What started on a “trial basis” with feelers floated on social media turned into a story of success for Samiullah amid the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The demand for fresh fruits rose expectedly with the onset of the Islamic month of Ramzan and amid the lockdown, Mr. Samiullah’s logistics company, FastBeetle, delivered fresh fruits to homes across Srinagar.
As much as this novelty of door-step delivery service in Srinagar has been a relief to consumers, this too wades through its share of challenges. Despite a government order exempting load carriers from lockdown restrictions, Mr. Samiullah said that “permission to travel is repeatedly denied by the district authorities when we approach them”.
Still, the company manages to bring the apples to their warehouse in downtown Srinagar’s Nawab Bazar before day break. FastBeetle’s fleet has just four load carriers and two employees assigned with each vehicle tasked with deliveries. “We are now habitual to the conflict situation; we have to survive in this,” he said.
The communications blockade after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Kashmir based chief, Riyaz Naikoo, in a gunfight in Pulwama on 7 May had also hit the business. Since then, however, Mr. Samiullah said with a sense of accomplishment, FastBeetle has “delivered more than 5 tonnes of apples”.
The local distribution of the fruits has brought much needed relief to both consumers as well as apple farmers and traders who at this point of time would normally export the fruit stock from cold storages to markets outside Kashmir, primarily across India. But the repeated lockdowns in Kashmir and an unreliable road link with the rest of the country has the apple farmers worried.
Harvesting apples is a once-a-year-activity that starts in August and closes by mid-october. However, the industry’ life line, the network and system of distribution, was disrupted last August. The sight of apples rotting on trees and in heaps collected in the orchards had dismayed many across the Valley.
The unilaterally announced abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy on 5 August 2019 by the Union government was executed by enforcing a stringent lockdown and simultaneous communications embargo throughout the region.
During the crisis-like situation in August last year, the government introduced a much hyped market intervention scheme to support the industry. “It was a very good initiative but still difficult for framers to get to Nafed collection points [the earmarked mandis],” recalled Sanna Masood, the Director and CEO of the post-harvest vertical of Farm2U Group, a conglomerate running one of India’s largest integrated cold storage facilities. “The process took time initially and did not reach everybody as the stock that went out in August and September could not go through this channel because it came a bit later.”
The Royal Delicious apple is a premium variety. It is stored for about 4-6 months post harvest and exported to markets when the supplies begin to diminish, usually between March and April. The cost of transportation is comparatively lower at this time and the stocks fetch better prices. This year, just as the time has come to bring stocks of apples out from the cold storage, the nation-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has once again hit the sector hard.
Strict preventive measures imposed since March to contain the pandemic has hampered supplies outside Kashmir. “For a long time there was no movement of apples from here [Kashmir] to the rest of the country,” pointed out Ms. Masood. “Apples were ready for dispatch when the restrictions were imposed and losses were born because the stock was [already] in transit.”
In addition, the economic slowdown had also plummeted the demands for apples. “Around this time, if the best quality apple sold in Delhi mandi for Rs. 1200 for 10 kilo, now the threshold has come down to [Rs] 800,” she explained, adding that freight charges had “doubled over last year because of the limited number of trucks” allowed during the lockdown. “It is said that A-grade apples are also selling for Rs. 65 per kg—the situation has also hit apple farmers in Himachal Pradesh.”
According to Ms Masood, truckers are charging Rs. 50 for a 10 kilogram box against the normal price of Rs 25-30, meaning apple exporters were paying Rs 5 per kilogram transported. Even for those willing to bear the escalated costs find it difficult to hire a truck because of the limited entry of trucks in mandis.
At present, only 20 trucks are allowed to leave from the entire Kashmir Valley, she said. Kashmir has about 25 cold storages and in regular circumstances, at seven trucks would transport produce from each of the storage facilities. “There is rationing of how much produce goes to the Delhi mandi,” she said.
FastBeetle’s Mr. Samiullah said they had collaborated with a friend and third-generation apple farmer, 35-year-old Ubair Shah, who introduced an online supply chain in Kashmir. In August 2018, Mr. Shah’s team came out with e-Fruit Mandi, a digital platform where farmers could sell their produce to retailers and “basically help them augment their income”.
The dynamics of traditional mandis, market hubs for fresh produce, are simple: “more money is made by the traders” and less is earned by farmers, said Mr. Shah, who holds a masters degree in business administration from Coventry University in the United Kingdom. The idea was, he said, “to create a technology-based platform for farmers to sell their produce to retailers directly, eliminating the need for middle-men”.
However, even as most farmers are not tech-savvy, he said, “smartphone penetration” has facilitated the popularity of the initiative to the point where trade is now even conducted over WhatsApp. FastBeetle serves as an important carrier to Mr. Shah’s ambitions of proactively involving apple farmers in the supply chain.
Mr. Shah said that about “15-20%” of their customer base were “repeat customers”. Others got roped in “through [their] reference the clientele network got bigger”, he said. The supply of apply comprises largely of the Royal Delicious and the Kullu Delicious varieties. However, the scale of this operation currently does not meet the vast output of Kashmiri apples.
If there is one fruit Kashmir is synonymous with, it is apple. Last year, Kashmir produced more than 19 lakh metric tonnes, most of which is exported to markets outside J-K. However, owing to vagaries of the weather – hailstorm on 29 May led to damages in orchards across south and central Kashmir – and prolonged political turmoil, now coupled with the lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, apple farmers and traders see little hope of being able to smoothly conduct business coming harvest season.
The survival of the horticulture sector required a fresh policy together with “some financial engineering” and in consideration of the harvest cycle. said Ms. Masood. She also pointed to the gap between production and cold storage capacities in Kashmir impacting preservation of produce and hinted that “integrated cold storages” could be the way forward.
Ms. Masood’s company is invested in cold storages. “The crop should be brought into a cold chain where the truck brings in the apples from the field into a cold chain,” she said. “When graded, sorted, and packed, [the apples] again go into refrigerated trucks and reach the market.”
The Director of Horticulture in Kashmir, Ajaz Ahmad Bhat, however, said that “there is no need to panic”. After the lockdown in August, Mr. Bhat said “the government gave MSP [minimum support price] for the first time in the history of J-K, [before which] no government had purchased apples directly from the growers.”
Mr. Bhat said the Directorate had intervened in the matter of ease restrictions curtailing the functioning of the mandis at Parimpora and Narwara in Srinagar last month, requesting district authorities to allow their functioning for 12 hours instead of the current 4-5 hours a day. He added: “Government procurement this time, too, is under consideration,” he said.
Downplaying traders’ concerns of plummeting prices, Mr. Bhat said that about 20 lakh metric tonnes of apples were sent out of J-K in 2018 and a similar quantity the year after that. “So, we can’t say there is a situation of panic,” he said.
As things are bound to be irregular in the wake of pandemic-induced lockdown, the overall loss for the situation cannot be predicted just yet, “it will be assessed later,” said Mr. Bhat, “considering that this is going to be a prolonged situation, we have to continue our operations—you can’t stop (even education) and transport because they are most essential.”