Thanks to actor Akshay Kumar, the nation knows that Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves mangoes. But tomatoes had of late turned disagreeable after a price spike. Now, apples have become the latest political hot potato.
A fine print that preceded US President Joe Biden’s visit to New Delhi for the G20 meeting was a decision by India to cut the duty on several edible items, including apples, being imported from America. The decision to remove an additional duty, imposed in 2019 in retaliation to American levies on Indian steel and aluminium, was taken in June when Modi was in the US but it was implemented last week a few days before Biden landed in India.
Now, the catch: Indian apple growers are crying foul, fearing that prices and demand will be driven down by the cheaper imports from the US. Most of the apple growers are located in Kashmir, with which Modi has a troubled relationship, and Himachal Pradesh, where the Congress is in power after defeating the BJP in the elections.
The outrage is deeper in Kashmir as the Centre has lifted the additional duties on walnuts and almonds, too.
Another factor that leaves a sour taste in the mouth: in 2014, Modi was reported as having said he would step up the import duty on US apples to help the growers in Himachal.
Stung by the backlash in Himachal — articulated by the ruling Congress — and Kashmir, the Centre said on Tuesday that the removal of additional duty would not result in any negative impact on domestic producers.
Union commerce department additional secretary Peeyush Kumar said the Most Favoured Nation duty of 50 per cent on apples and 100 per cent on walnuts continued to be applicable on US apples as only the additional duty (20 per cent) had been removed.
“It will result in competition in the premium market segment of apples, walnuts and almonds, thereby ensuring better quality at competitive prices for our Indian consumers,” he told reporters in New Delhi.
The American apple industry is wetting its lips in anticipation. India was once the second-biggest export market for Washington apples, but exports fell more than 99 per cent this season after the tariffs took effect, The Spokesman-Review of Washington reported last week, quoting a council that represents the region’s apple growers and exporters.
The Congress described the reduction of import duty by “atmanirbhar” protagonist Modi as a punishment for Indian farmers and a gift for the Americans, adding that it exposed the hollowness of his “vocal for local” slogan.
Kashmir political leaders called the duty cut an attempt to finish the Valley’s struggling fruit industry to please G20 leaders.
Lakhs of families in Kashmir make a living by selling fruits, mainly apples, within the country as well as exporting them. Inclement weather and cheap imports of apples from Afghanistan have already taken a toll on their income.
The BJP, which is facing protests in Jammu against the alleged anti-Jammu policies of the Centre, has accused Valley politicians of deceiving people with half-truths.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah questioned the efficacy of the G20 meetings when they resulted in “decisions” hitting the interests of locals.
“This is a big injustice to us. Instead of pleasing G20 leaders, they (Centre) should please their own people,” Omar said, seeking a rollback of the decision.
“They (central leaders) are themselves saying that Jammu and Kashmir is not fully part of this country. How can that be when they make such decisions where people are put to such hardships? The results would be wrong.”
People’s Democratic Party president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said the decision would have a devastating effect on local growers grappling with “huge losses post 2019”.
CPM veteran M.Y. Tarigami said the decision was a gift offered to the US President during the G20 summit and the market of local apples would now shrink further.
“The apple growers of Kashmir, Uttarahand and Himachal had formed a common platform to fight for local apples. They had submitted a memorandum to the Centre (last year) wanting this country to be a market for our apples and that it should remain so. But the decision will have a disastrous impact on apple growers,” he said.
“The growers in the US have access to better technology and marketing techniques because of which their apples could be better,” he added.
Kashmiri apple growers said climate change had already hurt the local apple industry. Parts of the Valley received unseasonal snowfall this year, resulting in a fall in temperatures, which is bad for apple harvest.
Last year, the apple industry in the Valley faced massive losses as farmers accused the Centre of promoting cheap apples from Iran that were sold in the market as “duty-free Afghan apples”.
In New Delhi, Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate said: “Modi has whipped the local farmers and gifted the big American corporations which grow apples there.”
She added: “Reducing the duty... is an indication that the Modi government gifted a huge bonanza to American corporations at a time when Himachal is dealing with the worst ever natural disaster. Why is the government attacking the five lakh people who produce apples in Himachal? Himachal every year packs about 3.6 crore boxes of apples. It is expected to pack under 2 crore this year.”
Shrinate went on: “First, you gave Himachal apple orchards in the hands of Adani. People protested because prices being paid for procurement were low and this is Modi’s way of saying — ‘if you are going to protest and stand against my friend, I will teach you a lesson’. In Kashmir things have just begun to pick up, the economy is just beginning to slowly come back to normal and just then you impact farmers, by decreasing import duty on apples, almonds and walnuts.
“In what words can prioritising another country’s farmers be justified over your own, Mr Modi? As chief minister of Gujarat, you used to emphatically say that you would make import duty on Washington apples 100 per cent. What happened to that commitment?”
Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who on Tuesday toured the areas in Himachal devastated by the recent floods, said: “The situation is extremely bad and everybody should help in the reconstruction of the state.... But the policies of the Centre… import duty on American apples has been cut. What will happen to our farmers? Some big industrialists who procure apples from Shimla have reduced prices. This is against the spirit of support; even common people are donating for reconstruction.”
The Congress had linked the June agreement to remove the 20 per cent duty to the BJP’s election loss in Himachal. Congress communications chief Jairam Ramesh had tweeted then: “Does the Prime Minister even care for the apple growers of Himachal Pradesh? He has avenged his election loss in Himachal by slashing import duties on American apples.”
Additional reporting from PTI