Pampore: On a cold February morning in this south Kashmir town, saffron farmer Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 38, was setting out on a 30-km drive to the capital city of Srinagar. He, and two other farmers riding with him, were meeting officials of the agriculture department to press for a Geographic Indication (GI) tag for Kashmiri saffron.

Hit by climate change, cheaper Iranian imports, poor irrigation and outdated farming and post-harvest practices, the production of Kashmiri saffron has declined by 65% over 22 years to 2018--from 16 metric tonnes to 5.6 metric tonnes, as per the records of the Department of Agriculture Kashmir (See Table) accessed by IndiaSpend.

Bhat and his fellow farmers are hopeful that a GI tag will save the Kashmiri variety of saffron--sold at Rs 1-3 lakh a kilo, the most expensive spice in the world--from the competition posed by Iranian saffron. Up to 48% cheaper than the Kashmiri variety, Iranian saffron has 95% share of the world market.

Saffron, despite its price, is in high demand for its antioxidant properties. It carries a hefty price tag also because the process of converting crocus flowers into the thread-like spice is painstaking and labour-intensive: It takes around 160,000 flowers to yield a kilogram of saffron.

Kashmiri saffron is of superior quality because of the higher concentration of crocin, a carotenoid pigment that gives saffron its colour and medicinal value: Its crocin content is 8.72% compared to the Iranian variant’s 6.82%, a government document claims, giving it a darker colour and enhanced medicinal value.

“Kashmiri saffron is recognisable by its dark maroon-purple hue; it is among the world's darkest, which hints at strong flavour, aroma and colouring effect,” according to this research paper published by the International Journal of Farming and Allied Sciences (IJFAS).

The problem, farmers pointed out, is that it is hard for common consumers to spot the difference between various varieties and this puts Kashmir’s produce at a disadvantage, unable to command the higher price it deserves in a competitive market. High-grade Kashmiri saffron has also been hit by adulteration--mixed with the cheaper Iranian variety to be sold, it has cut local farmers’ profit margins, the IJFAS paper said.

A GI mark would be the best way to distinguish it on shop shelves, farmers said. “This is the last hope for the growers now,” said Bhat who owns a 2.5-hectare farm in Khrew village in Pampore. “Kashmiri saffron currently is sold at Rs 1,000 per tola [10 grams] against the desired Rs 2,500.”

Measures to promote local saffron are critical for the economy of Jammu and Kashmir. Agriculture and allied activities are the main occupation of around 80% of its population, and over 16,000 families are engaged in saffron cultivation. Currently 2.35% of Kashmiri saffron produced annually is exported, as per Srinagar-based traders we spoke to, and there is scope for this to grow.

The ongoing crisis and communication lockdown have hit the regional economy, as IndiaSpend reported in September 2019.

Painstaking work, diminishing returns

Saffron cultivation entails much hard work and patience--when the purple harvest arrives in autumn, the flowers are plucked and the crimson red stigma removed and dried for days until it shrinks to the size of a slender thread. One stigma of saffron weighs about 2 mg and on average each flower has three stigmata.

Each year, Kashmir produces 17 metric tonnes of saffron, on average, as per the agriculture department. Saffron is cultivated in three districts: Pulwama, Srinagar and Budgam.

Bhat’s story illustrates the crop’s decline over two decades. Hailing from a family that has been growing saffron for four generations, Bhat started working on his farm in 1996. The first 10 years were profitable--his fields yielded 6 kg of saffron annually that could be sold at around Rs 2.5 lakh per kg.

But in 2007, cheaper Iranian saffron started flooding Indian markets, Bhat said. As prices dipped--as low as Rs 1 lakh per kg--saffron farmers in Bhat’s village, Khrew, started moving out of cultivation. They began constructing shops on their farms and renting them.

“In a decade, around 2,400 hectares of saffron farms in Khrew shrank to 1,500 hectares,” said Bhat. “People switched to other trades like growing apples or building shopping complexes close to the Srinagar-Jammu national highway.”

In the last 24 years, the cultivable land dedicated to saffron has declined by 65% in Kashmir, as per agriculture department records accessed by IndiaSpend.

Iranian saffron swamps market

India is the fourth largest importer of Iranian saffron: In 2018, it imported saffron worth $18.30 million from Iran, according to the Trade Promotion Council of India.

Iran is currently the largest producer of saffron in the world, as we said earlier, cultivating over 300 tonnes every year on 30,000 hectares of land. In Kashmir, which ranks second in supply, saffron cultivation is limited to about one-eighth that area--3,715 hectares.

Pampore, the township in Pulwama district with around 3,200 hectares of land under saffron cultivation, produces the most in the Valley, according to the agriculture department. Srinagar and Budgam cultivate saffron on 165 and 300 hectares, respectively; Kishtwar is the only district in the Jammu division to grow the spice on 50 hectares of land.

The price of Kashmiri saffron fell by 48% after 2007, the year Iranian imports grew substantially, as per the All J&K Saffron Growers Development Cooperative Marketing Association. A gram of Kashmiri saffron fetched Rs 120 in 2020, against Rs 250 in 2007, said Abdul Majeed Wani, a saffron grower and president of the association.

Wani cited Kanibal, a village in Pampore once known for saffron cultivation, as an example of how hard the trade has been hit. “The village had 250 hectares of saffron land but when the yield fell, farmers raised structures on the land near the national highway,” he said.

Wani alleged that nearly 60% of Iranian saffron is shipped illegally via Dubai. “Dealers in India sell Iranian saffron at Rs 1 lakh per kg and we are forced to sell at the same rate though Kashmiri saffron deserves to be sold at twice the price,” he said.

Iranian saffron is often rebranded as Kashmir saffron and sold in local markets, alleged officials. “This affects the reputation of Kashmiri saffron, which has higher aroma, flavour and colour effect than Iranian variety,” Altaf Aijaz Andrabi, director, Kashmir department of agriculture, told IndiaSpend.

Declining yield despite saffron mission

The annual production in 1996 was 15.95 metric tonnes and this has more or less remained stagnant at 15.133 metric tonnes in 2019 as well, as per the agriculture department. The average yield over these 24 years has not crossed 5 kg a hectare and at times has fallen to 0.095 kg per hectare.

In 2007, the J&K government introduced the Saffron Act of 2007, which prohibited the conversion of saffron farms to commercial plots and levied a penalty of Rs 10,000 and one year’s imprisonment on violators. The year recorded 7.70 metric tonnes annual production on 3,280 hectares with an average yield of 2.34 kg per hectare.

Since then, cultivated land has remained stable at 3,715 hectares. The annual production crossed into double digits until 2014 when massive floods hit Kashmir and wrecked nearly nine metric tonnes of saffron valued at Rs 121 crore.

Source: Department of Agriculture Kashmir

The Rs 400-crore National Saffron Mission was set up in 2010 to revamp the sector but it has not helped increase the yield because it could not fulfil its targets--improved productivity, better irrigation, and updated farming and post-harvesting practices, among others.

The Saffron Mission was initially implemented for five years but critical tasks were never completed. The lack of funds and incompletion of various components cost it two deadlines--2014 and March 2019--so the mission was extended to March 2020. The government has so far released Rs 266 crore under the mission, of which Rs 247 crore has (93%) been utilised, agriculture department records accessed by IndiaSpend show.

The initial two years of the Mission saw no improvement in saffron production, data show, but it increased in 2012 and 2013 and declined in 2014 due to floods.

Climate change effects

Extreme climatic conditions, especially prolonged dry season and untimely rain and snowfall, began affecting the crop in 2017 and 2018 when production declined to 5.2 and 5.653 metric tonnes, respectively. In 2019, when Kashmir received timely rainfall, the yield increased to 15.133 metric tonnes with 4.07 kg per hectare average yield on 3,715 hectares of land.

The latest crop would have been bigger if snow in November 2019 had not damaged the crop, the department of agriculture claimed.

The farmers we spoke to expressed the hope that the Saffron Mission would deliver on its promises. “Upto 128 bore wells have been made possible by the government and we are eagerly waiting for them to start functioning,” said farmer Nazir Ahmad.

Waiting for GI tag

In September 2019, Kashmir’s saffron farmers met with officials of the Geographical Indications Registry in New Delhi, a meeting facilitated by the Kashmir department of agriculture. Deputy registrar Chinnaraja G Naidu sought details of the method of production, area under cultivation and reasons for GI tagging.

“A spice park coming up at Dussu in Pampore to brand and promote Kashmiri saffron is the solution to the problems of the entire industry as is the e-marketing initiative,” said Andrabi. “The [GI] barcode on the saffron will display the traceability of our saffron--who is the grower, how much has been his yield and most importantly, the standards of his produce.”

Tariq Ahmad, a saffron farmer from Nagam in Budgam, had given up cultivating saffron two years ago when the yield on his one-hectare plot fell to less than a few grams. But he welcomed the GI initiative: “It will certainly help put a desirable cost on farmers’ hard work.”

The Kashmir Chamber of Industries and Commerce (KCCI), an association of multiple business bodies, is in favour of improving the infrastructure for the saffron industry and bringing it on par with facilities in rival nations such as Iran and Spain.

“There should be a mechanism in place for branding of this spice,” KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad told IndiaSpend. “The entire process of saffron harvesting and packaging is done in a traditional manner here in Kashmir. Further, GI could be a game changer in the saffron industry as the demand for this cash crop grows with each passing day.”

Need for modern practices

Saffron farming remains rooted in traditional practices and needs to be modernised to improve the yield, said Bashir Ahmad Illahi, head of the Saffron Research Station in Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science in Shuhama area of Srinagar district.

“In Kashmir, growers sow 225,000 corms per hectare, while science suggests it should be 500,000,” he said. “Then post-harvest management, particularly sun-drying of the saffron flower, needs to change. Abroad, they do this with vacuum dryers.”

(Firdous Hassan is a Srinagar-based journalist and filmmaker.)

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