Mohammad Habib Mir looked pensive as he walked towards his saffron field on a cold day in November. Fifty years ago, the 67-year-old farmer was accustomed to collecting between 20 and 40 kilograms of saffron from each kanal—around 4,500 square feet—in large baskets made from willow twigs. Nowadays, he is lucky if he manages to collect around two kilograms, and he only needs a small bag.
Mir, who was brought up in Pampore, a town around 13 kilometres from Srinagar, took up saffron cultivation full-time to support his family after his father’s death in 1967. “My grandfather used to tell me, the deeper you dig, the land will become more viable for sowing, and you will produce more,” he said, referring to the labour-intensive nature of saffron production.
Since farmers have to extract the stigma of saffron flowers, and each flower only has three stigmas, it takes anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 flowers to produce a kilogram of dried saffron.
India is the third-largest producer of the spice. It is used as an ingredient in cosmetics, medicines, dyes and perfumes. Nearly 7.3 percent of the world’s saffron is produced in Jammu and Kashmir, where saffron cultivation is the second-largest industry. But the last two decades have seen more than a 25-percent decline in saffron cultivation in the state. Heavy construction in Pampore reduced the area under saffron cultivation from 5,707 hectares in 1996-1997 to 3,785 hectares in 2014-2015, which led to a decrease in yield per hectare from 3.13 kilograms to 1.88 kilograms. Today, around 3,500 hectares are available for cultivation. A severe drought in 2017 exacerbated the crisis. The state received around ten millimetres of rainfall between August and October, a tenth of the average for those months, which drastically reduced the yield.
Mir felt that other factors had contributed to the slowdown of saffron production. “Nowadays, families hire workers from outside who have little or no expertise in cultivating the spice,” he said. He noted that there had been a move away from saffron cultivation to other livelihoods, and suggested that the new generation was not enthusiastic about learning the techniques of saffron farming, because of the social taboo attached to the occupation of farming and also the low pay-out of the labour-intensive work. “I want my children to do this job,” he said. “The new generation feels a sense of disgrace at being called a ‘farmer,’ and they find other means to earn their livelihood.”
In 2010, the central government created the National Saffron Mission, a project with funds of Rs 371.18 crore—which was later increased to Rs 400.11 crore—that included subsidies for fertilisers and pesticides, and plans to install borewells and other irrigation facilities, such as sprinkler systems. Although 101 out of a planned 126 borewells were built, only eight of the planned 128 sprinkler systems were installed, and, according to Mir, only a few of these function. The centre has extended the scheme till March 2018, but farmers are not content with it so far. Mohammad Shafi Basu, a saffron grower who has been in the business for over five decades, said, “I have never seen such low yield in my life. The core thing needed for saffron cultivation is water, which the government has failed to provide us. The government installed tube-wells and laid pipes for sprinkle irrigation, but most of them are defunct.”
A few saffron growers in Pampore have set up their own irrigation facilities, and have seen better yields since. Disappointed with the lack of a proper irrigation system, Abdul Majid Wani, a 62-year-old saffron grower and the president of All J&K Saffron Growers Association, set up an irrigation facility on his own last August. “The borewells were already dug up by the government, but were defunct,” he told me in October last year. “I brought some equipment used to make the borewell work and connected them with a motor, ensuring a regular water supply for my part of land.” He said he experienced a 40-percent increase in yield.
Mir was not impressed by the government’s efforts. To begin with, he said, it should provide crop insurance for saffron—a longtime demand of producers which has not yet been granted. “The government needs to build proper infrastructure for sprinkle irrigation, like they have in Iran,” he said. “The reason they are far ahead of us is because they are utilising the technology properly. Lately I heard that they have some sort of machinery there that does the saffron picking.” He was referring to the saffron separator, a new device recently invented in Iran, that extracts flower stigmas. Mir appeared annoyed at the proliferation of imported Iranian saffron, which is cheaper and frequently sold as Kashmiri saffron. He recalled an incident from 2007, when a foreign client asked for laboratory certification to ensure that Mir was not selling fake saffron. Since no saffron-testing laboratories exist in Kashmir, he had to go to a private laboratory in Delhi, which cost him around Rs 10,000. Basu agreed that Kashmiri saffron was losing credibility in the international market because of fake saffron. “It’s high time for government to set up a saffron research lab in the valley, where products will not only be tested, but they can study why the saffron yield is going downhill,” he said.
Mir told me that according to Kashmiri legend saffron was brought to the region by two Sufi ascetics, Khwaja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharifuddin Wali. They fell sick, and begged a local chieftain for a cure. When he obliged, the two holy men gave him a saffron flower as payment and a sign of gratitude. Every year, devotees offer prayers to the Sufi saints—who have a golden-domed shrine and tomb dedicated to them—during the harvesting season, in late autumn.
Basu appealed to a different god. “We are dependent on the weather gods for rain,” he said. “If it fails, our crop also fails, which is what has happened this year.”
Qazi Wasif is a freelance journalist, based in Kashmir. He is interested in digital storytelling. His work has been published in various local and national organisations.