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New apple containers for Himachal Pradesh

by Klaus Vorhauer.

Apples have been commercially grown in Himachal Pradesh since 1918. Their cultivation was introduced by the American missionary Satyanand Stokes, who later became a convert to Hinduism, and rapidly spread as a source of profitable produce. These apples can be bought today in all large Indian towns, and their shiny, red exterior (Red Delicious) contains the exotic perfume of the Western world.

They are transported in the same way as other produce. They are packed in crates, transported by men, mules and trucks (in that order) to the large distribution market in Delhi, and dispatched to all parts of India.

Apples are now grown on over 100,000 hectares of land, and the total annual harvest is over 300,000 metric tonnes. The trend is upwards, and for the year 2000 the harvest estimate is almost half a million metric tonnes of apples.

Up to now the apples had been packed in the same way as their first ancestors: in solid wooden crates containing approximately 20 kilos. For a figure of 300,000 tonnes this means 15 million crates per year, and considering that one cubic metre of wood yields, under the production conditions prevalent in Himachal Pradesh, 30 to 50 crates, it is simple to calculate that between 300,000 and 500,000 cubic metres of wood have to be felled annually to meet these requirements. In other words the weight of the wood required is more or less identical to that of the apples dispatched.

In order to replace the annual timber consumption with poorer quality trees of narrower trunk widths would, under the most favourable conditions and given an area of 2.5 x 2.5 km, take approximately 60 years - in this case probably twice as long.

When one also realizes that the production of the crates causes an annual average wastage of 50 to 70 percent of the wood used, i.e. over 250,000 cubic metres, one's patience rapidly begins to evaporate.

The total amount of timber felled in Himachal Pradesh amounts to 600,000 cubic metres per year. It is not difficult to calculate that the wealth which apple-growing has brought to the mountainous regions of India will, in the end, turn into a catastrophe - with the last apples being packed in crates made from the wood of the apple trees themselves!

Yet another hair-raising aspect: this abuse of natural resources is given financial support by the Government of Himachal Pradesh, almost as if they wished to accelerate the end.

So far our considerations have been restricted to the sacrifice of the raw material timber. But the consequences of this "sell out" of the forests are much more serious. Without the protection of the trees, the steep mountain slopes will be subject to erosion. Valuable agricultural land will be transformed into a moonscape of rocks and scree. Without the retention capacity of the forests the water levels of the rivers will be subjected to even greater variations than at present.

Every year thousands drown in the swirling rivers, hundreds of thousands of houses and huts are destroyed and millions of hectares of fertile farming land are flooded. 300 million Indians living in the valleys of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus are threatened by these catastrophes. Indiscriminate felling of the Himalayan forests is leading to a national state of emergency.

These dangers have been recognized not only by the Indian Government but by organisations all over the world. The World Bank, USAID, SIDA, CIDA and others are in the forefront of the battle to stop erosion.

Since 1980, GTZ, with an extensive programme within the Indo German Dhauladhar Project, Palampur, has been in the front line, too.

The aim of the project, which consists of over 70 sub-projects, is the long-term improvement of the living conditions of those living in the foothills of the Himalayas, the reduction of the risk of flooding and the fight against the sedimentation of water reservoirs. These targets have resulted in a comprehensive programme of reafforestation and erosion control.

Within the framework of this project I was asked to develop a new apple crate. It was to be technically appropriate, to make use of local resources and to take the ecological problems of Himachal Pradesh into account. The new crate was expected to save wood and thus make a contribution towards saving the forests.

Too valuable to turn into crates

The forests are state property. The state forestry administration supplies the wood for making the crates and pays the government Rs 50 per cubic metre, compared to Rs 300 in the case of wood for other purposes.

In view of this high subsidy, steps have to be taken to ensure that this wood is not used for other purposes. The trunks are thus sawn "in situ" into billets no longer than 120 cm. Anyone with any feeling for wood feels his stomach turn at the sight of this marvellously straight-grained wood from centuries-old trees being mutilated in this way. This sawing into small pieces naturally increases the amount of waste - a direct consequence of subsidization.

This wood is of such high quality that it is used in the construction of gliders, combining as it does extreme strength with relatively low weight.

If its forestry economy were properly run, Himachal Pradesh could, at some future date, become a wealthy state. Reafforestation measures, however, are inadequate and are frustrated to a great extent by the ravages of stray cattle.

There are over 3000 sawmills in Himachal Pradesh. Each is equipped with a bandsaw on which, without the help of an adjustable stop-piece and dependent on the skill of the machine-man", the boards for the crates are sawn from the billets. The huge amounts of waste consisting of bits of wood and sawdust are simply tipped into the valley behind the sawmill shed. Women glean the larger pieces for firewood, but most of the wood in the heap is left to rot - in a country where over four hours a day per family are spent in search of firewood!

The Forest Research Institute and College in Dekra Dun have been working for years on packaging suggestions that would save wood, and a large number of models have been produced.

Stimulated by the various technical possibilities - the production of corrugated cardboard and barked wood, the processing of hardboards and pressing them into laminates - I made some experiments of my own and constructed further models. During my fieldwork studies I tried out possible mass-production methods and adapted the models to the given conditions.

In various stages the new models are intended to save wood. The step-by-step approach is necessary in order to get the crates accepted by the fruit farmers and the sawmills more readily.

Traditional Simla Box.

Non-returnable crates

The main components of this model are two frames, similar to picture frames and mitred at the corners. All six sides of the crate can be fixed (nailed, tacked or glued) to these two frames. The sides can consist of wooden boards, hardboards, barked wood or cardboard.

At the start I would suggest using wooden boards. The external appearance of this crate would then

The main point, however, would be the introduction and practice of mitring as a construction method for the frames. Covering the two ends the "pictures" in the frames described above - with hardboard would be the next step.

This is where pine-needle boards could most usefully be used - for providing rigidity. A pilot factory for the production of pine-needle hardboard is under construction as part of the Indo German Dhauladhar Project.

The use of barked wood for the sides of the crates would be the next effective step towards saving timber. It should be noted that this method would enable up to 400 crates to be manufactured from one cubic metre of timber.

The combination of wooden frames, hardboard stiffening and barked wood boards provides, in my opinion, an optimal solution for non-returnable crates.

Multiple-use crates
Wooden-frame crates

For repeated use I would also suggest a reinforced version of the mitred-frame construction, using the same materials as the non-returnable crate described above. These crates, however, would not be nailed together but held together by means of bands or wire. When the crates reach their destination the bands can be unfastened and the six individual sections of the crate returned to sender.

Steel-frame crates

This container consists of a rigid frame of circular iron rods shaped in such a way that the empty containers can be stacked like conical glasses. When filled they can be stacked crossways, also linking into each other horizontally to form a kind of brickwork bond.

The container sides should be of woven split bamboo. This method of weaving would tie in with traditional techniques and also create a large number of workplaces, particularly as the sides would have to be replaced from time to time.

Crate for multiple use between fruit orchards and packing shed (shuttle box)

For this purpose I produced two versions of a wooden box based on the well-tried Lake Constance crate.

Two sawmills cut the individual parts for 600 crates with mitred frames and wooden sides, 100 of which were provided with pine-needle hardboard to make the ends rigid. In addition, fifty of each of the two shuttle box versions were produced. In order to ensure that these crates could be built more quickly and to the prescribed measurements, I started by making patterns, the usefulness of which was quickly appreciated.

The wooden crates have meanwhile reached Delhi's wholesale fruit market, where they have stood up well to the strains imposed on them.

Supplementary measures

In India the only products made from apples are apple juice and apple jam. Some ten other products are, however, feasible. I am thinking in particular of dried fruit, the production of which recommends itself particularly in the case of orchards far from the beaten track in view of the transport savings involved. At these elevations, simple solar drying installations would work marvellously.

About 60 percent of the annual investments made by fruit farmers for their plantations are spent on pesticides. Tested combinations of plants could considerably reduce this expenditure.

At relatively low investment cost the bandsaws could be equipped with additional equipment which would enable work to be done more accurately and thus reduce the amounts of timber wasted. The availability of simple tools and the training involved would also have a salutary effect on tasks other than the manufacture of wooden crates.

A use for the sawdust must be found. It could, for example, be mixed with the clay used in brick-making to make the bricks porous. This would considerably enhance their insulating qualities.

Gravity lifts could be built for inclined hoists lifting wood uphill. A water tank as counterweight could be filled with water at the top and emptied at the bottom.

Refrigeration depots should not be built on specially cleared sites in the valleys, where it is warm, but situated higher up, where the roads cross passes and where it is colder. An even better suggestion: they should be built into the mountains themselves, where they could even be run on natural ice gathered in the winter.

The wheel arches of the trucks protrude into the payload space. These should be squared to the packing pattern of the crates with a few strips of wood. This would avoid packing the crates on the slant and save a lot of breakages.

I would like to conclude with this suggestion of how to improve load distribution over the wheel arches, a ridiculously petty matter in view of the overall problems. - A saving of only one gram of wood per crate would mean an overall saving, for all crates, of 12 metric tonnes of wood per year.

Hightec and softtec, used responsibly and with a lot of imagination, are necessary if we wish to continue to live a reasonably tolerable life on this planet. But the train will only run if it is coupled to a locomotive that is prepared to pull us towards a future worth living in.