By Athar Parvaiz*
As the harvesting season of saffron flowers (end October to mid-November) drew closer, farmers around the fields of Lethipora in Kashmir's Pulwama district were preoccupied with only one question: would there be a good yield of saffron this year or not. A few were hopeful but most were pessimistic in the backdrop of the disappointments they had to face in recent years.
Lethipora, some 20km southwest of Srinagar near Pampore town in south Kashmir, is one of the main areas where saffron cultivation is the prime economic activity of the people. The surrounding villages of Chandhara, Samboora, Ladu, Konibal and Ondorous are known for saffron farming in Pulwama district. Pampore town is famous for its saffron only due to these villages.
King of spices
Often termed as the king of spices, saffron is primarily grown in Kashmir in India (Himachal Pradesh is a distant second). The crop grows once a year and is restricted to parts of Pulwama district in the Kashmir region. Despite this, the production of saffron (Crocus sativus) plays a significant role in the economy of Jammu & Kashmir—it is the second largest industry in the state after horticulture, providing livelihood support to more than 20,000 families. Cultivation of this lucrative crop in Jammu & Kashmir dates back to 500 AD. The mountainous state has a monopoly in saffron production in India, although the country still needs to import as Jammu & Kashmir produces between 10 and 15 tonnes against India's total demand of around 40 tons.
The farmers of Pulwama are acutely aware of the value that their saffron has and the huge demand for it in India. With harvest season this year beginning in the first week of November, they could think of little else.
The saffron fields start turning pink towards the end of October and by early November the flowers are in full bloom, presenting a spectacular sight. They are collected in baskets and strenuous efforts are needed to separate the stigmata from the saffron flower.
Concerns about production
In the month of October, the farmers were increasingly worried about the saffron harvest, which has not been encouraging in recent years. This year promises little respite.
"I just returned from my farm where I met many other farmers. I heard all of them saying that this year also the saffron yield will be quite low," said Imtiyaz Ahmad, a young farmer who owns 3 acres of land in Lethipora. Saffron production, Ahmad added, is a mere 10% of what it was before the year 2000.
Another farmer, Ghulam Nabi Reshi, reminisced that some 20-25 years earlier they would dry up the saffron crop on their rooftops given the large harvests. "Those were the days! In those years, our saffron fields were nothing but money-minting machines for us," Reshi said. "Not anymore."
According to official figures, saffron land had declined from over 5000 hectares in 1996-97 to 2880 hectares by 2006...
Javid Ahmad, also a saffron farmer, said that several people gave up government jobs in order to focus on their saffron farms—it seemed like a more lucrative way to spend their time.
Once such former government employee is Ghulam Mohammad, who worked as a helper in the health department. "Now I strongly regret my decision. We were earning a good amount of money from saffron farming. I thought I had no need of doing a petty government job," Mohammad said, adding that his farm would produce somewhere around 250 to 300 tolas (one tola equals 11.76 grams) of saffron, which has now reduced to around 50 tolas.
Production in Kashmir reached its peak in the 1990s, with an annual average of around 15.5 tonnes over 5700 hectares, but both acreage and yields have declined since then, with per hectare production at less than 2kg compared to around 6kg in other parts of the world.
Farmers in Lethipora said that saffron production in their area as well as nearby was phenomenal in the past. Tariq Ahmad and his two brothers now run good businesses thanks to their earnings from saffron in the past. Tariq owns a stone-crusher as does one of his brothers; the third brother owns a fuel station. "We invested the money, which we had earned over the years, to set up our businesses," Ahmad said.
Reasons for decline
Farmers said that temperature fluctuations and lack of rainfall at crucial times are the most important reason for the decline in saffron production. "During most of the years since the late 1990s, we have been seeing that it either doesn't rain during the month of August and September, or if it rains, it rains a lot," said Dilawar Reshi, a farmer. "From August until some days before the harvest in November, the saffron crop should get some rainfall for proper growth. But rains hardly occur in these months now."
Firdous Nahvi, who has carried out extensive research on saffron, cites the lack of rainfall at a crucial time as one of the primary reasons for dwindling saffron production.
Firdous Nahvi, who has carried out extensive research on saffron, cites the lack of rainfall at a crucial time as one of the primary reasons for dwindling saffron production. "Usually, the critical months of September and October are dry, and thus flowering is delayed due to delayed sprouting which does not correlate with critical limits of day and night temperature, thereby, effecting crop productivity," he observed in his study. Till 1999–2000, he noted, Kashmir was receiving well-distributed precipitation in terms of rain and snow to the extent of 1000–1200 mm, which at present has decreased to 600–800mm.
The government of India under the National Saffron Mission in 2010 had launched a ₹3.73 billion project for creating drip irrigation facilities and other support for helping farmers to cope with the challenges of growing saffron. But farmers said that the drip irrigation system is yet to become functional.
Another concern for the farmers is the adulteration of Kashmir's saffron with fake saffron. "This has been a huge setback for Kashmir's saffron in recent years, though we are now creating awareness about real saffron mainly through the Indian customers who directly come to us," said Noor Mohammad, a saffron dealer in Lethipora.
Saffron production has also suffered because of the shrinking land for its cultivation. According to official figures, saffron land had declined from over 5000 hectares in 1996-97 to 2880 hectares by 2006, mainly because of the extension of built-up areas due to increasing population.
* Athar Parvaiz is a Srinagar-based journalist.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.