More than a thousand apple farmers from Himachal Pradesh marched towards the Secretariat in Shimla on Friday demanding, among other things, that the BJP government rescind the 18% Goods and Services Tax (GST) on cartons and trays .
Several groups of farmers who staged the protest under the banner of Sanykut Kisan Manch claimed it was one of the biggest unrests to take place in Himachal Pradesh in decades. Protesters recalled that a demonstration of this magnitude last took place in the state in 1990. The BJP was also in power at the time and three apple growers died under police fire.
Friday’s protest will alarm the BJP government led by Jairam Thakur as it comes in an election year and concerns a Rs 5,000 crore industry which contributes over 13% of the state’s GDP. The incomes of hundreds of thousands of families are both directly and indirectly linked to apple production and key districts such as Shimla, Sirmaur, Chamba and Kullu lie within the apple belt.
Protesting farmers claimed input prices had risen and the GST hike on packaging would hemorrhage cash for apple growers. Apart from the dismantling of the GST, the protesters want the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) to be applied according to the type of apple and the strict application of the provisions of the Agricultural Products Market Committee (APMC) Act. The farmers blamed the BJP government for ignoring their long-standing demand to raise import duties to encourage local production.
Sensing an opportunity to corner the BJP, opposition parties such as the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) threw their support behind the farmers. The state’s only CPI(M) MP, Rakesh Singha, Theog’s representative, also joined in the commotion.
At Friday’s protest, AAP leader Aninder Singh led the slogan campaign. “Farmers have been protesting over issues for a long time. The apple season is upon us and is ending day by day. Delay in government reforms will only cause losses to farmers. They don’t have the time and freedom to come and sit here,” he said.
Rohit Thakur, influential leader of the Upper Himachal Congress and son of former Chief Minister Thakur Ram Lal, was also part of the protest. He called on leaders of all parties and ideologies to support the protesting farmers. “The government is not interested in listening to farmers and the committee that is set up is eyewash. The ruling party only wants to make announcements to divert attention. The Congress government has always wanted to make the state a “fruit bowl” of the country. I participated in the protests not only as a legislator but as a farmer. I will continue to raise their voice,” Thakur said.
The committee the Congress leader referred to is one that the Jairam Thakur administration announced recently, sensing that the return of simmering discontent among apple growers could prove costly in an election year. The government said the committee would consider applications from apple growers. But, if their demands are not met, the demonstrators are likely to intensify their unrest during the session of the Assembly. They hope sustained agitation will turn their fate into a key election issue.
How the Apple Belt Voted
In the last Assembly election, voting patterns in the Apple Belt yielded a mixed result. The BJP dominated in Kullu and Chamba, winning seven of nine seats in both constituencies. But in the eight Assembly seats in Shimla, the BJP only managed to win three constituencies and its tally fell to two after last year’s by-elections. Congress won the only seat in Kinnaur.
The BJP said the state government was committed to the farmers’ cause and alleged the protesters had vested interests. “The GST is centrally decided and the state has granted a 6% flex on its part to maintain the status quo. There are other policies in place and several are in the works. Some use the plight of farmers to make it a political issue and raise protests. Farmers also know that the ruling party is with them for the long haul,” BJP Chairman Suresh Kashyap said.