At the turn of the 20th century an American travelled to a remote mountain region in Himachal Pradesh in India and tried to propagate a strange idea. He told the farmers to plant apple trees instead of the traditional wheat and maize they grew year after year. He was ridiculed and chased from village to village. “What will we eat for food?” they demanded. “Apples?”
The man was stubborn — after all, he was Mahatma Gandhi’s first American disciple — and like his guru he decided to stick it out. He bought a plot of land in Kotgarh village in Shimla district and planted the apple saplings he’d brought with him from America. He managed to persuade a few families in his neighbourhood to do the same.
In a few years the apple trees bore fruit and these families began to market their harvest for profit. It fetched them good money and they prospered. Looking at their success, others in Kotgarh began to plant apple trees too and the village as a whole began to thrive. They began to live well, wear better clothes, eat better food, built bigger houses and send their children to expensive boarding schools.
In a matter of few decades everyone in Himachal at an altitude of 1,500 metres and above began to plant apple trees and reap the benefits. Today, apple farming is by far the most economically viable option for farmers, not only in the hills of Himachal but any region sharing similar climatic conditions, which includes the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Uttrakhund.
The American was Samuel Stokes and when he first set foot in the hills of Himachal he was stuck by the similarity of the weather to the apple-growing regions of North America. Like all do-gooder Westerners he had come as a proselytising Christian but he was so taken by the simple lives of the local people that he converted to their ways instead. He changed his name to Satyanand Stokes, married a local girl and settled in Kotgarh.
At the time when Samuel Stokes tried to introduce the idea of apples in these isolated Himachali villages, the villagers hardly had any money or any use for the crop. They lived simple self-sustained lives depending on livestock and agriculture. Money was needed only for two things: tobacco and salt. Both were luxuries for most.
But over the decades apples have transformed the lives of the community completely. The apple growers no longer live in villages in traditional mud and wood houses. Most now live in lavish farmhouses in the middle of their orchards, calling to mind beautiful English countryside rather than a rural Indian setting. Expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles 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 occasions such as marriages or village rituals.
A farmer's house in the orchard of Himachal Pradesh
Kairi Panchayat in Shimla District 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.
Baghi-Ratnari Panchayat, not far from Kairi, has been graced with the title too and continues to be a leading Panchayat with the highest apple production.
However like most gold-rush stories, the apple story also has a downside. The quick riches have led orchardists to encroach the forests. Deodar and pine forests are cut to plant apple trees. This has gone unchecked for so many years that the repercussions of deforestation are visiting the orchardists now.
For a good yield an apple tree should endure at least 1,000 hours of chilly temperatures in winter. But because of deforestation it is snowing less and less each year.
“Deforestation has 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 YPS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Shimla.
Though the younger generation of orchardists are all well educated, deep-rooted traditional beliefs prevail over common-sense environmental solutions. They would rather butcher a goat to the local gods for good weather than plant trees in their disappearing forests.
Pariyavaran Sangrakshak Samiti is a grassroots organisation run by local orchardists 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 it’s going to affect our future. Every apple orchardist should be concerned about it,” says Digvijay Singh Chauhan, president of the Samiti.
Following up on a public-interest litigation, the State High Court had ordered the registration of first information reports (FIRs) about offences and the eviction of encroachers who had occupied more than 10 bighas (2 acres or 5.2 rai) of forest land in Himachal. The court had set the first deadline for June 19, 2011 for the evictions but the state Forest Department failed to honour this as well as all subsequent deadlines. Authorities also have not been able to register the FIRs against the encroachers.
The Forest Department lays the blame at 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 with the Department of Forests in Himachal Pradesh.
The apple orchardists have so far had a good run. But if the encroachments into the forests don’t stop, it will only be a matter of time before they kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.