Despite the 2009 military operation in Swat that was seen by many as a success story against extremist militancy, getting their lives back together has been an ordeal for Swatis like Khairullah Khan. Swat is a deeply enriched region which proves profitable for fruit farmers like Khairullah, who specialise in growing apples. However, in the past four years, his revenue has decreased dramatically.
This adversity has been seen as the consequence of the long-term conflict between the Pakistan Army and Taliban militants that the valley has been witness to. To add to this, the resulting security measures taken by the army have also proved to be a deterrent in transporting the fruit produce.
Speaking to Dawn.com, Khairullah explains that the aftermath of this conflict is responsible for disrupting the entire cycle of fruit production. As is to be expected, a confrontation on that scale would, and did alter the shape of infrastructure in the region. This has led to broken roads and destroyed bridges which previously linked the farmers to marketplaces.
Experts had forewarned that neglecting the socio-economic development of the region, despite the success of the military operation, would conclude in the reversal of gains made by the military to restore the region back to normalcy. According to Khan, one of the greatest factors contributing to this decrease in fruit production is that due to this clash, farmers were not given total autonomy over their land for a single complete season. Additionally, due to security reasons, the army troops had chopped down many orchards in the Matta area of the valley.
"After the military operation started we left Swat and this led to our orchards being unattended for many months. The army also removed many orchards for security reasons."
Admittedly, in the recent past, some international NGOs and the army did initiate rebuilding projects in the region, however, it was not enough to help increase the supply of fruit to bring down the cost.
“It (the construction of roads) has not been done on the same scale as required,” says Khairullah Khan.
Swat’s economy is almost completely dependent on fruit production, “out of Swat’s population of 2 million, at least 1.4 million people are associated with agriculture and around 60 per cent of the agriculturists are associated with the production of fruit,” said Fazle Maula Zahid of the Aryana Institute of Agriculture Research (AIAR), an NGO based in Swat.
In simple math, the reduction in supply will lead to an increase in prices if demand remains the same or increases. This is what was seen in Islamabad where Swat-grown peaches are being sold at Rs. 150-200 per kilogram. The month of Ramadan also added heavily to the cost. In 2002, the recorded price for Swati peaches was noted to be between Rs. 60-90 per kilogram in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
“In 2013, Swat saw a production output of 250,000 tons of peaches which is a drastic increase from the 40,000-50,000 tons in 2002,” says Fazle Maula. The increase in production of peaches is due to the fact that farmers opted to grow peaches instead of apples. This meant that in 2002 farmers were, in retrospect, getting a better price per carton of produce compared with recent times.
“In 2002, a farmer was getting Rs. 200-250 per carton of peaches, which was a very good price, keeping in view the constant depreciation of the rupee in the local and international markets. Retrospectively, 2009 was the worst year for Swati farmers as they got Rs. 150-200 for each carton,” said Fazle Maula.
According to him, due to the fall in value of the rupee and the freight charges to different parts of the country due to tumultuous transportation, ‘even Rs. 500 is not enough’ to cover the cost for the producer.
According to Matiullah Khan, a horticulture expert associated with Swat Horticulture Institute, “there was a strategic reason behind the militants destroying all the roads and bridges during the conflict. And the post-operation Swat continues to suffer from the effects of this; farmers in particular, are finding it impossible to transport their produce to the market.”
“Prior to the conflict, a truck used to charge Rs. 30,000 for transporting fruit from Matta to Rawalpindi, now, the same truck charges around Rs. 50,000,” added Matiullah Khan.
Another crisis in the fruit production cycle of the Swat valley, generated by the operation against militancy, is that most of the skilled labour associated with fruit production in Swat has migrated to various cities, where they had settled during the operation and are now not willing to come back to resume their old jobs.
“After the conflict, the expert labour force has migrated to cities in the lower part of the country where they are getting better salaries. They have shifted to Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad and all over Punjab” said Matiullah Khan.
He explains that there are numerous technical tasks in the fruit production cycle which an unskilled labourer cannot perform, “for instance, fruit picking is a technical job which an ordinary labourer cannot perform as fruits can get damaged during the picking process. Similarly, packaging and grading are technical jobs as well,” said Matiullah Khan.
Matiullah Khan told Dawn.com that a large portion of the labour force of Swat has seen a southward migration and the few who are still available in the valley are charging high labour fees.
All this has introduced a new trend in the marketing patterns for the Swat fruit industry, stated Matiullah Khan.
“Many farmers now have little choice but to send out their family members to the lower parts of the country to sell their fruit, thus eliminating the role of the middle man to try and make a profit.”