Amid a raging Covid-19 pandemic, the apple season in Himachal Pradesh began on a subdued note with growers flagging transportation issues and acute labour shortage.
Apple varieties that ripen early have already made their way to the markets in Rohru, Narkanda, Dhalli and Parala.
The apple harvesting season in the primary apple-growing belts in Shimla, Rohru, Kullu, Kotgarh and Kotkhai begins mid-July and ends in August.
Growers are still scouting for labourers as most of them are the dependent on the sturdy Nepalese migrants who arrive in the orchards in April. The 4500-crore apple economy largely depends on the labourers from neighbouring Nepal. The labourers help with digging pits, planting saplings, spraying chemicals, plucking, packing and transportation.
The nationwide lockdown has impacted the migration of labourers. With the government expressing an inability to arrange labourers, fruit growers are making frantic efforts to arrange labourers.
Labourers jack up wages
In areas adjoining Uttarakhand, apple growers have arranged labour from the neighbouring state but they are demanding higher wages. The daily wages during the apple season vary between Rs 450 and Rs 600. But in wake of the labour shortage, villagers from Uttarakhand are demanding Rs 800 per day.
An apple grower, Nikam Singh Thakur of Kotsari village in Chirgaon tehsil of Rohru said, “The labourers I managed to arrange from Uttarakhand are demanding Rs 900 per day. After negotiations they settled on Rs 800 per day.”
Local fruit packer and fruit merchant Hardyal Tegta said he had arranged labourers from Uttar Pradesh.
“I hired a bus to fetch labourers from Azamgarh as Nepalese labourers were not available,” says Tegta, who runs an apple-packaging unit.
SOPs for quarantining labourers
The government has set standard operating procedures that make it mandatory for orchard owners to quarantine labourers arriving from outside the state.
The fruit growers must inform the local anganwari worker, ASHA worker, panchayat pradhan and patwari about labourers being quarantined.
Apple growers also complained that at times there was delay in procuring permission for labourers’ travel.
Kuldeep Tanta an orchardist from Jubbal said the biggest challenge was the shortage of labourers.
“I had to spend Rs 22,000 to bring five Nepalese labourers who were in UP here by arranging two taxis for them. The state government maybe claiming that they are making arrangements to bring in labourers but nothing has been done,” he said.
“However, the apple season has just started and we are getting good rates for early varieties. I sold the Tideman variety for Rs 2,000 but we are not sure what the future holds,” he added.
Himachal Fruit, Vegetables And Flower Growers’ Association Harish Chauhan said there was an immense shortage of labour in Shimla district as around 1.5 lakh labourers are required for the apple season but right now only 40,000 to 50,000 laborers are available.
“There is a shortage of at least 70% labourers. We request state government to arrange Nepalese labourers as soon as possible,” Chauhan said.
Although the apple season is in its early stages orchardists are worried about marketing apples as they are struggling to send their produce to other states. Another challenge is the re-emergence of a fungal disease, scab, that is sure to cause losses to farmers.