by Afsaana Rashid
- Indian-administered Kashmir -
With soaring unemployment and a private sector still in troubled infancy, for the last few decades, government has provided the bulk of Kashmir’s jobs. Yet today this may be changing; on the heels of much-needed infrastructure development and technological innovation, a good number of entrepreneurs are taking the plunge into the generational traditions of horticulture and floriculture.
These core sectors of Kashmir’s economy already engage a sizable section of both the majority Muslim and minority Pandit (non-Muslim) populations in direct and indirect employment, but have historically failed to meet their full potential. Ongoing political instability discourages private investment in the region’s economy and the government has not stepped in to build the basic facilities and transport systems necessary to support industry development.
With several hundred thousand families growing apples, pears, cherries and plums, in addition to walnuts, almonds and flowers, Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CA), which increases fresh fruit shelf life up to seven months, is in particular demand in the Kashmir valley.
“Pears, apples and plums are delicate fruits. We have to store fruits due to reasons such as bad weather, lack of transportation and [access to] market facilities. Cold storage helps us a lot - otherwise we’d face losses,” says Jamal Khan, a fruit grower from Tral.
Bashir Ahmad Malik, an entrepreneur in floriculture products and essential oils, believes that the absence of cold storage and bureaucratic issues such as transportation charges are the biggest challenges confronting entrepreneurs like him. With practically no storage facilities available in the Kashmir valley, “We have to send our produce by air - which is costly.”
Technological Advancement Brings Hope
Fungicides India Limited (FIL) Industries is creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs like Khan and Malik. With state-of-the-art Austrian equipment, FIL is a hallmark of technological excellence, establishing India’s first cold storage facility in Srinagar.
“CA storage is open for everyone!” declares General Manager Basharat Ahmad. With a warehousing capacity of 20,000 (integrated) metric tons, the facility could revolutionize valley grower participation in the market.
Already one of the largest juice producers in Asia, FIL recognized a good business opportunity in the valley’s need for CA, commissioning the facility in 1999 with an investment of Rs. 200 crore ($39.8 million USD). FIL is the largest exporter of apple juice concentrate from India – having crushed 80,000 tons of apples between July and December 2008 alone. It also processes pear, cherry, apricot and plum concentrates, exporting its products as far as the United States and Europe, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Within India, it operates with banner names such as Nestle, Parle, and Godrej.
Local orchardists praise the FIL move while airing frustrations at the government.
"Thousands of kanals (land holdings) are being used for growing fruits,” says Mohammad Sultan, an orchardist in the frontier district of Kupwara. “The government [should] set up CA, but it hasn’t. I credit FIL for taking initiative."
Abdul Rahim, a fruit grower from Shopian in South Kashmir agrees. “The government should set up cold storage in the valley [or] collaborate with those who have already set up their CA," suggests Rahim. He thinks the government should negotiate with FIL so growers can store their fruit in its cold storage at a subsidized cost or for free. “This would ensure that the benefits trickle down to the grassroots level in the horticulture sector and inspire youth to take this up as a profession,” he says.
The company has proven it is possible to profit even in a climate of continual political instability. It succeeds largely by forging partnerships and a sense of goodwill with the local community. During last summer’s economic blockade, FIL's general manager Basharat Ahmad says that its cold storage was left open for fruit growers to use, free of cost.
“Grapes, pears and apples were stored by people from Ganderbal, Shopian and Pulwama, without paying anything. We [recognized] that it was a tough time for them,” says Ahmad.
He adds that it has never been difficult for management to run the unit during political upheavals. “The general public understands that the unit should go on with its activities. They know the importance and delicacy of the products and understand that [quality control] has to be prioritized.”
Khan appreciates that FIL provided the service free of charge when the community needed it, but argues that it is not a complete solution. He feels that the government must get involved, because “I can't do it (like this) every time.”
Government investment and oversight will be necessary if the FIL success story is to become anything more than an extraordinary exception.
Privately held by a wealthy family, FIL was in a unique position to capitalize on the valley’s need. But other major companies still consider it a waste of time, money and resources to invest here, especially as the valley continues to lack a basic, reliable power supply. As a result, enterprises are increasingly shifting their bases from Srinagar to Jammu and other places in India.
A Bureaucratic Nightmare
Technological investment in the valley is only half the battle. Growers continue to call for increased subsidies from the government.
Malik owns cut flower and medicinal plant farms in Chandipora-Harwan and Wangat-Kangan. After a decade in the profession, he argues that cumbersome export procedures limit his profits. “We can’t export our produce since we have to apply for a license first and there are many formalities required for it. We can’t [easily] apply.”
He’d also like to see a rationalization of bureaucratic regulations, which in their current state add layers of complication to his business. “Within India, we can send our produce to Delhi or Mumbai, but we don’t get a subsidy if we send our produce to Mumbai.”
He adds that existing subsidies and protections are insufficient. “We suffered huge losses due to agitation over the transfer of 800 kanals (100 acres) to SASB last year, but the government provided us no relief.”
Government Floriculture Development and Extension Officer Fida Ali Alamgeer agrees that improved subsidies are necessary, but counters that the industry is not without risks and that many factors affect a grower’s success.
“An entrepreneur shouldn’t simply go for the activity because (s)he has learned that it fetches good [money]. Many times expectations are shattered at harvest - either the flower is undersized or diseased.”
He feels that government subsidies should focus on infrastructure and training to improve the sector’s economy. “Heating and lighting systems should be on a subsidy basis,” he says, “and training should be imparted to the growers by the concerned department.”
He points out that Himachal Pradesh state in India is doing well in agriculture and credits their keeping pace with technology. “Buyers always prefer quality [but compared to theirs,] ours is obsolete and unappealing,” argues Fida.
With political issues unresolved and calls for more government subsidies unheeded, the role of FIL is imperative. It provides not only CA for entrepreneurial orchardists but steady wage work in a valley where paychecks are rare. With such immense operations, employees here work in three shifts a day.
For Sakina Bano, the job has been a big help. “After the death of my husband, I had no source of income. FIL provided the opportunity to earn decent money for my younger siblings.”
19-year-old Shahida can relate. “We are a family of eight and my father is jobless. Somehow I got a job here and am able to shoulder the financial responsibility for my family. It has come as a relief for families like ours.”
Afsaana's article is part of our focus on Technology & Innovation. - Ed.
About the Author
Afsaana Rashid is a journalist living in Indian-administered Kashmir and the author of Waiting for Justice: Widows and Half Widows, a book that addresses the plight of many women whose husbands have been subjected to enforced disappearance or custodial killings over the past two decades of Kashmir's conflict. Formerly the chief correspondent for Kashmir's English daily, Khidmat, she now writes for The Tribune, one of India's largest circulated newspapers. She was also a senior correspondent with Daily Etalaat, and has written for The Kashmir Times and Kashmir Images. She received her Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir.
In 2005, Afsaana was awarded a fellowship for her work on the impact of conflict on the subsistence livelihoods of marginalized communities in Kashmir by Action Aid India. The following year, she was awarded a Sanjoy Ghose Media fellowship for her work in conflict areas. She also received a UN Population Fund-Laadli Media Award for best reporting in adverse conditions on gender issues in April 2008.
Devoted to covering human rights violations, Afsaana hopes to give a voice to the voiceless.