SRINAGAR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Food security in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir is being jeopardized as farmers switch from cultivating rice to apples and sell off land to developers, say experts, who blame poor irrigation and the effects of a warming climate for the change.
A survey by the state government’s agriculture department says that out of a total of 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of land under crops in the Kashmir Valley, 20,000 hectares have so far been converted from food grain to apple production.
Across the whole state, which also includes the Jammu and Ladakh regions, a further 100,000 hectares of agricultural land, or about 10 percent of the total, has been lost to development as farmers sell off their plots to estate agencies or individuals who want to build on it.
Shams-u-Din Zargar, a resident of Koimoo in southern Kashmir, recalls the days when farmers there were only interested in rice.
“We had more than 80 percent of the farmers growing paddy in their fields,” says Zargar. “But now all that has changed.”
LACK OF WATER AND IRRIGATION
According to Zargar, farmers are attracted to apple growing for two reasons.
“Growing grain in the fields needs too much water, while for orchards a few rainfalls in the season do the job,” he says. In addition, “Orchards fetch a good amount of money to farmers in comparison to paddy.”
Almost all the farmers in the Koimoo area, which has a population of 15,000, have their own orchards and nurseries, he adds.
Shafiq Ahmad Wani, director of research at Kashmir’s Agriculture University, believes the trend could be in part a consequence of climate change, with farmers finding it increasingly difficult to irrigate their rice fields.
“In the Brang area of south Kashmir we have observed an almost total conversion from agriculture to horticulture, with farmers attributing it to lack of irrigation facilities” as well as other problems, Wani said.
“Irrigation networks have become all the more important in the wake of climate change,” said Zaffar Ahmad Reshi, a professor in Kashmir University’s botany department.
But the Jammu and Kashmir government “has failed to provide proper irrigation facilities to the farmers,” he added.
The state’s Economic Survey Report for 2010-11 indicated that only 41 percent of agricultural land is covered by irrigation facilities, with the rest dependent on rainfall.
“Cultivating rice is becoming difficult with each passing year as most of the farmers depend on rains, with no proper irrigation system available for rice farms,” said Gulzar Mir of Brang, who has converted all of his three acres (1.2 hectares) of paddy land into an apple orchard.
“You have to be 100 percent sure that you will get enough water for irrigating your rice fields, but unfortunately that is becoming impossible, more so for the past few years given the frequent long dry spells, mostly during the time when water is required for our fields,” Mir said.
Meteorology department officials in Srinagar said that the annual normal precipitation for the Kashmir Himalayan region is 660mm, but data for the last nine years indicate wide variations from the norm.
With the exception of this year – when Srinigar saw nearly double the average March rainfall during just the first two weeks of the month – and a similarly wet March in 2007, the historically normal level of precipitation has been reached only once since 2006. The other six years, March rainfall was drastically lower than normal.
“The climate is witnessing changes all across the world and the same is true for our region as well,” said Sonum Lotus, the department’s director.
Mir’s neighbour Mohammad Sultan Lone ascribes his decision to convert his paddy rice land to lack of irrigation facilities and the better economic prospects from growing apples rather than grain.
“If you are a smart farmer in Kashmir, you will be happy to grow apples and almonds rather than rice,” he says. Apples can earn five times as much as rice, he said.
Kaisar Ahmad Bhat, who grows apple-tree saplings in Koimoo, expected his business to slump following a sudden decision by the state government to discontinue a large-scale fruit plantation programme. Instead, he was pleased to find that farmers converting rice paddy into orchards have bridged the gap in demand.
“Our business is picking up despite the fact that the government ... has stopped placing the orders,” says Bhat, because local farmers are coming to him for apple saplings.
GROWING RICE IMPORTS
Agriculture experts are not so happy, however.
“This is a dangerous trend,” warns Kashmir University’s Reshi, pointing out that Jammu and Kashmir already needs to bring in 40 percent of the grain the region needs. That will only worsen as farmers switch to crops like apples and convert their paddy fields into orchards, he said.
“Rice is the staple food of Kashmiris and it is a primary commodity here. We are already importing more than 50 percent of our rice, and if we lose further (production) we are going to become even more dependent,” Reshi said.
Akhtar Hussain Malik, a botanist at Kashmir University, says that the disinclination to farm rice and maize has resulted in a lack of fodder for cattle.
“Our livestock is already suffering because of insufficient fodder with the degradation and shrinking of pastures in Kashmir. This will have even more serious implications,” Malik observed.
Early last year, Kashmir’s high court directed the state government to enact legislation to curb the sale of agricultural land for development. On April 11, the high court said that the new law was not being implemented adequately and required the government to enforce it better.
No legislation has been passed to regulate the conversion of rice paddy to other crops.
Athar Parvaiz is an independent journalist based in Srinagar and New Delhi, India.