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Hail punctures hopes of Himachal apple growers

Shimla, May 1 - The apple of Himachal Pradesh's eye is turning sour. Attacked by hailstorms, the state's apple crop, worth more than Rs.200 crore, is lying unattended in the fields.

Horticulture department officials say hailstorms damaged crops in Shimla, Mandi and Kullu districts, but the continuous spell of snow in the higher reaches has rung alarm bells for growers in Kinnaur district too, the area known for producing delicious apples.

"There are reports of widespread hailstorms in Jubbal, Kotkhai, Rohru, Theog and Narkanda areas (in Shimla district). But the damage to the crop is comparatively less in Kullu and Mandi districts," an official said.

"Field surveys across the state estimate that the loss to the apple crop till date due to recent hailstorms is over Rs.200 crore," Horticulture Minister Narender Bragta told IANS.

He said the loss would be further compounded as the region is still in the grip of weather vagaries.

"The variation in temperature at this point of time is not good for fruit setting and the stormy weather also slows down insect activity, essential for proper pollination," S.P. Bhardwaj, former joint director at the Solan-based Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, told IANS.

He said frequent changes in climatic conditions would impact the overall production. Other fruit crops like cherry are also badly hit in the region.

Hemant Chauhan, an apple grower in Narkanda, said this time the fruit setting is quite good in the area compared to the last crop but frequent hailstorms are severely hitting the crop.

"It's a matter of concern," he added.

Last year, the overall apple production was just 30 percent of the bumper production of 4.46 crore boxes in 2010. In that year, the reduced output was owing to adverse weather - extended winter and the fury of hailstorms when the crop was maturing.

Bragta said the Rs.374 crore anti-hail gun project has been submitted to the central government for funding to install 300 guns in the state to protect the crop from the hails.

He said a high-level expert committee headed by Gorakh Singh, horticulture commissioner with the government of India, had toured the apple-growing areas in the state in this regard.

On a pilot basis, the state in 2010 installed three anti-hail guns in Deorighat, Kathasu and Braionghat in Shimla district.

"The state government this year increased the farm subsidy on anti-hail nets from Rs.25,000 to Rs.50,000," Bragta said, adding "the state government has been demanding the central government to include hailstorms as a national calamity so that fruit growers are compensated".

According to horticulture department estimates, hailstorms damage 20-30 percent of vegetable and fruit crops in the state every year.

Himachal Pradesh's economy is highly dependent on horticulture, apart from hydroelectric power and tourism, with the annual apple industry worth about Rs.2,000 crore.

The total fruit production in the state during April-December 2011 was 328,000 tonnes, of which apples accounted for 275,000 tonnes.

According to the economic survey report of 2011-12, the area under apple cultivation has increased from 400 hectares in 1950-51 to 101,485 hectares in 2010-11.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)


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