After the inefficient rolling out of Saffron Mission, is the revival of the world’s costliest spice in Kashmir a dream too distant, Ajaz Rashid tries to find out
In 2013 then J&K agriculture minister, Ghulam Ahmad Mir along with a team of officials had a week-long overseas ‘study tour’ of Spain to ‘learn’ best technology for saffron cultivation. The European country is one of the top saffron producing nations in the world. In a statement released from Albacete city that time, Mir said they discussed steps for revival of Saffron in Kashmir with the country’s top scientists, assuring all concerns would be addressed adequately. Not a single saffron grower from the Valley was part of the tour program, borne on state exchequer. The next year Saffron production plummeted to less than 2 kg per hectare, the worst in many years.
That was the time when the Government of India’s ambitious Rs 411 crore National Saffron Mission for revival of Kashmiri Saffron, known for its aroma and quality worldwide, was in third year of implementation in the Valley. Almost four years later in October 2017 Mir’s successor Ghulam Nabi Lone headed separate team to Madrid for another study tour and sought country’s agriculture experts’ technical assistance and support to change the Saffron production scenario in the region. Just a month later when the harvest season was over the agriculture department recorded at least 90 percent losses to the spice and total yield fell to an all-time low of three tonnes.
Between 2013 and 2017, the Mission that was seen as critical to survival and rejuvenation of Kashmir Saffron, hardly showed any results on the ground despite GoI extending it by two years though originally targeted for completion in four years. Now, as the agriculture department was preparing to seek another extension for its completion, the government for the first time admitted of “having not achieved desired results” under the Mission, stopping just short of admitting its failure.
“Indeed, despite enormous amounts of money spent (at least 70 percent of total Rs 411 crore funds), the sector saw one of its worse ever crop failures this year,” Finance Minister Haseeb Ahmad Drabu informed the State Assembly on January 11.
Summing up the grim scenario, Drabu then went on to ask the growers, much to the shock of experts and growers, to go back to traditional system of cultivation, thus putting onus on farming community to save the spice from getting extinct. But the minister avoided talking about how and why the ambitious Saffron revival program failed.
“It may sound exaggerated but the fact is that it is a race against time to save saffron from disappearing from our fields,” said a senior official of the agriculture department.
A third-generation saffron grower from Lethpora, Mir Shafaqat has been a witness to highs and lows of the world’s most expensive spice grown in the Valley.
But, said Shafaqat, last season was the “worst ever”. A prolonged dry spell from July to October, when the crop needs the irrigation the most, led to a massive crop failure. “We couldn’t even retrieve our labour costs not to talk of returns on the crop,” said Shafaqat.
Known as ‘king of spices,’ saffron is largely grown in karewas of Pampore. The saffron growing involves laborious harvesting methods. For centuries, the saffron has been used for cooking and religious purposes, and in pharmaceutical, therapeutic and dyeing industries. Kashmir has a monopoly over saffron, and it sustains around 15,000 families in more than 240 villages. But, since 2000, the weather vagaries led to tanking of the yield in the Valley. The situation has got compounded due to absence of dependable irrigation facility. Last season the production fell to just three tonnes.
The saffron production grew to 16 metric tonnes – the highest produce recorded ever in 1996 when the land under cultivation reached to maximum of 5,707 hectares. But since then story of the prized crop in the Valley has been of downfall and government’s negligence. Just five years later, in 2002, the yield fell to .30 tonnes, the lowest ever and the land under cultivation shrunk to 2,710 hectares. The average production per hectare production has been hovering around less than 2 kg per hectare. This downfall in Kashmiri saffron has been attributed to government apathy, farmers’ reluctance to shift to high-yielding plant varieties, poor and traditional farming practices, soil depletion and unorganised marketing and pollution emanating from cement factories from Khrew and Wuyuan villages.
But the main reason for this reduction in saffron yield, says Abdul Majeed Wani, president of the saffron growers association, has been the weather vagaries. Official data corroborate Wani’s concerns. Against a well-distributed rainfall of around 1500 mm throughout the year till 2000, the Valley is now receiving just 400-500 mm of rains.
While demand for saffron has grown to around 40 tonnes in India, many farmers, dejected because of the low returns, have over the years become targets of land brokers even though there is a complete ban on sale of this prized land. A revenue official said that around 250 hectares of saffron land has been lost to urbanisation.
“I am talking about Pampore only,” said the official.
Another grower, Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, sold a portion of saffron land in 2015 to arrange money for his son to get a job. “This (selling of saffron land) was unthinkable some two decades ago. But it is no longer a dependable source of livelihood.”
Wani, however, blamed the government for shrinking saffron farms. “If there is a law against selling saffron land, how is it happening then? The entire system is corrupt and has allowed construction on saffron land,” said Wani.
Some years ago, the government itself acquired 137.5 acres of saffron land at Lethpora for the construction of CRPF headquarters.
Adding to the farmers’ worries, Kashmiri saffron also faces tough competition from varieties from Spain and Iran – the two other places where the crop is cultivated – apart from sale of fake saffron in the market. But agriculture scientists put part of the blame on the farmers.
Against a recommended corm (bulb) planting cycle of five years for better yield, farmers follow a planting cycle of 15 years, according to a study at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology (SKUAST-K). The long planting cycle results in a fungal disease called corm rot, which causes a decline in production.
In 2010, the GoI approved Rs 371 crore for the National Saffron Mission aimed at revival and rejuvenation of saffron in the Valley. A few years later, the plan was increased to Rs 411 crore. The focus of the programme was to address the lack of irrigation by installing 128 tubewells and 1548 sprinklers in saffron fields. Besides, the farmers were to be given Rs 4.94 lakh financial support per hectare of land for rejuvenation of the crop. A Rs 22 crore Saffron Park with a quality control lab and infrastructure for sorting, grading and packing of saffron for better marketing opportunities, seed nurseries, weather stations and 758 centres to supply organic manure at cheap rates were other components of the project. Though the entire programme was to be completed in four years, in 2015, the J&K government got a two-year extension for implementing the prestigious programme.
Today, however, the mission is far from being completed.
Director Agriculture, Kashmir, Altaf Aijaz Andrabi said 2360 hectares of the total saffron land has been “rejuvenated” as per the requirement under the plan.
“The rejuvenation and mechanisation phases are being accomplished,” he said. But the government’s utter failure in taking the drip irrigation system to saffron fields has failed the entire programme. In the past seven years, just eight of the 3797 water sprinklers have been completed. While the government claims it has dug 120 of the 128 bore wells, most are defunct and are yet to be connected to the farms. Many other components of the programme have met the same fate.
“Despite financial support and equipping farmers with improved technologies, there is lesser impact on the ground because the irrigation problem hasn’t been solved,” said a senior official at the agriculture department.
The government had outsourced setting up of a drip irrigation system to the mechanical engineering department.
“We are suffering losses because of mechanical department’s failure to perform its duty,” said Andrabi.
Shafaqat remarked: “Had the Saffron Mission been rolled out efficiently, the entire picture would have changed in four years. Now that is a dream too distant.”
The statistics suggest the same. Under the mission, the target was to increase per hectare yield to 6 kg. This has instead fallen to less than 2 kg. This grim scenario has given rise to questions of whether Kashmir’s purple fields can be saved from turning barren. Many, including some officials from agriculture department were not optimistic. “It may sound exaggerated but this is a race against time,” said one official.