SAFFRON: Kashmir’s Dying Heritage Crop

Saffron, the world’s costliest spice, is grown on a special kind of soil. And in India, Jammu & Kashmir state has this kind of soil. But due to official apathy, unauthorised construction is taking place on the land meant for saffron cultivation. Even National Saffron Mission, which was set up seven years ago, mainly to prevent the declining production of the crop and to provide irrigation facilities to farmers, has failed in its mission. With the result, Kashmir’s saffron industry seems to be dying a slow death, writes HAROON RESHI

Seven years after the much-hyped National Saffron Mission (NSM) was announced to rejuvenate saffron cultivation in Jammu & Kashmir, the state lost last year’s crop too to the dry weather conditions and to the lack of irrigation facilities.
“For the blossoming of saffron flowers, we needed rainfall between October 20 and November 20. Unfortunately, we did not have even a drop during this period. Instead, the temperature was five degrees above the normal (17 degrees Celsius is required for the saffron flowering). With the result we lost the sizeable harvest,” Firdous Ahmad Nehvi, supervising scientist, National Saffron Mission, told TSI.
The central government-backed Rs 371.18 crore NSM project was believed to take care of the irrigation, research, mechanisation, processing and other things to raise production and to improve the quality and the marketing of the world’s most expensive spice from Kashmir. But looking at the pathetic situation of the Valley’s saffron farmers, it seems that even the NSM has not proved of any help to this Rs 400-crore domestic industry of the state.
Take an example of Abdul Majeed Wani, a saffron farmer in South Kashmir’s Pampore town. Wani has 40 kanals of his land under the saffron cultivation. In 2016, he cropped 5 kilograms of saffron from his field. But to his shock he did not get even half a kilogram this year, from the same field.
“Last year I earned Rs 8.5 lakh from the crop. Even at that time I thought that the production was several times less than the actual potential of the soil. But this year, I am totally in loss. I did not get even half kg of harvest this season,” Wani told TSI.
“Imagine, a year of wait for the yield and the efforts and labour which I, along with all my family members put to cultivate the crop. At the end of the day, I got nothing,” a visibly disappointed Wani said.
Kashmir used to produce 7.3 per cent of the world’s saffron, making India third on the list of saffron producing countries. But during the past more than a decade the production in Kashmir started declining drastically. According to the experts, pollution and the drought are the two main reasons for the decline.
The key purpose of the NSM was to prevent decline in the saffron production. The project was basically for five years. Then the government extended it by two years and now the state government has again requested the Centre to push the project till March 2019. According to official records, Rs 199.84 crore (approximately half of the total project allocation) only has been spent so far.
The failure of the concerned officials to implement the NSM project can be gauged by the fact that even the borewells for the irrigation could not be drilled in the fields during the last seven years.
Pertinently, soon after the NSM was launched, the experts strongly recommended setting up of irrigation facilities, so the crop will not be dependent on the rainfall. After a thorough survey and having expert opinion, the government asked the Mechanical Engineering Department (MED) to dig the borewells and set up sprinkler irrigation systems in the saffron fields. The department was supposed to install as many as 128 sprinkler systems and to dig as many as 101 borewells in a few months’ time. Ironically, out of the 128 sprinkler systems, only eight have been installed so far.
The department has dug as many as 83 borewells but all of them are dysfunctional. The government officials cite several reasons for failing to provide irrigation facilities to the saffron farmers.

State of jammu & Kashmir used to produce 7.3 per cent of the world’s saffron, making India third on the list of saffron producing countries.

“In the beginning, the farmers did not allow us to put irrigation pipes through their fields and finally when we succeeded to convince them that this is absolutely for their benefit only, there was unrest in the Valley in 2010. Then floods in 2014 and unrest again in 2016. This entire situation has caused the delay in providing the irrigation system to the farmers,” an official at agriculture department, who did not want to be named, told TSI.
However, the farmers do not believe this kind of justification by the government. “It would have taken just a few months of quality work to establish the irrigation system in the fields. The government has wasted seven long years, doing nothing. Even the funds under the NSM scheme had been available all the time. Had we been provided with the irrigation facilities during all these years, our situation would not have been this,” Gulam Nabi Dar, another farmer, told TSI.
According to sources, some scientists of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) early this year had suggested the government to hire a few helicopters for the aerial sprinkling of water to the fields. They had argued that using helicopters for sprinkling is a normal practice at several saffron cultivating places across the world. It was estimated that hiring helicopters for the irrigation purposes would have cost around Rs 20 crore. And, with the result, the revenue to the farmers would have been several times more than what they got.

Scientists at the SKUAST early this year had suggested the government to hire a helicopters for the aerial sprinkling of water to the fields.

“The farmers have lost revenue to the tune of hundreds of crores of rupees due to the drought. Spending Rs 20 crore on aerial sprinkling of water would have changed the results. But the concerned authorities turned down the suggestion of using helicopters without giving any convincing reason,” an expert told TSI.
Unfortunately, there are many other aspects too, indicating official negligence regarding Kashmir’s saffron industry. One of them is the criminal silence on the unauthorised and unregulated urbanisation of the land meant for saffron farming. As per the official record, before the central government introduced the National Saffron Mission in Jammu & Kashmir, as many as 5,100 hectares of land was under the saffron cultivation in the state but now it has been reduced to 3,713 hectares. People have raised residential and commercial buildings on their land which was meant for saffron cultivation. The government has completely failed to stop this illegal practice and to save the saffron land.
Ironically, the unabated constructions on the land specifically meant for the saffron cultivation is still going on, despite the state’s Saffron Act in place which does not allow this misuse of the special soil.
Pertinently, saffron cultivation is possible only on a special kind of soil with as special ecological and environmental conditions. There are only four districts (Srinagar, Budgam, Pulwama and Kishtwar) in Jammu & Kashmir, where the suitable soil for the saffron cultivation is found. According to the official record, more than 16,000 farmer families are affiliated with the saffron cultivation in 226 villages of these four districts. But due to the continuous low productivity the farmers are losing interest in the cultivation.
“Now, it is not something that one can rely on for a livelihood. There are so many problems with saffron trade in Kashmir. Not only the harvest is unpredictable but things like fake saffron (tip of corn fibre and the fibre of marigold flowers is used to make fake saffron) being sold in the name of the real one is also a problem.
It has fetched a bad name for the Kashmiri saffron in the market,” said Farooq Ahmad, a farmer in Pampore. There was a time when saffron was one of the main items that Kashmiris used to sell in domestic and international markets. Kashmiri saffron was considered the best. It was even better than the Iranian saffron.
According to historians, Kashmir has been growing saffron since the Mughal era. But now it seems that this domestic industry is dying due to the pathetic approach of the government and due to the lack of scientific facilities. Countries like Iran, which produces 70 per cent of the world’s saffron, have developed scientific irrigation systems that make their farmers worriless about the weather conditions. But in Kashmir, authorities have failed even to dug a few borewells since 2010. The National Saffron Mission was to rejuvenate the harvest by introducing modern methods. Under this project the concerned authorities were supposed to educate farmers about the scientific approach for the soil improvement and other things. But even after seven years, the project seems to have failed to get the expected results. The scheme was initially launched for five years. Seven years on, more than 50 per cent funds are unspent. Clearly, Kashmir’s saffron industry seems to be dying due to this lethargic approach of the officials.