Start of the apple season hampered by unabated mining of rivers, hitting thousands of farmers as government officials admit lapses.
Shopian, Indian-administered Kashmir – Ghulam Mohammad Mir, 62, looks grudgingly at the canal that usually brings water year-round to his and many other fruit orchards in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Shopian district, home to some of the finest apples grown in the lap of the Himalayas.
Mir’s anger has a reason. The canal is dry these days, hampering the start of the apple season when farmers prepare the trees with minerals and fertilisers.
It is time to give trees their first shower (of minerals and pesticides) but there’s no water,” laments Mir, pointing to the parched canal. “It will prove costly, because missing even one spray (out of approximately a dozen recommended) can ruin the whole crop.”
Agriculture is the backbone of the region’s economy, contributing 8 percent towards its GDP. According to one survey, at least 700,000 Kashmiri families are directly or indirectly connected to the agricultural sector.
Last year, about two million tonnes of apples were harvested in Indian-administered Kashmir, two-thirds of which was exported to the Indian markets.
Shopian is the region’s second-smallest district, with a cultivable area of just 312sq km (194sq miles). Yet, it reported the third-highest yield of apples and second-highest yield of cherries in 2018-2019, according to the government’s agriculture department, making it the “apple capital” of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Illegal mining of rivers
In 2019, India scrapped the region’s semi-autonomy, bringing in developments that spelled disaster for the farmers as rules changed and outside players flooded the area.
Many irrigation canals and water channels crisscrossing the apple-rich belts of Shopian are running dry due to illegal and unabated mining of rivers.
In nearly three dozen villages of Shopian, there are complaints of water shortage, said Mohammad Yusuf Wagay, another farmer from Odura village.
“The Salar water stream feeds 12 villages and dozens of orchards but it is running dry. When we raised the issue with the administration, we were asked to shut our mouths and threatened with police cases,” he said.
The spring melt in the snowcapped Pir Panjal Mountains in the Himalayas washes the tributaries of Rambi Ara, Romshi and Vishow in southern Kashmir before flowing into the Jhelum River, which is part of South Asia’s grand Indus river system.
Rich with exotic snow trout and mineral wealth, the “three sisters” irrigate thousands of lush apple and cherry orchards scattered on their flood-prone banks, providing a livelihood to thousands.