Farmers say the weather has become quite erratic and rains are either scanty or distribution is irregular, thus adversely affecting the saffron production at the critical stage.
PAMPORE â As the autumn sets in the free, vast lands of Pampore, hundreds of men, women and children ready themselves to pick small violet flower petals of saffron. The harvest is a centuries-old tradition that spreads aroma, colour and flavour throughout the globe.
After facing years of hiccups and hurdles, the saffron farmers are hopeful about this yearâs produce.
Ghulam Rasool Kuchay, a saffron trader, said due to climate change, in the last few years, the weather has become quite erratic and rains are either scanty or distribution is irregular, thus adversely affecting the saffron at the âcritical stageâ.
Kuchay said, âWe are dependent on the rain in the month of September and luckily this year there was a good amount of rain in the region. We are hopeful that this year productivity will be better than the past.â
Kashmir faced an acute drought in 1999-2003, and during this period productivity reduced from 3.12kg/ha to 1.57kg/ha. During 2005, favourable rainfalls improved saffron productivity to 2.96kg/ha. Saffron is still grown as a rainfed crop, and it’s vulnerable to surplus/scarcity of water.
Kashmir saffron over the years has ruled the domestic and international markets. Saffron or locally known as Zafran is derived from the crimson stigma and styles of the Crocus sativus flower. Kashmiri saffron is considered the best in the world followed by produce from Iran and Spain.
Nowadays, men, women and children are busy harvesting saffron flowers. They pick the flowers early in the morning and dry them. About 150,000 flowers produce one kilogram of saffron.
Saffron cultivation is being pursued by more than 30000 families in J&K located in 226 villages, according to Jammu and Kashmir government. Kashmir is the 2nd largest Saffron producing region in the world after Iran.
In Kashmir, three districtsâPulwama, Budgam and Srinagarâgrow saffron. Around four kanals of saffron fields yield one kilogram of saffron and each kilogram costs between Rs 2 to 2.5 lakhs. The quality and demand derive the rates. The soil quality of Kashmirâbecause of the presence of a higher concentration of crocinâis highly suitable for its cultivation and yields the prized âKashmiri saffronâ known all over the world.Â Crocin content of âKashmiri saffronâ is 8.72% as compared to the other world-renowned Iranian variety which is 6.82%.
Women in Kashmir play a major role in the harvesting of the prized crop. According to the 2011 Census, approximately 11,000 women in Kashmir valley work in the saffron farming sector, nearly 50% of the workforce for this crop.
The women separate the delicate saffron thread from the flower. âWe love to do it. We have been doing it for decades. It has helped us economically in the past,â Arifa Hassan, a resident of Pampore said. Since the floods in 2014 the production has declined, she said.Â Â
The precious crop has spawned a trade rife which results in adulteration, false labelling. Today the battle over the âgold cuisineâ is underway and saffron cultivators are pessimistic that it would reach the production heights of the past.
âPeople dye flowers such as corn silks and safflower. There is a huge quantity of adulterated or phoney saffron in the market. They are available at cheap prices. Customers want the product to be authenticâ Arifa said.
According to the survey conducted by the Department of Agriculture, saffron production in Jammu and Kashmir had been under threat of extinction as is evident from its dwindling share in global production. Area under Saffron Production has declined from about 5707 hectares to 3715 hectares from 2009-10. Simultaneously productivity declined from an average of 3.13 Kg/ha to 1.88 kgs/ha over the years before 2010.
The production system previously followed in Jammu and Kashmir, according to the government, was the main constraint responsible for the lower productivity of Saffron. In countries like Iran and Spain, farmers use the Pluriannual method of cultivation, under which Saffron plants are left in the soil for two consecutive years, after which corms are removed from the field for fresh plantation’.Â Advanced countries use 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.
âWe change the seeds in 12- 15 years. During the first three years, the production is way too less and it takes time to reach its full potential of productivity,â another saffron grower Mubashir Ahmad said.
The government introduced techniques under the ânational saffron missionâ to improve the quality and productivity of saffron but the productivity doesnât show any improvement as per the data of the Agriculture department. The total project cost was 400.11 crores out of which only 235.69 crores have been released.
In May this year, Kashmir saffron was given a geographical indication tag (GI Tagging) with the aim to make it illegal for someone outside the valley to make and sell a similar product under the âKashmiri saffron nameâ.
Itâs a very complex process and people donât prefer to get their crop GI tagged because itâs a sceptical process, Ahmad said, âWhatever the local producers produce they sell it on their own,â Ahmad said.
According to experts, many factors are responsible for the decline of saffron industry in Kashmir viz a lack of availability of good quality corms as seed material, poor soil fertility, lack of assured irrigation, infestation by rodents and diseases, poor post-harvest management, improper marketing facilities, increased urbanization on saffron land, rampant adulteration, and clandestine smuggling of cheap saffron.
The latest challenge that threatens the existence of the saffron industry is the adverse effect of climate change. Saffron has a limited coverage area as it is grown as a âniche cropâ and has a recognized geographical indication, growing under a narrow microclimatic condition. As such it has become a victim of climate change effects, which has the potential of jeopardizing thousands of farmers and traders associated with it.
We are facing climate change and it has a significant effect on saffron production, said Dr Kaisar Malik, Assistant Professor, SKUAST. “Sometimes there is a lot of rain and sometimes the weather is dry. Both effect saffron drastically.”
Dr Malik explained saffron grows at a specific temperature. “If there is a change in the temperature it results in early or late flowering. When the temperature gets low there’s a natural forcing prolonging the dormancy of abscisic acid which delays flowering. On the other hand with the rise in temperature abscisic acid decreases and gibberellic acidÂ increases which breaks dormancy.”
The Rs.400 crore National Saffron Mission launched by the Government of India in 2010 to boost saffron cultivation has failed to yield the results. The project that has aimed to achieve the results in five years was given an extension of two years in 2015. The authorities are seeking further extension in the project.
Saffron production in the state in 2015-2016 had fallen to nearly 10 tons against about 12 tons in 2010-2011 when the NSM was launched.
Basit Parray is a trainee staff writer at the Mountain Ink. He is a bachelor's student of Journalism & Mass Communication at the Cluster University, Srinagar.