Kashmir saffron Losing spice?

  • MUKEET AKMALI
  • Publish Date: Oct 15 2018 3:26AM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 15 2018 3:26AM
Kashmir saffron Losing spice?Representational Pic

As one reaches Pampore on the outskirts of Srinagar city, vast fields of saffron welcome you that produce some of the finest saffron the world knows. But as one looks around, the land of this king of spices is shrinking with each passing day.

Unabated constructions, acquisition of land for road development, pollution from cement factories over the years has resulted in decline in land under saffron cultivation from 5700 hectares to 3000 hectares in last 2 decades.

As per the official figures of the Agriculture Department, the saffron land has been shrinking at rapid pace. This is because the government has failed to stop unabated constructions on the land despite Saffron Act 2007, which was meant to halt conversion of saffron land to other purposes.

As per the official figures, saffron crop was being cultivated on 5707 hectares of land in 1996, which has now reached to around 3000 hectares, indicating that 2700 hectares of saffron land has been utilised for constructions and other purposes over the years.

REASONS FOR DECLINE

To ascertain the reasons behind the declining land as well as production of saffron in Kashmir, the Kashmir Ink spoke to farmers, saffron growers and residents of Pampore, who attributed the cause of decline to soaring real estate prices, adulteration of saffron, pollution from cement factories and land acquisition by National Highway Authority of India.

“To be frank, I must admit that people have become greedy. Here a kanal of land would fetch Rs 75 lakh to Rs 1 crore, which they would not earn in 20 years by cultivating saffron,” said Ghulam Ahmad Masoodi, a resident of Kadalbal Pampore.

“This greed is found everywhere nowadays, Pampore being located adjacent to Srinagar means this land has a good value, that is why people sell land and invest in other sectors, saying goodbye to farming,” opines Masoodi with a bright smile on his face.

As one moves in the interiors of Pampore, a research centre established by SKUAST-K in Dussu area is situated amid vast tracts of saffron farms. The mandate of this centre was to double the saffron production, but it has failed to do so.

Few steps from this research centre, worried farmers are discussing whether this year production will increase or remain stagnant like last year.

“There has been a devastating decline in saffron production. Due to in-sufficient rains past few years and declining quality of corms, production of this spice is declining drastically which means that farmers are not even reaching break-even point,” said Ghulam Muhammad Bagander of Dussu area.

To give boost to the saffron production, ministry of Agriculture Production, Government of India started a scheme ‘National Mission on Saffron’ in 2010 for seven years with project cost of Rs 400.11 crore. So far, the government has utilized only Rs 199.835 crore. Farmers said that though the government implemented National Saffron Mission, but the main component of this scheme was to provide irrigation facility which has been left unattended. According to SKUAST-K officials around 128 bore wells were needed to cultivate saffron in the region. However, the Mechanical department constructed only 7 bore wells since 2010. National Saffron Mission aimed to raise yield from 3 kg to 5 kg per hectare.

The centre has extended the period of completion to March 2020. President, Saffron Growers Association, Abdul Majeed Wani, said farmers started using new technology under the centrally sponsored scheme. “But the irrigation project has not been completed till date,” he said.

He said that decline in saffron production was due to dry weather and shrinking saffron land.

ADULTERATION

Besides lack of irrigation facilities, adulteration of saffron has created a bad name for Kashmir saffron in the market. 

“Saffron traders are selling Iran saffron disguised as Kashmiri spice which has badly affected our reputation in the market. Same thing which was done to handicrafts has been repeated in saffron trade,” said Muhammad Sayeed Andrabi, a saffron trader.

Conservative estimate puts the yearly consumption of saffron across India at 50,000 kg of which two-third is marketed by Tehran alone. Claiming that the Iran crop is qualitatively inferior to the Kashmir produce, Andrabi said, “It will take us a century more to compete with them in terms of marketing.” He has ample evidence to prove that Spanish firms would procure the Kashmir saffron to sell with their brand names, but “the traditional cultivation methods, failure in developing post-harvest mechanism and a lopsided marketing policy are the main limitations.”

LAND ACQUISITION FOR ROAD PROJECTS

One of the prestigious road projects of Kashmir turned to be bane for saffron cultivation. Hundreds of hectares of fertile saffron land was acquired for 4-laning of Srinagar-Banihal road.

A senior agriculture department official while confirming it, said “There is no account of how much saffron land was acquired for four-laning of the highway.”

POLLUTION

Another factor which is attributing to declining pollution of saffron is the pollution emanating from cement factories in Khrew. Vast tracts of saffron lands, according to farmers, have turned barren due to dust emanating from these factories. “Khrew area had large tracts of saffron land which are now of no use due to unabated pollution. Government is acting blind to it, which has rendered farmers jobless and affected our economy,” said another farmer. 

A sensitive plant, the saffron crop requires two periods of rainfall in spring and post-monsoon for a sizeable harvest. The government had implemented a sprinkler irrigation project seven years ago to help combat sporadic rainfall when the saffron crop needs it the most, but farmers say the scheme is ineffective.

OFFICIAL SPEAKS

Scientist in the Saffron Research Centre, SKUAST-K, Dr. S.A Dar said now only 3000 hectares of land is under saffron cultivation in Kashmir which is a worrying trend as half of the land under saffron cultivation from 1996 has been converted either for constructions or for other purposes.

Dr. Dar said that low production is also a reason for people shifting from saffron cultivation to horticulture sector. “Basic factors responsible for low productivity is climate change, irregular irrigation. Another important thing is the quality of corm, which isn’t good on fields.” He said that though National Saffron Mission has been extended till 2020, the purpose of the Mission was to rejuvenate the saffron cultivation but it couldn’t happen that way.

“For irrigation, there were supposed to be 128 bore wells and as per current status only 7 bore wells are operational which means 95% of irrigation is still pending. Also, if corm would have been sorted in a proper way that too can work for better yield.” Dr. Dar said.

He said that if farmers follow their advice of using sprinkler system of irrigation, production per hectare will increase up to 6-8 kilogram per hectare. 

We can share the techniques with the farmers but it’s upto farmers whether they use it or not. Adulteration of saffron made farmers to abandon this work. 90% saffron (consumed in Indian market) comes from Iran. We only contribute 10% of saffron despite having favorable conditions, which is a cause of concern,” he said adding that urbanization is also a factor in farmers abandoning this work. “Kashmiri youth isn’t willing to work for such laborious jobs.”

BACKGROUND

Crocus Sativus (saffron plant), a member of the Iridaceae is a perennial, low-growing herb which grows best in perfectly drained, loamy karewa soils. Propagation of the plant is through corms that reproduce annually and give rise to 2-6 cormlets.

Saffron is of medicinal value, while Mongra is rich in potassium, phosphorus and traces of boron with moisture, starch sugars, crude fiber and ash. Its aroma is accredited to the volatile oils in it. The presence of Riboflavin and Crocin has made it as most effective colouring and flavouring agent.

Saffron is one of the most important foreign exchange earning crop among the spices for India, grown exclusively in the state of Jammu and Kashmir where about 49 per cent of its total produce is exported.

The saffron is one of the oldest commodities of Jammu and Kashmir having large per cent of total share in income realizing of the state. Pampore and its neighbouring areas produce an average of 2,128 kilograms of saffron every year.

But during last few years the production is gradually declining, the saffron cultivation is under threat in the state due to uncertain climatic conditions and the insufficient irrigation facilities in these areas. The area, production and the productivity of this famous spice has decreased compared to the past years that spread over many villages, was a good source of earning foreign exchange for the state as a whole.  Saffron cultivation in Kashmir valley has its historical roots from Iran, from where world’s largest produce amounting to 70 per cent of worldwide saffron production, comes.

Saffron has many uses in industries such as food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and perfumery as well as in the textile dyes. Saffron is famous in the world for its fine flavour, colour and medicinal value and low in volume cash crop of Kashmir. Saffron has shown its role in disease prevention and its treatment. 

Saffron shows antioxidant activity and thus prevents the degeneration of cells by free radicals. The components of saffron, crocin and safranal showed role in the suppression of inflammatory pain responses and decreased the number of neutrophils and also possess strong activity against bacteria and fungi. Safranal has a protective effect against nephrotoxicity and is cardio-protective. It also reduces the fasting blood glucose levels and also exhibits an anti-tumour effect through inactivation or activation of different molecular cascades.