COVID-19 lockdown: Himachal fruit growers battle input shortages

Cartons, boxes and crates used to pack fruits are in short supply

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Monday 13 April 2020

The horticulture sector in Himachal Pradesh — the backbone of the state’s economy — is staring at a major crisis. Fruit growers have almost run out of packaging material to store their produce, after a 21-day nationwide lockdown was invoked to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Factories in the state’s Kala Amb city in Sirmour district and Baddi and Barotiwala in Solan district, manufacture cartons, boxes and crates for fruit growers across the state. Packaging material sourced from Uttar Pradesh was also in short supply.

They were, however, shut down once the lockdown was put in place, giving horticulturalists sleepless nights, despite assurances by the state government.

Fruit growers also faced depleting supplies of fertilisers, pesticides, micronutrients and fungicides and a lack of means of transport to mandis (markets) for sale.

The state’s cherry produce is almost ripe. Stone fruits — including plums, apricots, bayberries, green almonds and peach — will be ripe for harvest soon after, in mid-May, followed by apple and pear harvests that begin mid-June.

It was pointed by individual farmers and members of the Kisan Sabha union that by the beginning of March, the producers of the packaging material evaluate requirements and begin production. Production this time around, however, had not begun yet.

The magnitude of the crisis could be gauged from the fact that approximately two to three lakh small boxes were needed to pack cherry produce in Shimla district alone, Kisan Sabha leader Sanjay Chauhan told Down To Earth.

“The requirement is higher, for stone fruit follows barely 20 days after cherry season. The requirement for apple is much higher,” he added.

There were increasing voices among the state’s horticulturalists to bring the manufacture of packaging material under essential services and begin production as soon as possible.

“We just have a fortnight. Fruit producers are facing problems availing packaging material from the government and private outlets,” said Sushil Kumar, a horticulturist.

Apple growers pointed out that the prolonged winter in 2019 — with adequate chilling hours and moisture levels — ensured a bumper crop.

“There is an immediate requirement of around 10 lakh cartons for apples lying in controlled atmosphere stores. Delay in action at this point is bound to have a cascading impact,” said Chauhan.

The state’s apple economy is estimated to be around Rs 4,000 crore, with approximately a third of the population dependent on associated linkages.

The government on its part said it assured fruit producers that their concerns were being addressed.

Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur directed officials of the horticulture department to ensure door-to-door, village-wide supply of fertilisers, pesticides and other plant protection material, according to a government spokesperson.

Efforts were also being made the ensure time-bound supply of bee colonies and anti-hail nets to horticulturalists, said Thakur.

The department was also directed to expedite the supply of anti-hail nets from Gujarat and cylinders for anti-hail guns from the private sector and government, according to him.

District magistrates were also asked to make arrangements so that horticulturalists do not face issues in procurement of farm material.

Farmers pointed out that the fruit production season would be of no use, if no immediate action was taken.

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