Even as the Himachal Pradesh government is opposing the Centre’s decision to open FDI in the retail sector, the State’s apple farmers differ on the issue

A big debate is on amongst the apple farmers and policy makers in the hill State of Himachal Pradesh after the recent decision of the UPA government of inviting foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail. Though the State Horticulture Minister Narendra Bragta of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party government has opposed the decision, yet a number of fruit and vegetable growers who were at the mercy of middlemen in cities all this while are in favour of FDI in retail. They are hoping that a direct purchase of their produce by the retail giants would help them as well as the consumers.

A number of farmers involved in the exclusive production of vegetables, apples and other fruits are excited at the likely creation of new marketing infrastructures for their perishable produce. If big cold store chains come up in the hills in the private sector, farmers producing exotic off-season vegetables and cash crops like apple, peaches and pears could be benefited a lot, feels the majority of well-heeled growers. But the small and marginal farmers having subsistence economies are apprehensive since their produce is rejected on the grounds of quality and value by some of the big procurement companies like the Adani Group, who are already active in the apple growing belt of interior Shimla.

According to Mr. Bragta, the proposed FDI would prove harmful for the farming sector and would kill the backward hill economies like that of Himachal. “It would be almost fatal to the apple and other fruit farming which is the backbone of the economy here,” he says. An apple-grower himself, he says that the State is not prepared to compete with the foreign fruit market since per hectare production in countries like the U.S. and Europe is at least 10 times more than the yield here.

Comparing the cost of production and scientific development in advanced countries with India, Mr. Bragta points out the low production of apples here has to be protected by increasing the customs duty on imported fruit. With the advent of FDI, the customs duty, which is around 50 per cent at present, would be lifted and foreign fruits and vegetables would flood the Indian markets. While consumers might get benefited in the beginning, the farm sector would be killed and nobody would buy the local produce available at higher costs here. The markets would be allowed to import 70 per cent produce from outside and the indigenous farmers would supply the rest 30 per cent, he adds.

The majority of farmers in all districts in Himachal Pradesh produce apples and contribute to the 21 lakh tonnes of total production in India against the total demand of about 35 lakh tonnes of apple. The foreign producers are eying this gap for a long time and have demanded a decrease in customs duty. Most of the small and marginal farmers would not be able to compete with the monopoly ‘cash and carry’ culture of multi-national corporate farmers.

The majority of farmers and the Left supported Seb Utpadak Sangh have also brushed aside the logic of the Congress leadership that the State governments have freedom to permit or forbid the FDI in their respective States. If FDI is allowed in the neighbouring States, where would a farmer from a non-FDI adopted State sell his produce, they ask. Himachal alone had produced about 11 lakh tonnes of apple in the year 2010-11.

The farmers in the hills are already suffering from the tough vagaries of weather, the transporters have hiked the freight by 30 per cent and with FDI in the offing, it would lead to a complete ruin of agriculture here, the farmers feel.

Mr. Bragta has assured that he would take up the issue of bringing vegetable farming from the agriculture sector to the horticulture sector so that more money could be spent on the research and infrastructure development for the vegetable growing farmers. The plight of vegetable growing farmers is much worse than the fruit growers in the State.