Smoke from a small, defunct carton factory up in a hillside has now been billowing far and wide across the otherwise relatively green landscape of Himachal Pradesh. It is surprising that a hitherto unknown factory can brew such a political storm in the state generally seen as immune to industrial strife. But the Pragatinagar carton factory was no ordinary production unit as it produced, or rather was supposed to produce, the all-important cartons for packing of apples, a very important constituent of the state’s economy. It was in news because the government finally decided to dispose it off as scrap, reasoning that it was not possible to revive it. Left-wing parties, on the other hand, opened a front against the government, targeting it for allegedly compromising the state’s interests to benefit certain vested interests. Whatever the reality, residents of the state at least deserve an explanation from the government as to why did the factory never take off despite the state facing acute shortage of packing cartons year after year.
Agro Industrial Packaging India Limited (AIPIL) was established in Pragatinagar in 1990 by installing imported machinery to manufacture corrugated apple cartons as an alternative substitute to wooden boxes, which were traditionally is use for packaging of Himachal apples. The then state government had conceived the project as a social business model in public sector to introduce and promote modern and green technology for the benefit of apple farmers, but it was not to be.
Himachal Pradesh Fruit and Vegetable Growers Confederation has gone to the extent of alleging that the factory was closed under pressure from the carton and tray manufacturers. Perhaps a detailed inquiry, as demanded by CPIM, would through more light over the reasons that led to its closure, but it would still fall short of a social audit of the project that can help in determining the future government policy regarding state control over vital economic activities.
There is no doubt that the government initiative failed, and also that there is always fear of private investment leading to monoply and cartelization. Considering that Himachal is a small economy, both these models as of now have not worked as per expectations in any sector. The only option left is to encourage cottage industry in a big way with strong government support, both financial and technical, which will create enough competition for the market forces to act, at the same time avoid the risks of a total capitalist economy.
Given technical support, there is no doubt why small carton manufacturing units cannot be set up in the apple-growing areas to meet local demand. The most important raw material of course would be political will.