Rain Shortage Threatens Prized Kashmir Saffron
2 December 2007
Srinagar: A shortage of rain is threatening the output of Indian Kashmir's prized saffron spice, which is reputed to be the best in the world, officials say. Saffron, the aromatic dried orange petals of the crocus flower, is used in pinches around the globe - and Kashmiri saffron is said by many cooks to be the best quality because of its pungent aroma and flavour. But output has hit hard times due to declining rainfall, Kashmiri farmers say. 'This trade is dying and dying fast,' said Ghulam Nabi Bhat, who farms in Pampore, a 15-minute drive from Srinagar, the region's summer capital. Production of the labour-intensive crop totalled 40 tonnes a year in the early 1990s but now has slumped to eight tonnes annually. 'Drought-like conditions have decreased the productivity,' said Ghulam Hyder Bhat, the head of the agriculture department. 'Over the past few years there has been less movement of low-pressure areas from Mediterranean sea towards Kashmir, resulting in lower rainfall,' said N.P. Bhatnagar, regional weather department head. And now Kashmiri growers are facing competition from Iranian saffron which is selling in India for 70,000 rupees (1,750 dollars) a kilogram (795 dollars a pound). The prices of Iranian saffron are undercutting Kashmiri saffron which sells for 100,000 rupees a kilo as falling output in the region pushes up costs. 'Less rain over the past three years is ensuring the decline of our trade and Iranian imports have dealt a body blow,' said Bhat, as his family bent to pluck fresh saffron flowers, singing Kashmiri folk songs. Saffron is an autumn plant raised from a bulb. It remains dormant until mid-October when green leaves shoot up followed by bright purple flowers. The scented flowers richly carpet fields and then die off over several weeks. Those weeks are a period of furious activity for thousands of Kashmiri families who spend their days collecting the flowers. In the evening they lug home sacks of flowers and painstakingly snip the stigmas - red threads that hang between the petals. The stigmas are the purest saffron, stamens the next sought-after grade and a mixture of all the bits is the cheapest. Then the saffron must be dried for several months before being sold. Believed to have been first cultivated in Persia, it is grown in 226 villages in Indian Kashmir, making the industry a significant employer. 'Our saffron is the best. It's rich in flavour, colour and taste,' said G.M. Pampori, who heads the Kashmir Saffron Growers Association. Saffron is also cultivated in southern Europe and used in many Mediterranean dishes. Adults can each pick between five and seven kilograms of flowers a day and their children often help on weekends and after school. Saffron has a rich history in India, whose majority Hindu community uses the spice in rituals and in traditional ayurvedic medicines. 'The bad rains and the Iranian saffron making its way into Indian markets are giving us sleepless nights,' said Pampori. The situation could still be saved with better irrigation, say growers. Government officials say they are taking steps to help the farmers. 'We've prepared a fresh (irrigation) report, which will be implemented soon and with its implementation we hope to see a rise in production,' said Hyder. Iran has less land under saffron cultivation than Kashmir, but its yield is four times higher thanks to irrigation, Pampori said. 'Irrigation would ensure bumper production,' said Amin Bin Khaliq, Indian Kashmir's leading saffron exporter.