By Shah Abbas
Srinagar, India, Feb 15 (EFE).- Apple traders in the India-administered Kashmir are up in arms against the alleged Iranian tax-free import of the fruit into the country that has threatened the disputed region’s 100-billion rupees (approximately $1.4 billion) horticulture industry.
The idyllic Himalayan region shares a great deal of cultural affinity with Iran so much so that it is often called Iran-e-Sagheer, or the “Little Iran” due to culinary, art, religious, and literary similarities.
But the bond, of late, is under pressure.
Farmers and traders fear that their future, and that of the sector, the backbone of Kashmir’s economy, is in jeopardy as the Iranian fruit is eating into their share of the Indian market.
The fruit is routed into India through Afghanistan, allegedly for free market access under the South Asian Free Trade Area.
That is illegal and an Iranian product is sold with an Afghan tag, the apple traders say, resenting against what they say has caused them huge losses.
Kashmir has witnessed protests over the declining market share of the sector that employs about 2.3 million people in the impoverished region.
“It is a genuine concern about our livelihood,” said Fayaz Ahmad Malik, who heads a north Kashmir wholesale fruit market, the second-largest in Asia.
“We held several protests in recent times but it seems nobody is ready to listen to us,” Malik told EFE.
Bashir Ahmad Bashir, the President of Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers and Dealers Association, said the Iranian import had forced them to bring the prices down and sell at a loss.
“We had no other option,” Bashir told EFE.
Farmer Ghulam Rasool, from south Kashmir’s Shopian, said apples worth tens of millions of rupees were lying unsold in different cold storages in Kashmir and different parts of India because the demand has dipped.
There are around 17.5 million unsold boxes in Kashmir and 11.5 million in the stores outside, he said.
“It will rot soon. We have to pay more if the product remains in cold stores for too long,” Ghulam Rasool told EFE.
Official data shows that Kashmir reaped a bumper crop 2.15 million metric tons of apple last year, and 187,000 metric tons are still in cold stores.
The average annual apple production in the valley is between 1.5 million and 1.8 million MTs, and the total cold storage capacity is 1.2 to 1.3 million MTs.
“We have written many letters to the (Federal) Agricultural Ministry but there is no response,” Bashir told EFE.
The traders alleged that the Iranians flooded the Indian markets with their apples since the Gulf country cannot import to several European markets due to the sanctions by the United States.
“We have bank loans to pay. If the current trend continues, our apple industry will take a big hit,” said Bashir.