Crisis in the countryside

Published : Oct 04, 1997 00:00 IST

Floods ravaged much of rural Kashmir in early September and disease has destroyed almost half the State's apple harvest, but state action has been grossly inadequate.

THIS autumn has brought floods and plant disease to Kashmir. From Sopore in the north to Shopian in the south, disease has withered away the leaves of the apple trees. Large tracts of orchards lie defoliated, tree branches are bare, and the earth is covered in a carpet of rotting leaves. Some estimates suggest that as much as 40 per cent of Kashmir's apple harvest, worth several hundred crores of rupees, may have been destroyed. Owners of small orchards, who do not have the resources to weather a failed harvest, face bankruptcy. South of Srinagar, in many villages, homes, fields and orchards were washed away in the floods that hit the State in early September. Subsistence farmers, who depended on their ripening rice to see them through the coming winter, are living in conditions of misery. Disaster relief has been near non-existent. Neither food nor medicines have reached most of the affected villages, and compensation for lost land has not been discussed, let alone addressed.

Terrorism is not Kashmir's only tragedy, and misery does not always take the form of splattered blood as it did at Irran village last fortnight. Yet neither the National Conference, which has been democratically elected to power, nor the Hurriyat Conference, which claims to speak for all of Kashmir's people, appears overly concerned about the crisis in the countryside. The national media has almost wholly ignored the desperation of farmers and orchard owners in Kashmir, focussing instead on the fire of guns on the border and the talks in New Delhi. It appears that for Kashmir's people it is going to be a long, hard winter.


The floods of the first week of September found cursory mention in the newspapers as low-lying Srinagar neighbourhoods such as Mahjoor Nagar went under several feet of water. Worse floods in rural areas, which caused devastation to fields and orchards in southern Kashmir, went almost entirely unreported. Srinagar's problems found at least some official recognition. These, like the problem in some other areas, owe partly to the fact that flood channels built decades ago to cope with flows of up to 70,000 cubic feet a second have silted up over the years and can now take barely a quarter of their design loads. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah said that his Government would prioritise the dredging of the Jhelum and the flood channels.

Rural south Kashmir has found no aid at all. "A survey by helicopter, four days of media wailing, and promises of action," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "are the annual rituals we enact by habit, without compassion or purpose." Unlike Srinagar, Tarigami's backward constituency of Kulgam has not even been promised flood protection works.

Ladgoo village, on the banks of the fierce Vaishow nullah, illustrates the enormous hardships peasants have been suddenly confronted with. On the afternoon of September 7, children playing on the banks of the stream first noticed the water level rising rapidly. Within a few hours, Tej Singh's ancestral home had been reduced to rubble; it was one of 18 houses destroyed in the violent flood. Several villagers escaped death only because an Army unit stationed there pitched in to rescue people. Over the next two days, 16 hectares (40 acres) of fruit trees were washed away, a moonscape of rocks and sand littering what was once lush orchards. This meant a cash loss of about Rs.25,000 a year for an average orchard-owning family. The paddy crop on eight hectares (20 acres), ready for harvest, was destroyed. "I lost eight kanals (just under an acre) in last year's floods," says Abdul Aziz Bhatt, "and borrowed Rs.40,000 to buy two kanals this year. That land has been washed away, and I have no idea of how I'll pay my debts or feed my family."

Things were not very different elsewhere in the area. At least 14 villages along the Vaishow alone have suffered land losses worth crores of rupees. At Narsingpora, a tearful Khaliq Wagai pointed to the stretch of surging water where his one-and-a-half-acre paddy field once stood. The farmer owns two hectares (five acres) of land along with his brothers Gani Wagai and Ghaffar Wagai. "My only son has disappeared somewhere in search of food and my wife is unwell," he says. "Unless we get help, we are all going to starve this winter." Over 2,500 trees, spread over 10 hectares, were washed away in Narsingpora, though homes mercifully survived. Crops on a further 200 hectares were flattened in the September deluge. The village had lost two hectares of land in last year's floods. Razaq Wagai's children are unwell with severe diarrhoea, but no medical facilities are available to treat them. Although a government clinic exists at nearby Mirhama, he is unsure whether to spend the little money he has left on treating his children or buying food. Another farmer, Ghulam Mohiuddin, says, "The 12 kanals of paddy fields and 250 eucalyptus trees I have lost were all I had. I have nothing to live for."

This sentiment is not surprising, given what state support has so far been made available. State Minister Safdar Baig, along with senior district administration officials, visited Ladgoo after the flood waters receded, but promised no meaningful help in obtaining new land or cash compensation. Ten days after the floods, the administration finally gave each family 5 kg of rice and sent in a medical team, but provided no blankets or shelters. Last year's losses of land have not been compensated for, nor has the State Government offered financial help to farmers. "Others get money for being affected by terrorism," says Janak Singh, "but all Hindus of this village stayed on, protected by our Muslim brothers, and asked the Government for nothing. Now when we need help, no one listens."

No official has visited Narsingpora. The local ration shop is capitalising on the situation by selling rice and sugar at prices higher than those fixed. Upstream at Noorabad, where the only bridge linking that tehsil to the rest of Kashmir has been washed away, rations meant for those affected are being unloaded from relief trucks and sold on the roadside.

NO one is very certain why floods cause so much damage in southern Kashmir and why their intensity appears to be increasing. Deforestation, periodic climatic factors and poor flood control infrastructure may all be playing a role. In Kulgam, emergency flood control works worth Rs.26 lakhs, sanctioned before the September rain, were simply not built. Tarigami has now moved the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, demanding that the State Government be held responsible for not building even the minimal flood control works it had sanctioned. As for relief work, the state apparatus appears to care little. Although the government media regularly reports that large quantities of relief materials have been supplied, villagers deny these claims. Meetings of the Anantnag District Development Board to address these problems have been postponed repeatedly because of engagements the Chief Minister had elsewhere.


Farmers blame the crisis in Kashmir's apple belt on a small arthropod, the red mite, which is widely believed to have caused a sequence of biological events leading to the defoliation of up to half of some area's orchards. However, there is dispute about whether the arthropod is in fact the cause of the autumn pestilence: some experts attribute the leaf fall problem to the fungus Alterneria and even to a new disease, Marsonina. But in the countryside, all are merely metaphors for a wider set of problems. They revolve around abysmal government management of Kashmir's largest industry. The collapse of the Horticulture Directorate's field apparatus has deprived farmers of proper scientific support, and there are allegations that sub-standard pesticides and fungicides have been supplied in a multi-crore scandal. These problems come in a context where apple growers have little or no state support in the form of support prices, facilities for cold storage, marketing, or fruit processing.

Farmers and traders in the apple belt widely attribute the decimation of this year's apple crop to a spurious red mite control spray, No-Mite. Produced and supplied by KGC Fungicides (India) Ltd, a company which controls 95 per cent of the pesticide market in Jammu and Kashmir, the spray has Dicofol, a DDT-based poison, as its active ingredient. No-Mite succeeded Calthene, a product whose marketing KGC Fungicides terminated following a series of business developments. Allegations that No-Mite was adulterated began to be made after leaf fall became a serious problem. In early August, the Horticulture Directorate said that the leaf fall's root cause was the penetration of leaves by the red mite, suggesting that No-Mite was not working. KGC Fungicides and the State Pesticide Distributors Association suggested a test regime to sort out the issue. Before there was a response to this, the Sher e Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences (SKUAS) discovered that one batch of No-Mite, KGD 18, contained less than the 18.5 per cent Dicofol content required for it to be effective.

THE SKUAS report did more than simply attack No-Mite. Senior Scientist Sheikh Bilal Ahmad, a toxicologist, says, "We also pointed to the fact that the Horticulture Directorate's functioning had been less than satisfactory. Pesticides had frequently not been applied according to a proper schedule or in the correct dosage. This had led to Dicofol resistance in the red mite." He adds, "Orchard hygiene was abysmal and the management of trees was poor. Clearly, proper information was not reaching farmers, which was the root cause of this calamity." The report said that the leaf fall was caused by the Alterneria fungus, whose spread had been enabled by leaves that had already been damaged by the red mite. The red mite, SKUAS scientists found, had also proliferated because of imbalances in fertilizer applications. Subsidised urea was spread indiscriminately, while DAP and potash, on which subsidies were recently withdrawn, were underused. Weeds spread and the red mite thrived in the humid undergrowth, its natural predators having been destroyed by insecticides used earlier in the season.

KGC Fungicides' managing director S.M. Altaf Bukhari vigorously contests at least some of the findings of the Horticulture Directorate and SKUAS. "Their test reports on the No-Mite batch were simply incorrect," he says. An independent test carried out on the same batch by New Delhi's Shriram Institute for Industrial Research, he points out, showed that No-Mite's Dicofol content was as it should have been and that the batch conformed to standards. "The problem is not caused by the red mite at all," he says, citing research carried out in Himachal Pradesh to support his argument. "They have had the leaf fall problem for three years now," Bukhari continues, "and are coming to realise that it is in fact caused by the Marsonina fungus. The fact is that levels of 20 to 25 red mites per leaf are acceptable, which is what is being found on the fallen leaves, and this shows that No-Mite has in fact worked." "Sadly," he concludes, "the Horticulture Directorate is more interested in victimising us than in dealing with the problem seriously."

Bukhari claims that his company's problems have been caused by its decision to take legal steps against the Horticulture Directorate. The Jammu and Kashmir High Court recently took over the supervision of a vigilance investigation into a contract for the supply of a 'Butachlor 5 per cent' weedicide, Weed Free, on a petition filed by Bukhari for the State Pesticide Distributors Association. The State Government's Directorate of Agriculture had placed orders for the purchase of 17,500 quintals of Weed Free from the lowest bidder, Agri Zoom, despite the fact that Agri Zoom could not show that either it or its principals possessed adequate stocks to meet the commitment. Agri Zoom also attempted to supply Weed Free in 50-kg sacks, against legal stipulations in the Insecticide Act, 1968, that it be sold in 20-kg bags, according to the petition. Then the company was given repeated extensions of delivery dates. Finally, of 47 batches supplied, just four were tested by the Directorate of Agriculture, two of which were found to be substandard, Bukhari's petition alleged. On July 20, shortly after the controversy became public, the Horticulture Directorate's records at its Lal Mandi complex were burned in a mysterious fire.

Whatever the truth of the affair, the fact remains that the leaf fall epidemic illustrates the State Government's scandalous neglect of Jammu and Kashmir's largest industry. Proper action by the Horticulture Directorate could have helped contain the crisis when it first became evident last year. Instead, the leaf fall problem was allowed to escalate into an epidemic. If, as in Himachal Pradesh, the epidemic has been caused by a new fungus, no measures have been taken in Jammu and Kashmir to frame an appropriate response. "Things will almost certainly get worse next year," says SKUAS' Shikh Bilal Ahmad. "The financial losses will cripple the industry," says Shopian apple trader Javed Ahmad. "The way the system works," he says, "is that we advance sums of money to farmers in the orchards to meet their expenses through the system. The last instalment of 20 per cent due to them at the time of the season is their profit for the year. Now, we'll have sustained huge losses, and they won't have a profit. Many small farmers are thinking of shifting to safer food crops, like rice or maize."

TYPICALLY, the State Government's response to the crisis has been wholly unfocussed. Jammu and Kashmir, unlike Himachal Pradesh, has no support price system for fruit and does not guarantee farmers a basic price on damaged produce. This and the absence of storage and processing facilities leave farmers entirely at the mercy of buyers from New Delhi and elsewhere. If the price tends to fall precipitously in good years, there is no support from the state during periods of crisis. Agriculture, the backbone of the State's economy during the worst years of the post-1989 insurgency, has gained little from the return of a democratic order.

There is a certain biblical resonance to flood and pestilence, a tendency to attribute such crises to more mysterious causes than the finger which presses the trigger on an automatic rifle. "The politicians go to the villages," says Tarigami, "and say 'These floods and these dead trees are the curse of Allah for the sins we have committed.' And the poor in the villages listen quietly, for they have no choice. They know they are not being punished for their sins, and that Allah has nothing to do with their present problems. The real sins are those being committed by the Government."

This winter, the second since the coming of the National Conference to power in Kashmir, should have illustrated to the State's people the purpose of responsive, democratic governance. But the state apparatus that collapsed over eight years of violence, it would appear, has yet to recover. Whether it even has the integrity of vision to want to do so will become clear over the coming years.

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