Srinagar: As the harvesting of Kashmir’s first crop — strawberry, expecting a bumper yield this year — has started, the growers of this perishable fruit are staring at losses due to COVID curfew imposed by administration to curtail the spread of the infection in the Union Territory.
Strawberries have emerged as an important cash crop in Kashmir, which produces about 2000 to 2500 metric tons of this fruit every year. The cool weather makes Kashmir suitable for the cultivation of strawberries, which are consumed by locals and mostly tourists.
However, besides negligible footfall of tourists this season, strict restrictions imposed by the administration since April 29 in Kashmir valley, is giving sleepless night to the growers, who fear that they will not be able to sell their crop due to closure of local markets and roadside vendors.
“Most of the strawberries, produced in Kashmir, are consumed locally within the Union Territory by tourists and locals as the shelf life of this fruit is just 3 to 4 days. But, due to negligible footfall of tourists and strict restrictions on local markets, including roadside vendors, we are unable to sell our crop on reasonable rates,” Manzoor Ahmad, a farmer at Gassu village in Srinagar which is famous for its strawberry cultivation said.
Manzoor said that the situation was worst this year as last year people came to their houses to purchase strawberries due to ease in COVID restrictions. “As compared to 2019, business was down in 2020 due to COVID pandemic. But, we still did well as people used to come to our houses to purchase strawberries. People used to come from south, north and central Kashmir districts to place orders… they used to make bulk purchases and then sell the strawberries to shopkeepers and roadside vendors,” the farmer said.
However, he said this year roadside vendors have not been allowed to operate; besides markets are also closed due to strict restrictions. “We have been allowed to take our crop to Fruit mandi, but there are hardly any buyers as there is no demand due to closure of local markets and roadside vendors. So the rate we get is 40 to 50 per cent less than last year,” he said.
He said about 80 per cent of the people living in his village have switched to strawberry cultivation from last couple of years to support their families. “If the situation remains the same, I don’t know for how long we can continue incurring losses,” he added.
Manzoor urged the government to formulate a comprehensive policy for strawberry growers. “Like policies for saffron growers and orchards, the government should come up with a policy for strawberry growers as it has a huge potential in Kashmir,” he added.
Another strawberry farmer said till 2019, the crop also used to be exported to other parts of the Union Territory, including Jammu. “But from last two years, we not able to send the crop to these districts due to lockdown and uncertainty in the markets. The government should market and make arrangements so that this crop could be exported to other parts of the country. We have the finest quality of strawberries, but without support from the government it is impossible to broaden our market,” he added.
Meanwhile, strict restrictions continued for the fourth successive week on Monday even as there was no significant dip in the number of fresh coronavirus cases in Kashmir valley, where ‘COVID curfew’ remained imposed from April 29 to curtail the spread of the deadly infection.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration on Saturday extended the COVID curfew, which was supposed to end on May 23, by another week till May 31 in all 20 districts of the Union Territory amid no letup in the number of fresh coronavirus cases and deaths. This is the fourth successive extension of COVID curfew since April 29 in the valley, where the vaccination drive has picked up after severe criticism over non-availability of jabs for several weeks. The extension has come in the backdrop of no letup in the number of COVID-19 cases in J&K, particularly Kashmir division.