If you make an occasional foray to the market place, you may notice that fruits of Indian origin have all but disappeared. What you are more likely to find are imported apples, pears, oranges, apricots, plums, table grapes or custard apples carrying those ubiquitous round stickers—the mark of imports. Never mind if the apples are not crunchy and the oranges shrivelled because they were probably imported and refrigerated months ago. Consequently, the prices of fruits have gone beyond the reach of the common man.
Why has this happened? It appears that much of our fruits were grown at the urban peripheries. Thanks to the uncontrolled and unorganized real estate “development” of our cities and towns, special economic zones, highways and other infrastructure projects, these orchards have been systematically bulldozed. It is nobody’s case that we don’t need modernization of cities, or broader roads or industrialization. We do. But we need fruits and vegetables as well. It is all very well for a city-state such as Singapore or Dubai to sustain itself on imported fruits. But a population of one-billion-plus needs indigenous fruit production as much as it needs infrastructure.
How important fruits are in the scheme of the department of agriculture and cooperation is evident from the fact that there are virtually no statistics on fresh fruit production and consumption in its website. All one was able to find was the land-use figures for the period 1990-91 and 1999-2000! Squeezing these meagre statistics a trifle harder showed that in the last decade of the last millennium, the annual growth rate of land use was 1.6%— below the population growth rate. And if we account for the fact that much of the growth in infrastructure and construction boom has been in the first decade of this millennium, the rate of growth of fruit production (taking it as a proxy for land use) must be much lower or even negative in large pockets.
There is no gainsaying the fact that urban infrastructure development must factor in the preservation of fruit-growing areas. Cities and towns can be allowed to grow around the orchards and farmlands, thus, allowing for a much needed breathing space, which our short-sighted town planners hardly provide for. Perhaps, legislative intervention is required in this regard. If this is ignored, before long we may lead the country to the same phenomenon with vegetables.
This raises another issue. Even discounting the current slowdown, can our 9% growth of the last few years justify not taking a holistic view of growth for a population as large as ours? Surely that growth has been happening at the cost of our agricultural growth, whose share of the gross domestic product is already shrinking? Of course, since fresh fruits account for a relatively small fraction of our monthly consumption, they will never measure up as an important ingredient on the Consumer Price Index. But does it make fruits less relevant to the health of the common man? Is the occupation of farmers involved in growing fruits and vegetables irrelevant in the context of agriculture and migration?
So why are our policymakers blissfully unaware of the problem silently creeping upon us? It is because our policymakers, our movers and shakers, hardly ever do their mundane day-to-day shopping. We do not have pavements, because our movers and shakers rarely walk on the streets. Our traffic system does not work, because our movers and shakers zip through traffic with red lights atop their cars, with the public held up to speed them through. We do not have lung spaces for the common man, because the movers and shakers live in Lutyens’ green Delhi or other comparable environs. Our legal system barely works, because it is largely irrelevant to our elite. If our so-called VIPs were to line up for a driving licence or a passport or medical care, our systems would operate far better and they would know what it means for the common man not to have access to indigenous fruits.
V. Raghunathan is CEO, GMR Varalakshmi Foundation. These views are personal. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org