Lok Sabha polls: SKM will support Congress in Himachal to benefit apple farmers

Apple growers are a significant proportion of the electorate across 21 assembly segments—and may be ready to take an axe to the BJP

India's apple farmers feel the heat
India's apple farmers feel the heat

NH Political Bureau

Ahead of the voting in Himachal Pradesh scheduled for 1 June, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) has extended its support to the Congress party, providing a significant boost to the INDIA bloc.

The Congress and its alliance have promised to enact a law ensuring minimum support prices (MSP) across the board to protect growers from exploitation by large corporations that have established warehouses and cold storage facilities in the apple belt, according to SKM convener Harish Chauhan.

SKM, which claims the loyalty of 27 associations of apple, stone fruits and vegetable growers, pledged its support after the Congress included their demands in its manifesto.

Apple growers, who constitute a considerable portion of the electorate in Himachal Pradesh, may put paid to the BJP's chances this time, with many alleging that their plight has not been addressed by the Centre over the past 10 years, say political observers.

In 2019, BJP has won all four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal Pradesh.

Apple cultivation spans 115,680 hectares across 21 assembly segments, mainly in Shimla, Mandi, Kullu and Kinnaur districts, with smaller pockets in Chamba, Sirmaur, Lahaul and Spiti, Kangra and Solan districts. The major apple-growing areas fall under the Shimla and Mandi parliamentary constituencies, and over 300,000 families are directly involved in apple production.

According to official data, apple production was 3.5 crore boxes in 2022 and 2 crore boxes in 2023. Joint director (horticulture) Hem Chand noted that while production and market prices fluctuate, the apple economy in the state is valued at around Rs 4,000 crore.

The primary demands of apple growers include a 100 per cent import duty on apples to curb the influx of cheaper varieties, the abolition of GST on farm inputs and equipment, loan waivers and subsidies on fertilisers and pesticides.

Instead, the Modi-led BJP government in September 2023 removed the 20 per cent additional import duty on US apples, lentils, chickpeas, walnuts and almonds, which had been in place since 2019.

Customs and MFN (most favoured nation) policy dictates that a baseline 50 per cent import duty on apples stays in place despite this move, which was based on a quid pro quo agreement discussed during Modi's visit to the US, which involves removal of similar duties on certain Indian exports. Indeed, the extra 20 per cent was a retaliation against the US placing additional tariffs on India's steel and aluminium exports to that country.

However, neither the Opposition, nor the farmers are buying the BJP government's line that the rollback of the additional 20% import duty will leave local producers unaffected.

News agency PTI has quoted Lokinder Bisht, president of the Progressive Growers Association as saying: 'Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promises, the plight of apple growers has not improved over the past 10 years.' He criticised the government for neither increasing the import duty nor including apples in the special category of crops.

Now, the SKM's support for the Congress underscores the growing dissatisfaction among apple growers with the current administration at the Centre.

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