Photo-essay and story for Mint-WSJ (sep 2012)
Just a few decades ago the farmers of this mountainous region in Shimla District in Himachal hardly had any money . They grew wheat, maize, potatoes and herded livestock which sustained them though long harsh winters. Today there are no penniless farmers here. Having replaced their traditional crops with apple orchards, they have all become rich horticulturists catapulting the economy of this region to astronomical heights.
Kairi Panchayat here in Kotkhai Tehsil , once had the highest per-capita income among all rural villages in the country. ‘’Our banks in Kairi had the highest deposits among any rural bank in India’’, says Shiv Prakash Bhimta ,a resident apple grower here.Depending on the crop each year, the title of ‘highest per-capita income village’ keeps coming back to one or another Panchayat in this Jubbal-Kotkhai region of Shimla District. Baghi- Ratnari Panchayat , not far from Kairi, has been graced with the title too and continues to lead in high apple production.
But it was not so easy to introduce the idea of replacing tradition crops with apple trees. In the early 1920’s when Samuel Stokes – the first American Gandhian- tried to talk the farmers here into planting apple saplings he was ridiculed and chased away. What will we eat for food ? Apples? We need to grow food he was summarily told.
However he convinced a small band of farmers in Kotgarh in Kumarsain tehsil, to join him in planting the apple saplings he had brought from America. In a few years these farmers began to harvest the apples crop for profit. Other Kotgarh residents gradually followed suit making Kotgarh the most economically developed region in Himachal.
Other villages followed Kotgarh’s example and planted apple trees. Today any village with an altitude of 1600 meters and above , cultivate apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh.
The apple growers no longer live in a village in traditional mud and wood house clusters. Most of them have moved out and built lavish farmhouses in the middle of their orchards lending the Jubbal – Kotkhai region a look of a beautiful English countryside. Expensive 4WD’s park behind the high walls of these houses and orchardists check for weather forecasts on their iPads and iPhones. Their children study in expensive boarding schools and little expense is spared during any social occasion like marriage or a village ritual.
However there is also a downside. The sudden gold rush has had the orchardists encroach into the forests where they have cut trees to plant apple trees. This has gone unchecked for so many years that now the repercussions of deforestation are visiting the orchardists. For a good yield the apple plant should have at least 1000 hours of chilling in winters. But because of deforestation it is snowing less and less each year. ”Deforestation had changed the weather pattern in the region. The rainfall is erratic and hailstorms are more frequent now than ever”, says Dr. Inder Mohan a scientist at DR. Y.P. S Parmar University of Horticultural and Forestry, HP.
Though the younger generation of orchardist are all well educated , deep rooted tradition beliefs prevail over commonsensical environmental awareness. They would rather slaughter a goat to the local Gods for good weather than plant trees in their depleting forests.
‘’Forests are being destroyed due to the negligence of the Forest department. They are simply doing nothing . The forest department is hand and glove with the encroachers’’ , says Ravinder Chauhan an apple orchardists who runs a NGO, Environment Protection Society of Himachal in Kairi.
Pariyavaran Sangrakshak Samiti is another grassroots level organization being run by the local orchardists here in Kairi village. ”The Forest Department is doing everything except saving the forests. Therefore there is a dire need for people like us to build awareness about environmental issues among the orchardists and show how its going to impact our future. Every apple orchardist should be concerned about it’’, says Digvijay Singh Chauhan, President of the Samiti.
Following up on a PIL, the State High Court had given directions for the registration of FIR’s and eviction of encroachers who had occupied more than 10 bighas of forest land in Himachal. The court had set the first deadline for June 19, 2011 to carry out the evictions but the state Forest Department failed to honor this as well as all subsequent deadlines set for it. They have also not been able to register the FIR’s against the encroachers.
The Forest Department lays the blame on the Revenue Department’s door.
‘’ The demarcation ( of encroached land) is to be done by the Revenue Department before we do the evictions. But the Revenue Department did not have sufficient staff to do the demarcations. Therefore we had to ask for extensions to carry out the evictions’’, Says R. K. Gupta Principal Chief Conservator of Forests – Department of Forests. HP.
If the encroachments into the forests don’t stop, it will only be a matter of time before the orchardists here kill the golden goose that laid the golden eggs.
Sanjay Austa is a photojournalist and writer based in New Delhi.