Saffron spice cultivation should be a growth industry for Indian Kashmir as it begins to recover from decades of unrest, but drought, pollution and corruption are threatening its future.
Kashmir is famous for its crocus flowers and their fragrant reddish-orange stamens which are plucked, then dried, before being used in cooking the world over to add taste and color. It’s a niche industry with potentially high returns: The spice is the world’s most expensive by weight and sells for more than US$5,000 dollars a kilogram in India alone.
All is not well, however, with local farmers struggling to make ends meet at a time when violence is subsiding and companies are re-opening amid signs of stability after a deadly 20-year anti-India insurgency.
Production of the labor intensive crop totaled 40 tonnes a year in the early 1990s, but now has slumped to just 6 tonnes annually from the 226 villages that grow the crop, a government agriculture department said.
Former farmer Mehraj-u-Din, 44, is part of the trend. He turned his back on the industry and now makes a living by brokering sales between saffron land owners and prospective buyers.
“This area used to be blanketed by saffron flowers, but now we have houses everywhere,” he said, surveying a piece of land in Acha Nambal area, a 20-minute drive from the state summer capital Srinagar.
Huge buildings have mushroomed in the area, once a prime location for saffron cultivation, despite a government ban.
“Officials who are supposed to protect this land are demanding huge bribes to allow construction,” Din said.
Many former farmers say that falling production prompted them to sell up and walk away from a tradition that dates back at least 1,000 years.
“I sold off my land as I got good price at a time when production had gone down considerably,” said Mohammed Ramzan of Pampore, a 15-minute drive from Srinagar and known as the saffron capital.
“I had to feed my family and marry off my daughter. Selling the land was the only option,” he said.
A TRUANT MONSOON
Elsewhere, the picture is the same in the Indian part of this divided territory, twice the trigger for a war between India and Pakistan. An ancient industry with huge export potential is withering on the stalk. Poor rainfall over several years is blamed by some on climate change, while others lament the lack of irrigation and years of official inaction in the face of the problems.
“There has been almost no rain over the past three years, and this year too rains have eluded us,” farmer Altaf Bhat said as his mother and sister tend their roadside farm in Lethpora village, about 30km south of Srinagar.
The fields are divided into small rectangular flower beds which, when in full bloom, resemble a huge tawny blanket with spots of purple and green. The crocus is an autumn plant raised from a bulb. It remains dormant until the middle of October, when green leaves shoot up followed by bright, strongly scented purple flowers. The flowers carpet the fields but then die off after several weeks. The final stage is a period of furious activity for thousands of Kashmiri families who spend their days collecting the flowers, then painstakingly snipping off the stigmas, which are dried before being sold.
Firdos Nehvi, Indian Kashmir’s leading saffron scientist and an associate professor in the state’s main agriculture university, said that declining rainfall in the mountainous region is a serious problem.