How the monsoon upset Himachal's applecart

File photo: A woman walks through apple trees in full bloom in Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh. Heavy rains that battered the state in July and August affected apple production and resulted in losses for processing units and  farmers alike.  (HT)
File photo: A woman walks through apple trees in full bloom in Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh. Heavy rains that battered the state in July and August affected apple production and resulted in losses for processing units and farmers alike. (HT)


The rains have ended but the state’s apple farmers and processors continue to reel from the devastating aftermath

Shimla: July-August 2023 is a period Girish Minocha would dearly like to forget. But each day, he continues to experience the impact of the tragedy that played out in Himachal Pradesh during those two months after the state was battered by heavy rains. Minocha is the chief executive officer of Minchy’s Food Products, a Shoghi-based company that processes apple juice, apple cider vinegar, jams and marmalades, among other items. Minchy’s Food Products, like many other apple processing companies, was hit badly by the rains.

Minocha shared a mobile phone video, shot sometime in August, with Mint. The camera panned the slopes, which were dotted with rocks and uprooted trees, and finally focused on the Minchy’s plant, located by the hill. A tree had fallen on the facility, piercing its metal ceiling and cracking it open. The godown was flooded with landslide debris. The non-existent roads also meant staff could not make their way to the plant and Minocha was forced to shut it.

The havoc had begun a month earlier, in July. The state received heavy rainfall, which continued for at least seven weeks, causing flash floods and landslides, and leading to widespread destruction.

“We shut production as supply routes were closed due to landslides," said Minocha.

After the heavy rains on 9-11 July, 868 roads, including national highways, state highways and interior roads, were damaged and approximately 18,000km of roads and 172 bridges still need repairing, for which the government requires over 2,500 crore, as per the State Disaster Management Authority’s report, dated 5 October. Former officials say it would take three-four months more to restore the roads or complete repairs.

The rains have ended, but the aftermath of the devastation they wrought on Himachal Pradesh endures. In particular, those after-effects are being felt by apple processing entrepreneurs such as Minocha, as well as apple farmers. The crop accounts for nearly half the area under fruit cultivation in Himachal Pradesh and over 80% of its total fruit production. But this year, the rains have destroyed much of the crop on farms, while the supply chain is still in a shambles, with infrastructure such as roads yet to be restored.

Farmers are staring at a sharp decline in apple production this year. Himachal Pradesh produced around 33.6 million boxes of apples (one box contains around 22 kg of fruit) in 2022-23. The highest-ever production of over 50 million boxes was registered in 2010. The horticulture department has pegged the crop’s output at just 17.7 million boxes this year, the second lowest since 2018, when the state’s production stood at 16.8 million boxes. And even that output is struggling to make it out or to the food processing units. Simply put, the 6,000 crore apple economy in Himachal Pradesh is reeling.

Supply chain hit

Many food processing units remained closed for over two months as the supply-chain took time to get back to normal. The damage to the road infrastructure will take months to fix. “It was almost like the covid-19 lockdown, when we had to shut our processing units completely in July and August due to the heavy damage caused to roads by heavy rains," said Gaurav Sharma, co-founder of ACE Healthy Bites, a food processing company in Shimla.

Sharma produces apple chips under the brand name Drapplez from his processing unit in Shoghi. ACE Healthy Bites, which started operating in 2017, procures apples from farmers in the Theog-Rohru belt of Shimla district, ranging 40-100km in distance from his processing unit. But the roads are still in bad shape. His company has somehow managed to procure apples to meet its processing requirement, but this was after a delay of two-three months.

Then, there is Upasana Kumari of Bhuira Jams, a women-led group that processes fruits in the Rajgarh sub-division of Sirmaur district. She, too, faced similar constraints during the heavy rains. Unable to have its requirements fulfilled by local sources this year, her company has had to procure the fruit from other areas to meet demand.

As fresh apples have a limited shelf life, it becomes necessary to process fruits into value-added products such as apple crisps, apple crumble, apple cake, dehydrated slices, apple pie, beverages, and sugar-based products such as jam jelly.

“In India, 20-30% of apple fruits are spoiled due to improper handling, transportation and processing and therefore, processing and value addition is extremely needed," stated a detailed project report by the Union ministry of food processing industries. Getting the supply-chain up and running quickly is critical to utilize the crop optimally and reduce wastage.

HP’s apple economy

Apples were introduced in the country by the British in Himachal’s Kullu Valley way back in 1865, while the coloured cultivars of the fruit were introduced to the Shimla hills in 1917 by Satyanand Stokes (aka Samuel Evans Stokes, an American). “The apple cultivar ‘Ambri’ is considered to be indigenous to Kashmir and had been grown long before Western introductions," the study quoted above stated.

The apple crop is grown in Shimla, Kullu, Kinnaur, Mandi, Sirmaur and Chamba districts, and the area under the crop as per 2021-22 estimates, stands at 115,000 hectares. Gallas, King Rot, Adams, Zad One, Jeromine, Red Velox, Oregon Spur 2, Early Red One, Royal, Ace and Fuji are the varieties commonly grown in Himachal Pradesh today.

The pain of the apple processing entrepreneurs is being felt by apple farmers as well. Shimla district suffered the worst damage to the apple crop. About 1,458 farmers were affected with 808 hectares of area reporting major losses due to heavy rains, landslides and flash floods. About 368 farmers from Mandi district reported similar losses; 475 hectares under apple cultivation in the district were affected. The two districts reported a loss of over 25 crore to the crop while overall damage to the apple economy of Himachal Pradesh has been pegged at 172 crore, as per the report from the State Disaster Management Authority.

This was the second time this year apple farmers faced nature’s wrath. From March to June, the state had witnessed significant losses in apple production due to persistent spells of rain, hail and untimely snowfall. Temperatures dropped, affecting the fruit setting, size, and quality.

“This year, there were persistent rains at the time of flowering, whereas this period requires sunny weather, with a temperature of over 15 degrees Celsius. But rains accompanied by hail led to temperatures hovering around 8 degrees Celsius, which badly affected pollination and fruit-setting, resulting in low production this year," said Vidya Sagar Sharma, an orchardist from Theog in Shimla district.

Jitender Jhingta, an orchardist from Rohru in Shimla district, said the crop was almost negligible this year and he hadn’t seen anything like it in his lifetime. “The orchards in Rohru, Jubbal-Kotkhai and Theog looked to be without apples and the apple crop grew only in patches in the belt, which is a never-seen scenario for us. The continuous rains from flowering to the fruit setting and growth period seem to be the reason behind this. In fact, the apples are of poor quality and small size," said Jhingta.

Rajesh Kalet, an apple grower from Madavag in the Chopal sub-division of Shimla district, said the area had recorded its lowest-ever apple output. “Apple production has decreased to 25% in Chopal area. We used to produce around 3,000 apple boxes every year but this time around, a production of only 600-700 boxes has been registered," Kalet said.

HPMC procurement down

The state-owned HP Horticulture Produce Marketing and Processing Corporation (HPMC) and HP State Co-Operative Marketing and Consumer Federation (HIMFED) have procured 51,844 tonnes of apples in the 2023-24 marketing season.

Last year, both agencies procured 68,639 tonnes of apples from farmers in the state.

It is worth noting here that HPMC and HIMFED procure C-grade apples under the market intervention scheme (MIS) at government-fixed prices.

HPMC general manager Hitesh Azad said the damage to road infrastructure had resulted in a glut in the market and resulted in the fruit rotting. This, accompanied by lower production, has also led to the corporation procuring less produce as compared to last year under the market intervention scheme.

However, the HPMC had recorded the highest-ever juice production in Himachal Pradesh and this was due to the start of full operations at the Parala apple processing unit under Theog sub-division of Shimla district this year. The unit is located in an open valley (usually considered safe unless a cloudburst occurs), at a distance of 14-15km from Theog and around 50km from Shimla.

“A total of over 1,455 tonnes of apple juice have been produced by HPMC this year, which is a first," Azad said. “Of the total juice production, 850 tonnes have been produced at the Parwanoo (Solan district) processing plant, 505 at the Parala (Shimla district) unit and 100 tonnes at Jarol unit (in Mandi district)," Azad added.

Apple tourism

Minocha said the rates for apples have increased by over 50% this year and the losses will have long-term repercussions on the food processing industry in the state.

Sharma is of the view that the industry will have to make concerted efforts even to meet its running costs as the closure of units, coupled with high prices, will badly affect businesses. “Mostly, it’s tourists who are our customers and our marketing season from 15 September to December-January has already been marred by lack of arrivals owing to damage to the road infrastructure. As it will take some time to restore normalcy, we will have to wait and watch how tourist arrivals improve in the coming months," said Sharma.

Minocha, too, stressed on maintaining and restoring road infrastructure and stated that tourist arrivals should be facilitated and supply routes repaired on time to support the industry.

The government, however, has hiked taxes on tourist buses, which some fear may impact tourist inflows. “The state government has hiked taxes on Volvo and luxury buses to 5,000 and up to 1,000 on tempos booked by tourists coming from other states. The government has recently promised a reduction in the hike in taxes but nothing has been done as yet," Mohinder Seth, president of the HP Tourism Industry Stakeholders Association, an industry body, said. He added that this had led many travel agents to ignore Himachal Pradesh for their tours.

Manmade or natural?

Mint had reported in August that experts, including environmentalists and those working with non-governmental organizations, had blamed climate change, unchecked construction, hydropower projects, deforestation, encroachment of flood plains, and other factors for the excessive rains, widespread flooding and excessive damage.

Indeed, Himachal Pradesh has been battered repeatedly by weather related events in recent years. Between 2018-19 and July 2022, according to parliament data, the state recorded at least 865 deaths due to hydrometeorological calamities, including heavy rainfall, which has left in its wake floods, landslides, fallen trees and broken bridges.

Some activists, however, are not buying into the climate change narrative and say the disaster is entirely man-made. They cited how the Beas River overflowed due to the dumping of debris generated during construction by the National Highway Authority of India to widen the Kiratpur-Manali highway to four lanes.

Unchecked construction by the government, private players and the general public on riversides, without following norms, is worsening a fragile situation, they say, noting that rampant legal and illegal mining in the Beas River was causing the river to change course, worsening flooding in low-lying areas.

Although it is by far an apple-growing region, some in Himachal Pradesh like to think of the state as the ‘fruit bowl of the nation’. Regardless of how accurate that sobriquet is, unless the state and central governments work to restore its infrastructure and take steps to prevent further disasters, that fruit bowl may end up a few apples short.

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