NewsKashmir’s apple orchards, millions of jobs, face threat from rail line

Kashmir’s apple orchards, millions of jobs, face threat from rail line

Indian-administered Kashmir – Muhammad Shafi was working in his apple orchard in October last year, in Indian-administered Kashmir, when a group of men rushed in and started measuring his land without asking for his approval.

When he asked the men who they were and what were they doing on his land, Shafi said their response left him stunned. They were government officials sent to mark and measure his orchard for the construction of a railway line.

“They said the land will be used to lay a railway track and a road,” Shafi, 65, told Al Jazeera at his home in the Himalayan region’s Bijbehara area of Anantnag district. “They asked us to refrain from working on our lands.”

Since the officials’ visit, Shafi’s 1,500 sq metre (16,145 sq ft) apple farm has been deserted. Buds have formed on the branches, trees are mulched and it is time to spray them with pesticides.

But Shafi cannot tend to his farm, which is now lined with two 15cm (0.5 ft) concrete poles earmarked by the authorities for the proposed 77km (48-mile) Anantnag-Bijbehara-Pahalgam railway line, one among five such projects totalling about 190km (118 miles) across the picturesque Kashmir valley.

The land to be acquired for the construction is highly fertile for growing apples, the best-known export from the region.

Kashmiris harvest apples at an orchard on the outskirts of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Kashmir's apple orchards, that provides a livelihood for nearly half the region's 8 million people, has suffered losses because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)Kashmiris harvest apples at an orchard on the outskirts of Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir, Tuesday, September 8, 2020. Kashmir’s apple orchards provide a livelihood for millions of families [Dar Yasin/AP]
‘Apple bowl of Kashmir’

Apple farming is the largest employment generator in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, with nearly 3.5 million farmers – 27 percent of the region’s population – involved in growing the fruit, whose export contributes more than 8 percent to the region’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The apple growers say they have invested their entire lives – and their limited resources – in raising the orchards, only for them to be forcefully taken away by the authorities. Shafi’s orchard effectively belongs to the government now, an acquisition he did not sign up for.

Many residents said that government survey teams came to measure their orchards accompanied by police and security forces – in effect to prevent any meaningful resistance from farmers. “We are not even allowed to protest or raise our voice,” said Shafi. “We are helpless.”

Wamiq* from southern Kashmir’s Shopian district said he received a notice from the government on February 23, which said that his 5,000 sq metre (54,000 sq ft) apple orchard would be taken over by the government to construct a railway line.

Still, many Kashmiri farmers have taken to street protests since the land acquisition began. At one such protest in Shopian, known as the “apple bowl of Kashmir”, Wamiq said the farmers had little option but to fight for their land.

“There is already a dearth of job opportunities and now they are depriving us from the only means we have.

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