In the Pampore area of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, scores of families are involved in harvesting the indigenous crocus flower which is planted over thousands of hectares. This year the growers are expecting a rise in production with the experts backing their claims.
A scene in the purple fields of Pampore is heart-warming with the Agriculture Department’s experts expecting a rise of over 15 to 20 percent in its production. The red saffron threads of this flower are carefully handpicked by harvesters – mostly women – to be sold at ridiculous prices globally.
“Pampore, my hometown, is known as Kashmir’s saffron town for its precious high-grade spice. The blossoming of the saffron crocus marks the start of winter in Kashmir, turning vast fields into a purple canvas,” says Rouf Ahmad, a saffron grower from the Pampore area.
According to growers, the flower, which blooms for a week or two around early November, is plucked after the sun rises, and its three stamens – the saffron threads – are carefully picked by hand and dried. The spice is used extensively in medicines, beauty products, and food preparations. The labour-intensive process and the delicacy of the bloom make saffron the world’s most expensive spice, often compared in value to gold.
“Throughout India, only Kashmir represents one of the most significant saffron growing areas situated at an altitude of 1585 to 1677 m AMSL under temperate climatic conditions,” he says. Around 30,000 families in the Pampore area are associated with saffron cultivation. The town’s saffron is considered to be of superior quality because of the presence of a higher concentration of crocin. Its crocin content – which gives the saffron its darker colour and medicinal value – is 8.72 percent as compared to the Iranian variety which contains 6.82 percent. According to the 2011 census, approximately 11,000 women in Kashmir work in the saffron farming sector, nearly 50 percent of the workforce for this crop.
Their role is key in separating the delicate saffron thread from the flower. Each thread consists of three strands and each one must be picked from the flower properly. The threads are then dried in the sunlight, another tricky step, as they need to be spread evenly at a certain thickness on a white sheet. The strands are then preserved in a cotton cloth so air can continuously pass through to avoid the accumulation of moisture and rot.
Like Ahmad, there are hundreds of families, who have been growing saffron for the past several decades. They say by growing this saffron they used to make fortunes earlier.
“We witnessed turbulence in businesses and the situation as well. For many years our fields remained deserted. Now we are back on the track and using our best to get the best of this crop,” says Shakeela, a happy grower. “It is only possible because of this we could streamline the lives of our children and get them a decent living.”
The income of farmers and growers from saffron crops kept growing and they made good earnings. However, a decline in production as a result of climate change has halted these expenses, with farmers losing hope that the product will increase. The production of saffron for over the years remained highly compromised.
According to the figures available with the Department of Agriculture, Kashmir, the production of Kashmiri saffron has declined by 65 percent over the past two decades from 16 metric tonnes to 5.6 metric tonnes. In the past 10 years, the low yield has become a deterrent for farmers and many of them have already shifted to other high-yielding crops like apples and walnuts.
The area under saffron cultivation has shrunk at a fast pace from around 5707 hectares in 1996 to 3875 hectares in 2010-11. Some of the growers while recollecting the process said that nearly two decades ago it would take months for any grower family to complete the process because production used to be in abundance. However other young growers say that things have changed and technological intervention is vital in revamping this sector.
In 2010, Rs 400 crore National Saffron Mission was set up to restore the sector. The goals were diverse: from providing irrigation through sprinklers and taps, increasing the quality of the seed sown for crops, conducting research to enhance productivity, and educating farmers about new methods of farming. However, according to insiders, the mission has not helped increase the yield as it has failed to fulfill its targets and already missed two deadlines (2014 and 2019). “The saffron mission hardly helped the crop to grow because the focus of the department is only digging bore wells and installation of sprinkles without installing power transformers or a regular electricity supply,” says, a member of valley’s Saffron Growers Association.
According to experts, saffron blooms in autumn when other plants are preparing to protect themselves against the rigours of winters, and contrarily to others, its activity slows down during spring. The biological cycle is completed in 5 to 6 stages. It has a two years plant cycle starting in July of the first year, the apical bud takes a year to acquire its maximum size and fully becomes a corm, while it takes another year before it is depleted and ends up like a wrinkled black disc (recapitulation stage). At midway, the plant enters a dormant stage (Medina, 2003). During dormancy, floral and vegetative buds and roots begin to differentiate. In mid-June, a progressive decrease in starch concentration is observed in the total dry matter of corms at one level (67%). The activation stage in saffron begins in September when the day temperature reaches about 25°C, with a night temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius. Corms begin to sprout with floral and vegetative structures increasing in length inside the cataphylls.
5-graded corms weighing 8 gm and above are preferred for new plantations. Corms are irrigated during September and October using sprinkler technology which ensures timely corm sprouting and good flower yields. “Saffron is dried using toasters, electrical dryers, and vacuum dryers, which enhances the quality of Saffron,” says an official from Saffron Mission.
Saffron cultivation in Kashmir dates back to 500 BC. Wan Zhen, a Chinese medical expert reports that the habitat of saffron is in Kashmir. However, historians date its arrival before 500B.
Kashmiri saffron was given a geographical indication tag by the geographical indications registry. The request was filed by the Directorate of Agriculture, Government of Jammu and Kashmir, and facilitated by the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology, Kashmir, and Saffron Research Station, Dussu (Pampore) to make it illegal for someone outside the valley to make and sell a similar product under the “Kashmiri saffron” name. According to Article 22 (I) of the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, GI tags are “indications which identify a product as originating in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or characteristic of the product is essentially attributable to its geographic origin”.
“The GI tag will help Kashmiri saffron regain popularity and will change the price,” the Director says. “It will also add authenticity and farmers will be economically benefited. This will also shrink the space for those who do adulteration or rebrand Iranian saffron as Kashmiri.”
The officials say that another major challenge facing saffron production is poor adherence to the practice of changing its corms or seeds. “In Kashmir, growers sow 225,000 corms per hectare, while science suggests it should be 500,000,” says a researcher at Sher-e-Kashmir Agricultural University of Science and Technology, Kashmir (SKUAST-K).
“For a good saffron crop, moisture is vital for a good yield and irrigation is very essential,” he says.
Threats of Land Mafia
The saffron fields in Kashmir’s Pampore have shrunken due to construction activities during the last over the years. However, according to locals, the government is going tough against the violators now. However, the mafia is still on the work. Saffron production in J&K had been under threat of extinction as is evident from its dwindling share in global production. The area under Saffron Production has declined from about 5707 hectares to 3715 hectares from 2009-10. No recent survey has been carried out officially. Simultaneously productivity declined from the scenario.
According to locals, the fields have become a haven for the land mafia because of their strategic location in the Pampore area. During the last 15 years, over 25 percent saffron fields of Pampore have been converted into residential plots.
According to the Director of the Department of Agriculture, Iqbal Ahmad Choudhary, to address the challenges faced by growers, the government took several “robust” steps. In 2007, the Saffron Act was introduced, which barred the conversion of saffron farms to commercial plots and levied a penalty of Rs 10,000- and one year’s imprisonment on violators. The act dissuaded the land mafia in the area who had started to buy land in bulk and build houses on it. “We are hoping to witness over 15 percent rise in saffron production this year,” he says.
“We have a detailed list of beneficiaries listed on our portal and we are monitoring it on a regular basis. We are also ensuring the GI tagging of the original produce after we receive it in our spice mandis,” he says.