Srinagar: Along the bustling Jammu-Srinagar national highway near Pampore – known as the saffron town of Kashmir – people are busy picking up saffron flowers to fill their wicker baskets.
During the autumn season, this is a common sight in the Valley as saffron harvesting is celebrated like a festival in Kashmir.
The crop is harvested once a year from October 21 to mid-November.
Separating the red-coloured threads from the flower from which the spice is derived is the most important work while harvesting the crop. As each thread consists of three strands, the harvesting process requires extreme caution and care.
The threads are dried in the sun, which is another tricky step, as they need to be spread evenly on a white sheet. These strands are then preserved in a cotton cloth so that air can continuously pass through them, without any moisture and rot.
The harvesting process is mostly carried out by women.
Apart from south Kashmir’s Pampore, the crop is also grown in areas such as central Kashmir’s Budgam, and on the peripheries of Srinagar and Kishtwar districts of Jammu.
Kashmiri saffron, one of the costliest spices, is also used in traditional medicines.
It is believed that saffron was introduced in Kashmir by Sufi saints Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Sharif-ud-Din.
There are several types of saffron available in Kashmir including Mongra, which is the darkest variety. Just one strand is enough to infuse an entire dish with a rich aroma and flavour. Lacha is another variety that comes with both red and yellow parts. Zarda, another type of saffron, is used in face packs, beauty creams and moisturisers.
However, growers say that Pampore has witnessed a decline in saffron production over the last few years.
A fast-paced decline in saffron production
According to official figures, the land under cultivation for the saffron crop in Pampore has reduced by over 60% in the past 20 years – from 5,707 hectares in 1996 to around 3,500 hectares in 2017.
The government had, in 2010-11, introduced the National Saffron Mission to help farmers irrigate their fields.
However, cultivators claim that the sluggish execution of the Rs 400-crore centrally sponsored project, coupled with climate change, has hit the production of the expensive spice.
They further allege that the reason behind the decline in saffron production is that the government schemes only exist on paper and are hardly being executed on the ground.
Saffron agriculture of the Valley dominantly survives and sustains on Karewa soil. However, rampant erosion has reduced these lands to ugly ravines, several news outlets reported.
Locals allege that the land on which saffron is cultivated has been shrinking over the years as residential and commercial complexes have been constructed near the fields.
Mohd Yousuf, 35, a saffron grower from Pampore, told The Wire that over the past couple of years, some industries have been established near the saffron fields.
“The cement dust which comes from these industries gets accumulated on the saffron flowers, which stops their growth. However, there has been no effort from the administration to take [any preventive] measures about setting up industries near the saffron fields. Due to this, many growers have switched to other crops in the absence of facilities and the administration’s non-seriousness towards the promotion of the saffron crop,” he said.
Mukhtar Ahmed, deputy director at the meteorological department, Srinagar, told The Wire that there are multiple reasons for the decline in saffron production.
“From a weather point of view, the unexpected rainfall at the time of saffron yield or harvesting has proved to be very harmful. The rainfall at the time of saffron harvesting affects the flowers by and large. Hence, it leads to a decline in production,” he said.
Growers also claim that the decline in the production of Kashmiri saffron has put the livelihoods of 30,000 families under threat.
Shabir Ahmed, 34, a saffron grower from Balhama, told The Wire that farmers are themselves responsible for a massive decline in saffron cultivation in the area. He said farmers use machines for ploughing the lands which damage the roots of the saffron and the seed.
He added that steps were taken by the government under the National Saffron Mission to boost the production of the crop. “Earlier, the administration had dug canals for our fields, but nothing has changed on the ground,” he said.
The lack of an irrigation system has also contributed to a decline in saffron cultivation.
Chairman of Saffron Growers Association Kashmir, Abdul Majeed Wani, said that during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, the administration had released over Rs. 400 crore under the National Saffron Mission to provide growers with better facilities.
However, the mission could not reach its final target as the irrigation system remained defunct and incomplete. He added that poor irrigation facilities prompted many saffron growers to switch to other crops.
Wani added that the last three years have seen a fast-paced decline in saffron crop production.
Khrew, where high-quality saffron used to be cultivated, has now become one of the Valley’s most polluted places as numerous cement manufacturing facilities have turned the fertile land into barren land.
The farmers also believe that the import of cheaper Iranian saffron is another reason for the decline in the number of Kashmiri saffron growers.
Shakeel Ramshoo, head of the Earth Sciences department at the University of Kashmir, explained how Jammu and Kashmir is sensitive to climate change, which he says is one of the reasons for the slump in saffron production.
“Because we are seated on top of Asia’s water tower, the effects are quite severe here. The melting of the glaciers in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh is one of the primary effects of climate change,” he said.
“Over 200 million people in South Asia use the water that flows from these glaciers, so this glacier system is beneficial to a large population, ” he added.
To spread awareness about the saffron industry in Kashmir, the administration held a one-day workshop a few days ago with the growers in Pampore.