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Kashmir saffron losing ground

The slopes of Pampore, a town on the banks of river Jehlum in Indian administered Kashmir, are struggling to preserve its prized possession - Saffron, the costliest spice in the world. The karevas that once produced upto 16 metric tones of Saffron each year are left with a 6 metric tonnes annual production. Nusrat Ara reports.

Srinagar, May 30, 2008:

Although the major decline in production can be attributed to the decrease in the area under Saffron cultivation and lack of irrigation facilities, experts say farmers are not employing the best cultivation practices.

Apart from Kashmir, saffron is grown mostly at two places in the world, Iran and Spain.

While Iran accounts for about 70 per cent of total world production, the quality of the Kashmir Saffron is considered the best.

In Kashmir too, it is only the karevas of Pampore and the Kishtwar valley in Jammu province that is gifted with the rare spice.

The rich aroma of saffron marks all celebrations in Kashmir, as the Saffron Kahwa; a traditional beverage is a must on such occasions.

No festivity is considered complete without it.

The vast saffron fields remain dormant until mid-October when the bulbs germinate underneath the dry earth sprouting green shoots.

In autumn (November) the bulbs bloom with purple flowers colouring the vast dull brown earth into bright purple. Maryam, 60, married in Srinagar was born in Pampore.

She is "emotionally attached" to the Saffron land she inherited from her parents.

But the production has been perpetually decreasing.

"Earlier I used to lease out the land to a saffron grower who would give me peanuts.

Now I am getting better returns but the production on the whole has been decreasing," says Maryam.

With its proximity to the main city of the region, Pampore is vulnerable to rapid urbanization.

A lot of saffron land has been used for construction purposes.

From 5400 hectares in 1997 the saffron land has reduced to 3000 hectares.

In contrast Iran has increased the under cultivation area by 15 per cent over the past two years only.

The alarming decrease in saffron area prompted the state government to pass a law banning the sale or use of saffron land for any other purposes.

Ironically, the state government itself recently acquired 137.5 acres (1100 kanal) of saffron land at Lethpora Pampore for the construction of paramilitary CRPF headquarters.

Agricultural experts like Dr Firdous Ahmad Nehvi also cite other reasons for the decline in saffron production.

Nehvi, a scientist at the Sheri-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Srinagar (SKUAST) blames farmers for a "careless attitude".

"The problem with saffron is that farmers treat it as a subsidiary crop, as it is a perennial crop meaning you don't need to plant it every year. So they take it for granted and have not been applying any resources at all," says Nehvi. "See how much work they put in their rice fields and how every member of the family is involved. Naturally the rice production is better."

Farmers in Kashmir follow a planting cycle of 10 years while as researchers at Agriculture University have found that the average age of the saffron corms (bulbs) in a field is 15 years with many fields having corms as old as 30 years.

For a better yield and quality a 4-year plant cycle as followed in Iran is recommended.

"Many a Kashmiri grower has no idea about who sowed the corms in their land, a clear reflection of the lack of effort and commitment on their part," says Nehvi.

This "callous attitude", experts say, has given rise to a host of problems like weeds, pests, rodents and diseases.

Proper care and maintenance are lacking.

For problems like pest control farmers need collective efforts, rather than individual.

If one farmer takes control of pests in his field they might just migrate to another only to return after some time.

Eradication is possible only by joint action.

Bad hygiene coupled with long planting cycles has resulted in making epidemic of a disease - the Cormrot.

This fungal disease plagues 41 per cent of the fields resulting in further decrease in production.

The scientists at agriculture department allege that the farmers are not following the recommended scientific procedures.

Like the corms are required to be sterilized by fungicide before planting, which is rarely done.

Farmers drop the corms by hand while planting caring little about the placement of the corm, which is vital for germination.

They use corms of mixed grade (all sizes) when only corms weighing more than 10g are advised.

Smaller corms take upto three years to bloom while bigger ones flower from the first year itself.

Then there are factors outside the control of farmers.

With changing climates globally Kashmir is getting lesser rainfall.

With winters almost dry and the amount of rainfall decreasing in the summers, drought-like situations have become a regular feature.

Though the saffron fields at Pampore are situated on the banks of River Jehlum there is no proper irrigation system.

The saffron fields are mostly dependent on rainfall.

The amount and timing of rain decides the fate of a harvest.

Only a few affluent farmers have been able to dig bore wells.

Experts say that a good amount of water can ensure the increase in production by 50 per cent.

Usually in agriculture we see a problem of plenty.

Farmers usually tend to grow more than their fields can accommodate but with saffron the reverse is true.

One square metre of land can sustain 50 plants while at present only 20 to 30 plants are found.

This deficit also contributes low productivity.

Thus this filling of gaps with new plants is necessary for increasing the yield.

Traditionally there is no practice of using manure in the saffron fields, which has reduced the nutrients in the soil over the years.

The maintenance of nutrient status of the soil for a good crop is necessary.

Accordingly the department of agriculture is providing farmers with vermin compost as an alternative to organic manure, which they might, need for other purposes.

The manure besides enriching the soil with nutrients help in retaining the moisture, which is very important for the crop as it, leads to better productivity.

Iran accounts for 70 per cent of the world's saffron production.

Kashmir however has the advantage of quality.

In Mexico a research was conducted on the effect of saffron on cancerous cells, it was found that the quantity required was less in case of Kashmiri saffron that saffron from other countries.

It indicates that crocin, the carotenoid that imparts saffron a bio medicinal value is found in greater quantity in Kashmiri saffron than others.

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Click here to read this story. For reproduction rights contact Kashmir Newz Desk

Click here to read this story. For reproduction rights contact Kashmir Newz Desk

Click here to read this story. For reproduction rights contact Kashmir Newz Desk

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