Himachal polls: Apple growers may influence outcome
The industry has been passing through a tough phase for the last few years. The cost of a pesticide bag has now more than doubled. The cost of cartons and other packaging material, too, has gone higher by 20 per cent these days. Ironically, though the cost of production has increased, the income hasn’t. There are multiple issues at play but the GST on packaging material is being blamed as a big issue. No wonder then that with the campaigning for the Assembly elections in its final stages, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress have gone all out to woo farmers in the apple heartland.
Apple is the mainstay of the economy in Himachal Pradesh, which is known for its apple orchards. The fruit crop plays a major role in the state's economy.
India's overall apple production is 2.4mn metric tonnes, of which over 26 per cent comes from the hill state. Apple production generates revenue of around Rs 5,000-5,500 crore, contributing around 5 per cent to the state's GDP.
The industry has, however, been passing through a tough phase for the last few years. The cost of a pesticide bag, which used to be Rs 800, has now more than doubled. The cost of cartons and other packaging material, too, has gone higher by 20 per cent these days. Ironically, though the cost of production has increased, the income hasn’t.
There are multiple issues at play but the GST on packaging material, which went up to 18 per cent as compared to 12 per cent pre-GST, is being blamed as a big issue.
No wonder then that with the campaigning for the Assembly elections in its final stages, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress have gone all out to woo farmers in the apple heartland.
The State Assembly has 68 seats and in 20-odd seats, apple cultivators are in sizeable numbers. The polling in Himachal Pradesh will be held on November 12 and the counting of votes will be taken up on December 8.
Barely two months back, the orchard owners took to the streets to protest against high production costs and low apple prices.
CPI(M) MLA in Himachal Pradesh Rakesh Singha, while referring to the protests by apple cultivators against price rise and GST on packaging materials among other issues, said, "I have been associated with apple farmers since 1987. There have been two big agitations of apple farmers, during the earlier BJP and then Congress regimes."
The BJP has said GST would be limited to 12 per cent for apple growers, but why are they not scrapping GST, the Congress' in-charge for Himachal Pradesh Rajiv Shukla asked. Shukla said an agriculture and growers committee will be set up with the representation of apple growers which will decide the price of fruits and crops.
Congress leader Alka Lamba claimed that apple growers in the state were forced to sell their produce at low rates in the absence of a law guaranteeing MSP. Her party is banking on the anti-incumbency factor and urging voters not to re-elect the BJP in the state.
BJP national president Jagat Prakash Nadda addressed three back-to-back election meetings in the major apple-growing regions of the state that happen to be Congress bastions.
Pitted against Nadda in the apple belt was Rajasthan Congress leader Sachin Pilot, who addressed a rally in Kharapathar, the main trading centre for apples in Jubbal-Kotkhai.
Pilot alleged that the apple economy had suffered adversely due to the ignorant attitude of the government. “Apple’s economy is one of the biggest economies of the state. The BJP government abolished subsidies on the pesticides and fungicides in the state,” he said.
On the other hand, the ruling BJP believes that it has done everything to help the apple farmers. “We helped apple orchardists in every form and capacity. The agitation is political, engineered by our opponents,” Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Jai Ram Thakur said, adding that though the Congress is claiming that it will pay special attention to the needs of apple growers, the party doesn't seem to have a concrete plan.
Recently, the Sanyukt Kisan Manch (SKM) appealed to apple farmers to cast their votes after considering what a particular party has done to protect their interests and the promises it makes in its manifesto.
According to apple farmers, they are getting no support from the government. Many farmers believe that the Himachal Pradesh government has neglected them and because of this, their profit has shrunk. The government took away the subsidies on fungicides and other things and increased GST on items essential for the industry, and this has irked many farmers.
(Subhashis Mittra is a New Delhi-based senior journalist, freelance writer, political commentator and public policy analyst.)