Despite being a Friday, the only objects visible on the roads at Khimber village are concertina wires and the only sound is that of rain.
Despite 30 years of militancy, prolonged shutdowns and curfews, the COVID-19 outbreak has proved a greater challenge to the village some 16 km from Srinagar. Forced indoors by the fear of contagion, the lockdown is already taking a toll on the vital strawberry fields and cherry and apple orchards of the region.
Khawaja Ghulam Najar, 82, a regular worshipper at the local Noor-ul-Haq mosque described this Friday as the saddest day of his life.
“Even at the peak of militancy or spells of curfews between 2008 and 2016 or even the August 5, 2019 clampdown, this mosque remained open. For over 40 years, I never missed my congregational Friday prayers. But this virus closed it,” said Mr. Najar, a local shopkeeper.
All mosques, including the Hazratbal shrine close by, have been closed for congregational prayers. There was extra security deployed and the policemen were tough against locals, with many beaten up for not wearing masks and stepping out of their houses without a valid reason.
Kashmir is now in its ninth day of a new lockdown. “We have huddled children and women inside. So far, only the affluent class is affected. God forbid, if lower middle class contracts the disease, it will prove a disaster,” said Fida Muhammad, a wicker-basket maker.
Several localities in Khimber have decided not to allow the elderly to step outdoors. “Only healthy males venture out to buy essentials. But many essential items like flour, sugar etc. have already vanished from local grocery shops. Many shopkeepers are beaten up by the police if they open shops. Where will we get fresh stock now?” said Fida Muhammad, a resident.
In Gasoo, villagers who grow strawberries on around 86 hectares on terraced gardens are worried that the Valley's first crop of fruit after the prolonged winter, may not make it to the markets.
“It’s getting difficult to tend the farms. The plucking will start from the last week of April and it lasts only for one month. The lockdown is already till April 14. What if it’s extended? Most of strawberries will be rotten in orchards,” says Firaq Jan, a farmer.
The Khimber-Dara belt’s cherry gardens are full with hanging buds. “Cherry is the second fruit crop after strawberry. It will be a challenge to ship the crop after plucking starts in May. All inter-district and inter-State transport is banned. This virus may eat up our produce too,” said Akram Khan, a resident of Dara.
If the COVID-19 crisis does not subside by May, around 11,789 tonnes of cherry may be buried in the Valley’s orchards. The lockdown has also hit necessary care of apple trees that require grafting and pruning.
“This is the time to control the spread of diseases like San Jose scale which kills an apple tree in just two years. Pesticides are not available in the market due to the lockdown, and the movement of tractors is restricted. The trees require regular pruning and grafting. If the situation does not normalise normal soon, we may lose early apple crop too,” said Khalid Dar, an orchard owner.