The apple agitation in 1990 changed the political climate in Himachal Pradesh. The apple growers wanted the Shanta Kumar-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to fix a minimum price for the fruit.
On July 22, that year, hundreds of farmers gathered in Kotgarh, calling for their demands to be fulfilled. In the heat of the agitation, Himachal police fired shots, leaving three farmers – Govind Singh, Hira Singh and Tara Chand – dead.
The incident resulted in discontent with the saffron party as Congress, under the late Virbhadra Singh, came back to power with a bang – winning 60 seats in the 68-member assembly. And one of the first decisions of the Congress government is to fulfil the farmers’ demands. Such was the impact of the decision that the apple growers have hardly hit the streets since then.
But more than three decades later, the farmers hit the road last year with a fresh set of demands, as the goods and services tax (GST) on fungicides and packaging materials has put a big hole in their pockets.
The apple belt has been important for Himachal’s electoral landscape. The apple crop accounts for ₹5,000 crores, or over 13.5 per cent of the state’s economy, yielding influence across 20-25 assembly seats.
The team of The New Indian travelled to Nin village, located approximately 45 km from the state capital of Shimla, situated in the politically important Kasumpti assembly seat, to understand the plight of the apple farmers in the state.
Speaking to The New Indian, Madan Sharma, who owns an apple orchard on approximately 15 to 20 bighas of land, said, “The farming season of apples begins in March when the flowers start coming out. It requires a lot of care. As we need to keep a close eye on the health of the tree and its flowers, which grow into fruit by August’s end.”
Sharma said that the apple trees need proper care as there are several processes involved, which include digging the roots, cutting the extra roots, spraying fungicides, and saving them from snowfall, among others.
He also said that the work goes on for the whole year, and after the apples are ready in the orchard, they are sent to market by September.
Despite their hard work and their contribution to the state’s economy, Sharma rued a lack of support from the government.
“The apple orchard owners are not getting any support from the government, and it has also increased the GST on fungicides and cartons (which are used for the packing of the apples),” Sharma rued.
“Now, for one carton of 25 kg, which we sell for ₹2,000, we hardly save less than half as the GST on packing materials and the cost of farming has increased,” he said.
The GST on cartons and fungicides has been increased to 18 per cent, which until a few years ago was not applicable to such items.
When asked about the elections and what political parties are promising to apple farmers in the state, Sharma said, “The government is assuring us that they will remove the GST. But we demand that the farmers be kept out of the GST on items like cartons and fungicides.”
Sharma also highlighted that by farming apples on over 20 bighas of land, he gets approximately ₹12 lakh after selling the product, but the savings are hardly 25 per cent of the same due to an increase in GST on fungicides and packing materials.
Another farmer, Dilip, said, “The small farmers face a lot of issues, like an increase in the cost of fungicides due to GST, the cost of the nets to save their farms from animals has also increased, issues of arranging water for irrigation, and transporting the apples to markets have all gone up.”
Dilip said, “The kind of effort we put every year into apple farming, we don’t get much return. The old apple varieties take around 10 years to grow, while the new varieties take around three to four years to grow and give the fruit.”
When asked about what his expectations from elections are, he said, “Whether it is the BJP or Congress, they make a lot of promises to farmers, but hardly anything is implemented.”
Dilip said that the government gives subsidies on nets, but that subsidy takes a lot of time to reach farmers. “So how would small farmers cope in such conditions,” he added.
Dilip further said that the BJP has done a lot for farmers in the last five years, but it needs to think about how farmers can save money.
He also demanded that the new government think about supporting the small farmers, as they could hardly save any money after working hard throughout the year.
Another farmer, Kewal Dewan, said, “The income is good in apple farming, but due to the implementation of GST, our income has gone down.” He also said that all parties make promises but they hardly deliver
Harish Chouhan, convenor of the Samyukt Kisan Manch, said, “Himachal Pradesh is known for apple farming. The apple economy is ₹5,000 crores in the state. And 2 lakh families, which turns into 19 lakh man days, are involved in the apple business and many other businesses like transportation, packaging, marketing etc.”
Chauhan said that many times even the prices of apples crash, which leads to severe losses for the farmers.
Highlighting the challenges in front of the apple farmers, Chauhan said, “Now the packaging items for apples and fungicides have almost doubled, and the GST of 18 per cent on them has only added to the woes of farmers.” He pointed out that the cost of production has increased and income has decreased.
Chauhan further said that since 2005, the Adani Group has come to the state, and there are over 28 more companies that are here for marketing, which is a good thing, “but the companies need to stop the exploitation of farmers”.
“The GST on fungicides and packaging materials has been increased from 12 per cent to 18 per cent but in agriculture and horticulture, the farmers don’t get the return of the GST, unlike the case with other companies, which get the same,” Chauhan said.
He also said that the government said it would give a relaxation of ₹10 crore on packaging material to farmers in the state, but to date, not a single farmer has benefitted from the same as the norms are very tough.
He also said that the APMC Act has not been implemented since 2005. “Due to the non-implementation of the APMC Act, more than ₹1,000 crore of farmers are stuck in the market, which should come to farmers within 24 hours of the sale of their produce. And we demand that the APMC Act be implemented immediately,” the Samyukt Kisan Manch convenor said.
He also said that the apples from Iran are being brought into India, but there is also illegal smuggling of those apples via the Afghanistan and Pakistan routes, which is hurting the farmers.
When asked about elections in the state and the promises made by the BJP and Congress to farmers, Chauhan said, “Till now, we have not announced which party to support in elections. We have also released a report card pointing out that the BJP government has not done anything for farmers, and we have made 20 demands to the government. And once the parties release their manifesto and guarantee, we will discuss and then decide.”
He said that Congress has announced the implementation of the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) in the state in its first cabinet if it forms the government, but they have not made any such promise for farmers besides the one helping apple farmers sell their produce. “They need to give clarity on their promise,” he added.
The election in the state is scheduled for November 12, and the counting of votes will take place on December 8.