Saffron (kesar) is worth its weight in gold, they say. Even during the skyrocketing prices of yellow metal, saffron can compete with gold in rates. Some ten stems of pure saffron packed in a box costs around princely sum of Rs 400 plus.
Saffron is used in many dishes and is believed to have medicinal properties. Once “kesaribath” or “shira” was made out of pure saffron. Now, poor variants have replaced the saffron as people or restaurants cannot afford pure kesar in the dish. But connoisseurs of food still prefer to have dishes made out of saffron grown in Kashmir.
Pampore has the distinction of producing 90 per cent saffron grown in Kashmir. The saffron production had brought financial stability to the people of that place much before the apple production did for the people in Sopore and Shopian.
While apple production spread to other parts of south, north and central Kashmir, producing saffron remained confined to Pampore only. Experiments carried out at other places for saffron production did not yield the desired results. Subsequently, the people
in other areas preferred other crops and fruits over saffron.
During autumn, the saffron fields in Pampore on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway presents a very beautiful sight and boys and girls get busy in plucking purple-coloured flowers. They bunk schools to work in the fields as they find plucking of saffron flowers more attractive.
“When I take home the saffron flowers, I see the smile on the faces of my family members,” said Jabeena, a girl. However, her 72-year-old grandfather Mohammad Ramzan is not a happy man these days. The drop in saffron production is worrying him.
“The way the saffron production is decreasing in Kashmir, I fear that a time may come when we will not be having any saffron at all. Our livelihood depends upon saffron production. If anything goes wrong we will be in deep trouble,” he stressed.
In 1960s Kashmir used to produce about 40 tonnes of saffron. Now, the production has dwindled to six tonnes, nearly seven times drop in output. However, the saffron production in Iran has jumped from 30 tonnes to over 140 tonnes during the same period.
According to government figures, the saffron area in Kashmir has come down to 3,800 hectares from about 5,700 hectares. Even in production has dropped to 2.5 kg per hectare as against 3.13 kg per hectare a few years ago.
Here the blame game starts. Officials in the agriculture department hold the landowners responsible for low production of saffron. According to them, “mindless and unplanned” construction of residential houses in the midst of saffron fields during the last two decades is a major cause for the shrinking of the saffron area and production. Lack of irrigation facilities, poor techniques adopted by the growers and lack of post-harvest management also have lead to low productivity and poor quality.
Houses have been constructed in saffron fields. In some place, even shopping complexes have come up as the landowners wanted to make quick money. “Had we not launched a vigorous campaign last year against the constructions in saffron fields, we would have lost more land and saffron,” said Wahid, a youth from Pampore. He added that people from different walks of life, particularly lawyers, joined hands and took a tough stand against those damaging the saffron fields by allowing constructions.
The saffron farmers in the Valley insist that they produce the finest quality of saffron despite the low production. Saffron has been always in great demand for its medicinal, cosmetic and aromatic properties. It is collected from the flowers of a very small plant. Its purple coloured flower is the only part mostly seen above the ground. The flower blossoms between mid-October and early November. The aromatic reddish stigmas of these flowers are harvested which form the most expensive part of the colourful spice called “Mogra.” The remaining stalks are also processed to get inferior grade of saffron called “Lacha.”
Taking a serious note of the falling saffron production, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Kashmir last year, announced the launching of national saffron mission to revive saffron production. The mission was formally launched in November last and is expected to increase income from saffron production from Rs 236.55 crore to Rs 4,642.50 crore.
“I think the mission is a step in the right direction and timely action to increase the saffron production,” said Gauhar Hussain, a farmer. Earlier, only cosmetic measures were taken by the government to boost the production. Mohammad Hayat, another farmer, said much would depend upon the sincerity of the government officials while implementing the NSM. He favoured proper monitoring of the mission at the highest level.
According to Abdul Wahid, a government official, for the Rs 371.18-crore national saffron mission, the Centre will give Rs 286.06 crore as its share. The rest will be borne by farmers. The mission, to be implemented over four years, will cover irrigation, research, mechanisation, processing and marketing support to ease the crisis.
State Agriculture minister Ghulam Hassan Mir is very optimistic about the mission increasing the production. “Launching of the mission clearly indicates the concern of the Union and State Governments towards the worries of farmers producing saffron in Kashmir,” he said.
He revealed that an amount of Rs 39.43 crore is being utilised during the current financial year under the NSM.
According to him, the objective of the mission is to improve the overall production of saffron and quality of saffron, besides developing organised marketing facilities for the growers.