Multiple Challenges Threaten Kashmir’s Prized Spice29 March 2010
Srinagar: Facing manifold challenges, world-famous Kashmiri Saffron, with huge revenue potential, is battling for survival due to shrinking land size, pollution, diseases, ancient farming practices, wanton construction activity and above all government apathy. Pampore Karevas in south Kashmir known for growing world’s finest saffron, are the worst hit by the wilful negligence. The official data on saffron production reflects a disturbing scenario. The fields have shrunken from around 5,500 hectares in 1997-98 to less than 3,000 hectares as of now. Subsequently the crop production has fallen from over 16 metric tonnes annually to almost six metric tonnes with per hectare produce having plummeted from four kilograms to less than two kgs during this period. What worries the farmers most is the little interest shown by the government for the past over two decades to take any concrete measures for the revival of the precious crop. “Although Saffron cultivation has spread to other parts of the Valley apart from its traditional home - Pampore – the production has declined phenomenally,” said Director Agriculture, Mian Abdul Majeed. However, he attributed many reasons including farmers’ disinterest, illegal construction and drought like situation prevailing over the years as reasons for the decline. The worrying trends in the production have caused disinterest among the Saffron growers many of whom have either shifted to other kind of farming or sold out the land and started other ventures. Bashir Ahmad Masoodi, a grower from Pampore is engaged in Saffron cultivation for the past 40 years. He argues that the climatic changes resulting in less snowfall and rains were main reason setting alarm bells ringing. “Add to it the government failure to provide irrigation facility, better seed quality, the problem has compounded,” he said. The government’s apathy plus the socio-economic problems were forcing the growers to sell the priced land, he laments. An Associate Professor at the Agriculture University here, Firdous Ahmad Nehvi who has been studying the Saffron crop for the past nine years agreed that there has been a decline of 45 percent in Saffron production. However, he added that adequate irrigation facilities could increase the yield by 40 percent. Kashmiri growers have another concern. Recently a New-Delhi based newspaper carried a report that low production in Kashmir had created huge demand-supply gap in Indian markets, which was being exploited by the smugglers who smuggle Iranian Saffron and sell it under Kashmiri brand name. According to the report low cost, low variety saffron from Iran is mixed with the Kashmiri flowers and then sold in the markets in disguise. “While Kashmiri saffron costs anything between Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh per kg, the total cost of bringing the Iranian saffron is far less,” the report added. Explaining the reasons for the fall in production, Prof Nehvi says that due to non-scientific cultivation techniques, the crop has been hit by corm-rot disease which had phenomenally grown from just 11 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2006, the planting cycle is faulty as the corm (bulb) from which the flowers grow is not changed for 15 years when the cycle should not go beyond four years. However Masoodi argues that repeating the plantation cycle frequently was expensive besides it would result in less crop yield for the first three to four years. “It costs Rs 30,000 per hectare to a farmer to go for fresh plantation of corms. Government is not coming forward for help on this front,” he said. The growth of the cement plants in the Khrew and Wuyan area of Pulwama was considered another threat to the crop as more than one dozen factories have come up in past one decade in this belt. “The pollutants including the cement dust emanating from the factories settles on the leaf surface, blocking the stomata and in turn reducing the yield besides affecting the chemistry of the soil and hence its fertility,” said Masoodi’s son, Riyaz who is following in his father’s foot-steps as a Saffron-grower. Apart from Pampore, the crop is grown in Khrew, Khanmoh, Quinbal, Lethpora and dozens of villages in Pulwama district besides some areas in Budgam and Varmul. The illegal constructions cropping up in the Pulwama belt was turning Saffron fields into residential colonies. “Despite strict laws in place, government is watching as a mute spectator the conversion of land for residential and commercial purposes. If immediate steps are not taken the crop will vanish from Kashmir,” said another grower Mushtaq Ahmad. What is giving sleepless nights to the farmers is the competition they are facing in the international markets like Iran and Spain. In Iran, world’s largest Saffron producing country, the area under Saffron cultivation is reportedly more than 40,000 hectares and the production has gone up to more than 200 metric tonnes annually. While Iran accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the saffron cultivation, Spain accounts for 15 per cent. The two countries have adopted modern irrigation system to increase the production. However Prof Nehvi argues that the Kashmiri Saffron was qualitatively better and expensive. “Our Saffron is far better quality-wise than the crop produced in Iran and Spain,” said Prof Nehvi. The state government, he said was mulling manifold measures including adequate irrigation facility to encourage revival of the crop. If things go as planned the days are not far off when per hectare saffron production would jump to six kilograms per hectare in Kashmir if farmers develop better understanding for cultivating Saffron.