By Athar Parvaiz
SRINAGAR, India, Feb 7 2024 (IPS)
Saffron, the expensive spice from the Kashmir Himalayas, has been facing challenges for years, mostly related to yields and inadequate irrigation compounded by the climate crisis.
While the government launched the 4.1 billion rupee National Saffron Mission (NMS) in 2010 to mitigate these challenges and rejuvenate saffron cultivation in Kashmir, its efficacy remains questionable, farmers say.
Saffron is one of Kashmir’s major industries, along with horticulture and agriculture, supporting some 17,000 families in the region. India contributes 5% of the world’s total production, of which 90% is supplied from the Kashmir Himalayan region.
The spice has been cultivated since 500 AD in the Kashmir valley and reached its peak in the 1990s at an annual average yield of around 15.5 tonnes from 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres), but both the land farmed for saffron and yields have declined since then.
According to a study, prolonged periods of drought have caused significant concerns among saffron farmers.
“Since the crop heavily relies on rainfall, insufficient precipitation has resulted in the region experiencing its lowest saffron productivity in the past three decades,” the study says.
“In addition to the challenges posed by drought, the region is also facing issues related to urbanization and increasing population growth,” the study further says. According to Kashmir’s agriculture department, saffron land has reduced from 5,700 hectares in the 1990s to 3,715 hectares in 2016 due to land-use conversions.
Saffron farmers, who grow the “king of spices” in fields sprawling across several thousand hectares, mainly in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, have been complaining for years that lack of rainfall at crucial times has led to a decline in saffron production.
One or two spells of rain in September and October are vital for the crop to flower, farmers say. But in most years since the late 1990s, it either hasn’t rained in those months or has rained too much, damaging the crop, says farmer Mohammad Reshi, adding that farmers still rely on the weather in the cropping season.
“The sprinkle irrigation system, which the government claims has been put in place, should have been functional by now. But it is not working. You can see for yourself what has happened to these pipes and the bore wells. They are not serving any purpose,” Reshi tells IPS while pointing at the defunct sprinkle irrigation system in a saffron field in Pampore, where saffron cultivation is concentrated in Kashmir.
Though, Reshi says, tube wells have been dug and pipes have been laid in saffron fields for years now, “we are yet to see the water in saffron fields.”
According to him, the project was supposed to be completed years ago, but it still lingers. Denying the allegations of saffron farmers, Ghulam Mohammad Dhobi, Joint Director of Kashmir’s agriculture department, who is also the Nodal Officer for NMS, says that the government is trying its best to help the farmers get good yields.
“The farmers have not to wait for long to see the positive results of the irrigation infrastructure, as we are expecting its completion soon after it will function properly,” Dhobi tells IPS.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which has given saffron cultivation in Kashmir a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) status, “saffron cultivation has been facing severe challenges of sustainability and livelihood security, with an urgent need to adopt appropriate technologies to address water scarcity, productivity loss, and market volatility.”
Scientific research has established that irrigation plays the most important role in saffron cultivation in Kashmir. Firdous Nahvi, a former agriculture scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, says that saffron yields have traditionally depended on rainfall in the crucial months from August to October in Kashmir, and saffron yields have fallen in recent years because of the irrigation problem.
According to Nahvi, until 1999-2000, Kashmir received well-distributed precipitation of 1,000 to 1,200 mm per year in the form of rain and snow, but that has now decreased to 600 to 800 mm.
“In any part of the world, farming is unthinkable without water,” Nahvi says and adds: “Creating irrigation facilities was the critical part of the project because we have observed in recent years that it doesn’t rain when the crop needs the moisture.” Nahvi was the expert who advised the NMS implementers about the need for installing the sprinkle irrigation system for saffron cultivation in Kashmir.
Solutions in Farming Methods
Bashir Allie, an agricultural scientist who heads Kashmir’s Saffron Research Station, says that he has also advised the agriculture and irrigation departments of the Kashmir government that creating drip irrigation facilities is crucial for improving saffron yields.
“But we are also working with farmers through our field awareness program to enhance saffron yield,” Allie tells IPS, adding that he and his team are telling the farmers to plant the optimum number of corms in the saffron fields rather than planting them haphazardly.
For example, Allie says, the farmers mostly plant up to 300,000 corms per hectare, “whereas we advise them to go for 500,000 to one million corms per hectare (or 50 corms per square meter).” This, he says, will help the farmers increase their yields, provided they uproot the old corms every four years and plant new corms.
“What we have also observed is that the farmers keep the corms in the fields for up to 20 years and leave them unattended,” he tells IPS, adding that this affects the yield as the older corms keep producing new corms, which increases the competition for nutrients within the population and the entire population underperforms (in producing flowers), thus affecting the yield.
“So, the solution we are offering to the farmers is to plant the optimum number of corms (50 corms per square meter) and replace the corms after every four years,” Allie informs.
To mitigate the impact of drought conditions on saffron crops, Allie says that he and his team have advised the farmers to start growing almond trees in saffron fields at a distance of four to five meters so that they provide shade and help the farmers retain moisture in their saffron fields.
“Once the almond trees produce branches, they will provide shade to saffron fields, as saffron is a shade-loving plant. Also, the moisture in the soil will be retained,” Allie says, adding that the almond trees, besides providing shade, will also produce almonds, thereby helping the farmers increase their income.
IPS UN Bureau Report