the Kashmir Valley were shut in protest against the new central farm laws in the country. The shutdown was in response to a nation-wide strike call given by various farmer associations protesting the imposition of the law and supported by left-parties across the country.

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.

Mandis across Kashmir remained shut in protest, including the prominent fruit mandis at Srinagar’s Parimpora, in north Kashmir’s Sopore, and south Kashmir’s Shopian, Kulgam, and Pulwama districts. 

Other organisations including United Sikh Forum (USF) held a protest in the summer capital Srinagar’s press enclave while the Jammu and Kashmir Transporter Welfare Association (JKTWA) held a protest march from Vikram Chowk to Digiana in the winter capital Jammu. The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration has also extended its support to the strike.

The three farm laws passed on 27 September 2020 — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act; and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act — are being seen by the farmers as against their interests. 

The government, on its part, has claimed that the laws will promote free and easy interstate as well as an intrastate exchange of trade outside the local mandis and of the evening the playing field for farmers and better prices for their crops. 

The farmers, however, fear that the laws give large corporations an undue advantage over them. In Kashmir, however, where the production of food crops is not significant for exports, local fruit growers and mandi owners are worried about the future of the estimated 10,000 crore rupees horticulture sector — the region’s economic mainstay.

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, along with other members of the association have been protesting in different parts of J-K against the farm laws for the past more than a month.

Ghulam believes that the identity of fruit growers in Kashmir is under threat and the laws have been passed without taking into consideration the will of farmers whose livelihood depends on the crops. “Mandi provides us a guarantee of fair price, that has ended,” he said.

Already, horticulture produce does not fall under the ambit of the minimum support price offered only to food crops — meaning that in case of low demand and subsequent low prices, the government will not compensate farmers.

The farm laws, as per Ghulam, will force the farmers into contract farming in which fruit growers suffer at the hands of big corporations. If the corporates decide that the quality of the apples is unsatisfactory, Ghulam fears the entire crop might be rejected or worse. “We know what happened to the growers associated with PepsiCo who were growing potatoes. They were charged a penalty of one crore rupees over an accusation,” he said.

“Currently, if anything like that happens the farmers can even go to the court, but the farmers will not have any place to go because of the Dispute Redressal Mechanism that they claim to create,” said Ghulam. “This is why we do not want to get indulged with bigger corporations. People here work together and survive.”

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