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Restoring value to Kashmiri saffron

Saffron production in Kashmir dates back to 500 AD (Athar Parvaiz Bhat)
Saffron production in Kashmir dates back to 500 AD
Athar Parvaiz Bhat

Kashmiri saffron, famous for offering the best quality in the world, has almost halved in value since 2009 from 2.7 lac (US$6,000) per kilogram to only 1.3 lac (US$3,600) per kg in the current season. Faced with multiple constraints, Kashmir's saffron growers are struggling. However, with the support of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the World Bank has launched a "Value Chain on Kashmir Saffron" project, which aims to boost production and quality using environmentally-friendly techniques.

Saffron production in Kashmir dates back to 500 AD, reaching its peak in the 1990s. Since then acreage and yield have declined with per hectare production less than 2kg compared to around 6kg in other parts of the world, including Spain and Iran. "From 5,707 hectares in 1997, the land under saffron cultivation has shrunk to 3,000 hectares today," says Chuni Lal Bhat, an agriculture officer dealing with saffron production. Consequently, says Bhat, the production of saffron has slumped to 6.5 metric tons annually from 16 metric tons in the early 1990s.

Over 16,000 families in over 200 villages remain in saffron production but face tough times. Production of fake saffron in Kashmir, as well as smuggling of lower quality saffron from Iran, lack of proper irrigation facilities, pollution from nearby cement factories and poor farming practices by the saffron growers themselves are all considered to be major causes of the slump in Kashmir's saffron trade.

Rising to the challenge of competition

"The credibility of our saffron has suffered a huge dent because of the production of fake saffron, which is passed off as pure Kashmiri saffron in the markets and is sold at far lower prices," says Ghulam Mohammad, a Saffron grower of Pampore, south Kashmir. "With the slump in prices, we don't get buyers for our genuine product."

Noor Mohammad Bhat is one of the remaining 16,000 saffron producers in Kashmir (Athar Parvaiz Bhat)
Noor Mohammad Bhat is one of the remaining 16,000 saffron producers in Kashmir
Athar Parvaiz Bhat

Abdul Razaq, another saffron grower, views smuggling of saffron from Iran as another major concern: "Saffron from Iran is smuggled to India and is then re-branded as Kashmiri saffron. This smuggled saffron is later sold as genuine Kashmiri saffron in Indian and international markets against low prices," laments Razaq.

With reduced market credibility and lack of support from the government, many saffron growers are selling their land. "Under the Saffron Act, there is a complete ban on converting saffron land into residential areas, but unfortunately both buyers and sellers get away with it because of government apathy," observe agricultural experts.

Poor farming techniques also contribute to poor production: poor quality saffron corms (bulbs), a lack of fungicides to protect against root rot (a common disease of saffron corms), and inadequate post-harvest drying contribute to poor yield and quality of saffron produced. Saffron farmers still practise traditional methods of plucking and drying the saffron, which is all very labour intensive. But given the current prices of saffron, farmers state that they are unable to afford technological improvements. Farmers also largely rely on rain for cultivation and a deficit often leads to crop failure.

World Bank support

With support from the World Bank project, however, it is hoped that saffron growers in Kashmir will be able to improve their prospects. "Through this project we provide farmers with improved planting material that has been treated with fungicides; we also conduct nutrient-management trials and show them how to apply appropriate levels of fertiliser," says Ajaz Ahmad Lone, a researcher with the World Bank. "There are many gaps in saffron farming, which need to be plugged," Lone continues. "For instance, farmers do not observe grading of corms - small and large. So we teach them how to optimise the plant population, which is mandatory for a rich yield."

Around 250 saffron farmers are working with the World Bank project (Athar Parvaiz Bhat)
Around 250 saffron farmers are working with the World Bank project
Athar Parvaiz Bhat

Around 250 farmers are working with the World Bank project. Lone reports that so far they have had a good response from the farmers, and he believes that on-farm trials, to help farmers tackle rats and diseases like corm-rot which damage the crop, will also help to optimise the potential of saffron.

Dr Firdous Ahmad Nahvi, who heads the World Bank project, says that already there is a visible impact. "Crop growth is much better on the farms where we have provided the seeds and have got them planted in our presence than in those where farmers have planted the seeds themselves," says Dr Nahvi. "Apart from this, we have helped farmers to establish 240 nurseries for the expansion of the crop and we are in the process of setting up a state-of-the-art pack-house unit where farmers will be able to dry and package the final product."

Written by: Athar Parvaiz Bhat

Date published: May 2010


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