Orchards in the doldrums

Print edition : June 19, 2020

In a cherry orchard on the outskirts of Srinagar on May 28. The harvesting of cherries generates lots of employment as all the work needs to be done by hand. Kashmir has received a bumper cherry crop this year, but owing to the lockdown, farmers are not able to send it to Mumbai and other main markets across India. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The administration says it has the pandemic well in hand, but this hardly squares with the rise in the number of cases and the lack of noticeable improvements in health care facilities. By Anando Bhakto in New Delhi

Political parties and the people in Jammu and Kashmir are unhappy with the Governor Girish Chandra Murmu-led administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The common refrain is that the upgradation of health care facilities has been slow and that health-related decision-making is mostly being done by the “regime favourite” bureaucrats who have been given a free hand. As the number of cases continues to spiral and notable public figures test positive for the virus, there is a growing demand for better screening of people entering the Union Territory (U.T.) and intensifying contact tracing. As of May 31, the total number of positive cases stood at 2,446: 1,943 in the Kashmir Valley and 503 in Jammu.

The administration is widely seen as being slack about ensuring that no infected person enters the U.T. A source close to the administration, who spoke to Frontline on condition of anonymity, said the screening of travellers was virtually pointless as they were let off within a day. The source said that there was a view that if a traveller acquired the virus on board or at the airport and was tested in a matter of few hours after contracting the virus, the result might not be accurate as “it takes nearly five days for the virus to show”. The source advocated that travellers should be quarantined for a mandatory period of five days and then tested. “By testing them on the same day, you are just wasting the kits,” he said. On May 30, 77 travellers tested positive. On May 31, a total of 105 people tested positive for the coronavirus, 34 of them travellers.

Restlessness is also growing as the U.T. administration is unable to arrange an additional reserve of ventilators or expand the patient intake capacity in hospitals. Imran Dar, the provincial spokesperson of the National Conference, shared his anguish over what he called the lackadaisical attitude of the administration. “Preparedness of hospitals is still in its infancy. Jammu and Kashmir is lucky that it so far did not have a flooding of critically ill patients, but that should hardly make the government complacent. How many ventilators has the government kept ready? How many ventilators did it procure since the lockdown was announced over two months ago? Not even a dozen,” Dar said over the phone from Srinagar. As per independent assessments, there are only 215 ventilators across Jammu and Kashmir for a population of nearly 13 million. As many as 28 patients (25 from Kashmir and three from Jammu) have died from COVID-19 in the U.T. up to May 30.

Anxiety is deepening across the U.T. as top officials continue to get infected. On May 30, a senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who had recently moved between Srinagar and Jammu tested positive for the virus. He had attended a high-level meeting in Jammu that included senior members of the Disaster Management Authority and officials from the Health Department. The IAS officer is currently undergoing treatment at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Narayana Superspeciality Hospital in Kakryal in Reasi district. A few days earlier, the son and wife of an adviser to the Governor tested positive for the virus. They had returned from Delhi. While the adviser has been put under quarantine at the hospital in Reasi, the infected family members are being treated in an isolation ward at the same facility.

The coronavirus is beginning to jeopardise the administrative and security set-up as cases among officials mount. On May 30, in a first, the Kathua Police Station was sealed after an assistant sub-inspector tested positive for COVID-19. Shailendra Mishra, Senior Superintendent of Police, Kathua, confirmed the development with a tweet: “First corona positive case in Kathua Police today. Asymptomatic. The Police Station Kathua is out of bounds till all personnel are tested negative. Woman PS shall take complaints till then.” It has been reported that as many as 50 policemen are lodged inside the police station and their samples are being taken for testing.

Apple, cherry growers’ plight

There is concern in Kashmir that the administration is unable to come up with a road map for the resumption of economic activity. Frontline earlier reported that the continuing lockdown had taken a heavy toll on the U.T.’s economy, particularly its lucrative apple trade, which had already been impacted by the security situation arising in the aftermath of the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on August 5 last year. As official and civilian curfews suspended movement and business activity for most of the calendar year, several apple growers and businessmen stored the harvest in the hope that they would make up for the heavy losses incurred with good returns in the spring of 2020. However, the coronavirus crisis means that their crop may rot. As per a rough estimation, there are 80,000 tonnes of apples lying in cold storage in the Kashmir Valley.

The cherry trade has also been hit badly by the lockdown. The local media reported that this year cherry orchardists tended over 2,713 hectares of crop, and the yield was expected to surpass the 11,000-tonne mark. The fruit traders have urged the government to allow all cart vendors in the Valley to sell their produce in open shops.

Imran Dar alleged that while trade was at a standstill, no effort was being made to mitigate the plight of the daily wage earners, who have been out of work and are in dire need of cash. “As far as the economic aspect of the lockdown is concerned, it is huge. People have been left to fend for themselves. Workers from the horticulture, agriculture and tourism sectors and artisans have had little or no work. An overwhelming number of daily wage earners have been left to God’s mercy. The government has so far not announced any specific economic relief package to bail them out. There is also no vision to support big businesses that have been severely affected since August 5,” Dar said.

Sources in the Peoples Democratic Party agreed with the assessment that the government did not have any concrete plan regarding abating the economic cost of the pandemic or expanding health care services to the villages. “It seems they just do not care. The hinterland is totally cut off. The government has neither set up emergency facilities in the villages nor arranged emergency transport facilities to the cities. In the first place, the infrastructure of the city hospitals is not enough to accommodate local patients,” said a former MLA from the party, requesting that he not be named as he is currently under home detention.

The Murmu administration claims it has done a commendable job of upgrading facilities and ensuring adequate, time-bound testing. Recently, during a videoconference meeting to review COVID-19 mitigation efforts, Chief Secretary B.V.R. Subramanyam appreciated officials of the Health & Medical Education Department besides others for their readiness in dealing with the pandemic. According to the administration, 11,835 tests per million population was being done in Jammu and Kashmir, which is the highest in the country. The administration says that the doubling rate of the virus in the U.T. is 17.2 days and the recovery rate around 44 per cent, which are also above the national average. During the meeting, Subramanyam said that the fact that 48 per cent of all positive cases in Jammu and Kashmir were due to contacts, one could say that the officials concerned were carrying out aggressive contact tracing and surveillance.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 situation also took a toll on the annual Kheer Bhawani festival. The Dharmarth Trust cancelled the “mela”, which had been scheduled to be held at Tulmulla village in Ganderbal on May 30, in view of the prevailing situation. Every year hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits arrive in the Valley from different parts of the country to pay obeisance to Ragnya Devi. But this year, only a handful of priests and some local Kashmiri Pandit devotees could make it for the rituals.