With trade between India and Afghanistan coming to a halt, several varieties of dry fruits are in short supply and prices have skyrocketed.
Since August 15, when Taliban took control of Afghanistan, there has been a shortage of black raisins, figs, almonds, apricots and other dry fruit varieties in Kashmir.
In the absence of new stock, suppliers in Srinagar city are selling the old stock at higher rates, taking advantage of the increased demand.
Traders at Koker Bazar, the oldest dry fruit market in Srinagar, told Moneycontrol that their business has suffered terribly in the last few weeks.
Mohammad Abid, who works as a salesman at an 86-year-old dry fruit shop in Koker Bazar, said, “It is not just one variety which is in short supply but the entire dry fruit stock, ranging from almonds to black raisins. Under the situation, when rates are up, the market would obviously go down.”
For instance, he said, almonds were retailing at Rs 650 a kilo until a few weeks ago and are now being sold at Rs 1,200 per kg. Similarly, Afghani white apricots that were previously sold at Rs 300 a kg now cost double, or Rs 600 per kg.
Asked what he thinks will happen if trade is not resumed at the earliest, he said, “Dry fruits will get more expensive, and it will become impossible for a common consumer to afford it as it would come indirectly and more charges would be applied on it.”
Sitting in his shop at Koker Bazar, a 60-year-old dry fruit trader Khursheed Bin Ali said he hopes things can get back on track soon. “There is very little dry fruit stock inside our shop because of the sudden price rise. A consumer who was earlier buying figs at Rs 800 per kg cannot buy them at Rs 1,500. We are hesitating to get stock on hefty rates because who knows the rates may fall anytime,” he added.
Ali, who has been running a dry fruit business since 1996, said that this is his first time seeing such a situation. “In the past, our businesses have been affected due to shutdowns but the current situation is unprecedented. I even remember the US troop deployment in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack did not halt dry fruit trade with India,” he said.
He added that he hopes a stable government is formed in Afghanistan so that India can resume dry fruit imports.
Nuts and bolts
Consumers, however, blame traders for selling the old stock at higher rates. “This is deplorable that traders on the pretext of the Afghanistan crisis have even doubled (rates) amid the wedding season in the Valley. The government should restore the market mechanism and strict action should be taken against such sellers,” said Abid, a dry fruit consumer in south Kashmir’s Pulwama.
Talking to Moneycontrol, a number of consumers expressed disappointment over the steep hike in prices of dry fruits and said that it will affect their consumption of nuts. “The prices have almost doubled within a span of one month. Buying dry fruits has now become out of the budget of a common buyer,” said a female consumer.
In Kashmir, demand for dry fruits is mainly driven by tourists. However, both tourist and local consumers are left with empty hands or the choice to buy older nuts at higher rates currently. The months of August to November also constitute the wedding season in Kashmir Valley. But with the higher prices of dry fruits, the number of wedding customers too has declined.
Inside the historical Maharaja Bazar, one of the oldest markets of Kashmir, dating back to the 19th century, dry fruit seller Mohammad Shafi said that only a month back, he used to sell the almonds at Rs 800 per kg but now the rate has gone up to Rs 1,200 kg; similarly he was selling raisins at Rs 100 kg but now the rate has climbed to Rs 450; and dry figs, which used to be sold at Rs 400, now go for up to Rs 900 a kg.
Shafi said that at a time when the wedding season is at its peak in the Valley, he is unable to get dry fruit stock for the customers. “Though we get apricots from Ladakh and almonds in Kashmir, the supply does not meet the demand due to which we mostly rely on imports from Afghanistan,” Shafi explained.
Afghanistan is one of the major suppliers of apricots and figs to the Indian markets. Other imports from the country include mamra or gurbandi almonds, small pistachio nuts, walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, and spices like shahi jeera and hing.
“If the present crisis does not stop soon, bakeries will have to replace almonds and raisins in cakes with vegetable seeds. Dry fruits are also a vital ingredient in different recipes available in restaurants across the Valley,” said Arif Ahmad Beigh, a dry fruit trader in Regal Chowk, Srinagar.
Beigh has been running his ancestral business for the past 20 years, and he's never seen anything like the current situation. “Sweet sellers and ice cream makers would use adequate quantity of dry fruits in sweets and ice creams but due to the price hike, little dry fruits are being used,” he said. "For example, where they earlier would put 10 kg of dry fruit in a recipe, now they are making do with 2 kilos."
Kashmir-based economist Professor Nisar Ali said that the local almond production has fallen considerably over the past two decades; otherwise there would be no need to import the dry fruit from Afghanistan.
“In normal circumstances, goods from Afghanistan normally reach India through the sea route, as containers from the country first go to Iran’s Chabahar port and take the sea route to Mumbai. Some containers are sent via the land route through Pakistan and finally reach Amritsar. The resumption of trade links through Line of Control (LoC) can somehow mitigate the problems of dry fruit shortage,” Ali said.
Traders said trade-route disruption, issues with clearances, and the collapse of banking in Afghanistan are some of the main reasons why imports from Afghanistan have halted. Also, the Taliban takeover has happened right around the harvest season for dry fruits.
Though Afghanistan's central bank - Da Afghanistan Bank - had announced that the country would resume financial operations, private banks have not opened all branches yet.
Afghanistan is currently grappling with a situation of grave instability in light of the Taliban takeover, which has been completed at an unprecedented pace amid the pullout of international forces that had arrived in the nation two decades ago for the US-led "war on terror".
Kashmir is one of the leading importers of commodities, mainly dry fruits, from Afghanistan. It gets direct supply from the top traders in New Delhi; the market receives at least 15,000 tonnes of the supply in a month.
According to a report in The Indian Express, on average, around 38,000 tonnes of dry fruit is imported from Afghanistan annually.
Bahadur Khan, president of the dry fruit association of Kashmir, said the current crisis may be a blessing in disguise. “Dry fruit imports from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries should completely stop so that the local horticulture sector will get a boost,” Khan said.
Khan said that restricting imports from other countries will increase the market for local dry fruit supply which may increase the income of dry fruit growers in Jammu & Kashmir.
However, data show that the whole country cannot just rely on the dry fruit production of J&K. During 2018–19, 331538 hectares were dedicated to the production of 24,15,421 metric tonnes under horticulture in J&K - which accounted for only 2.2% of the overall production to India. This could be the reason why India imports around 85% of its dry fruits from Afghanistan.