By Vishal Gulati
Shimla, April 26 (IANS) Call it a battle of guns and apples in Himachal Pradesh. The fight between arch rivals Congress and BJP in the state’s apple-growing belt of Shimla is over the use of anti-hail guns that are used to save the crop from hailstorms.
Himachal Pradesh’s fruit economy is pegged at Rs 3,500 crore. However, the Horticulture Department estimates that 20-30 per cent of the state’s vegetable and fruit crop is damaged by hail every year.
After last week’s seasonal rain and hail damaged the fruit crop for the third time this year, the Congress accused the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of not doing anything.
BJP legislator and former Horticulture Minister Narendra Bragta told IANS that he had asked Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur to provide technical assistance and funds to growers who have installed anti-hail guns in their orchards.
It was on Bragta’s suggestion that the party’s Prem Kumar Dhumal government in 2011 installed three guns in Baraonghat, Deorighat and Batargalu villages as a pilot project. The guns were to be operated by the Horticulture Department.
The state-of-the-art acetylene-fired anti-hail gun covers an aerial distance of around 80 to 100 hectares and a weather radar area of 25 km. It sends shock waves into pressure areas where hail clouds are formed and punctures them, resulting in rain instead of the damaging hail.
Costing Rs 1.20 crore, the guns, imported from New Zealand, are beyond the reach of individual growers and have been adopted by some panchayats through collections supported by subsidy.
“The farmers are facing problems in operating these guns due to lack of technical expertise and shortage of gas cylinders. The Horticulture Department should train them. The government should also provide subsidy on gas cylinders and spare parts to operate the guns,” said Bragta, a prominent apple grower himself.
Former Congress MLA and another big apple grower Rohit Thakur, who was defeated by Bragta in the 2017 Assembly elections, questioned the success of project.
“The anti-hail gun is an outdated technology that damages the environment. It has been banned in developed countries. The BJP installed three guns with political motives. Our government promoted the eco-friendly anti-hail nets by giving 80 per cent subsidy to the growers,” Thakur told IANS.
Bragta, who lost the Jubbal-Kotkhai Assembly seat to Thakur in 2003, pointed out that the subsidy outlay on hail nets too had been increased to 100 per cent with a budgetary provision of Rs 20 crore from this fiscal.
Lambasting the BJP and the Congress, which ruled the state in turns, Communist Party of India-Marxist’s (CPI-M) lone legislator Rakesh Singha said that both regimes had cheated the fruit growers.
“April 21 was the darkest noon in recent years when they became victims of a hailstorm for the third time in a year,” he said.
The Horticulture Department on Thursday admitted that the apple crop this month had suffered a heavy damage due to hailstorms in Shimla district, Ani in Kullu district, Karsog, Seraj, Gohar and Sundernagar in Mandi district. It has told insurance companies to assess the loss.
However, apple grower Singha picked holes in the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, saying that the weather-based crop insurance scheme did not cover crop damaged by hailstorm.
“Then what use is this insurance scheme to the farmers?” he asked and added that it was aimed at profiting insurance firms rather than the farmers.
Himachal Pradesh’s four Lok Sabha seats — Shimla (reserved), Kangra, Hamirpur and Mandi — will vote on May 19. The BJP has fielded its legislator Suresh Kashyap against two-time Congress MP Dhani Ram Shandil from Shimla.
(Vishal Gulati can be reached at [email protected])