Kashmir’s prolonged dry spell has left saffron farmers worried yet again. Due to insufficient rainfall, the state has seen the lowest saffron productivity in the past 50 years. Farmers are considering shifting to cultivating high-density crops such as apple, walnuts and garlic.
“We don’t have figures (for saffron yield) for this year. It was nothing,” Firdous Ahmad Nehvi told The New Indian Express. Nehvi is the supervising scientist at the National Saffron Mission, set up in 2010 to rejuvenate saffron cultivation in Jammu & Kashmir. The project, which aimed to raise yield from 3 kg to 5 kg per hectare, will be extended for another five years beyond 2017.
A failed mission
A sensitive plant, the saffron crop requires two periods of rainfall in spring and post-monsoon for a sizeable harvest. The government had implemented a sprinkler irrigation project seven years ago to help combat sporadic rainfall when the saffron crop needed it the most, but farmers say the scheme is ineffective. A Down To Earth report shows that 128 bore wells were needed to cultivate saffron in the region. However, the Public Health Engineering and the Irrigation and Flood control departments had constructed only three bore wells since 2010 and the National Saffron Mission had dug 85. Moreover, most of these lie deprived of the support required for actual use.
Talking to Rising Kashmir, Sandeep Kumar Naik, Principal Secretary Agriculture Production, said that the delay of 2 years took place as the government outsourced construction of the sprinkler irrigation programme to the Mechanical Engineering Department.
While most farmers complained of inaction, some were reportedly obstructive in the laying of pipelines, fearing land damage. Tired of waiting for the sprinklers to become functional, a handful of enterprising individuals even set up their own irrigation facilities, which have now resulted in higher yields of 2,400 g/acre. However, not all have been able to follow suit, with 3,000 hectares of land in Pampore still lacking irrigation, which amounts to almost all of the land under saffron cultivation. South of Srinagar, Pampore is one of the most well-known saffron-producing towns in India.
Why is saffron important?
Saffron is the focal point of Pampore’s economy, fetching Rs 1.80 lakh/kg. A precious dried spice, the stigma of the flower is used in food and medicine. The crop is cultivated in cold regions preferably having warm sub-tropical climate, an altitude of 1,600m and 40-45cm of annual rainfall. The harvest season is from October to November.
Unfortunately, the rains that trigger blooming in September never arrived this year. Farmers harvest three batches of the flowers in one season, but climate change has alarmingly modified this pattern. As the harvest season draws to a close, most cultivators in Kashmir are yet to pick their first batch. Low soil moisture has resulted in low flower density, with sparse clusters replacing blooming purple fields.
With farmers unable to cover production and labour costs, coupled with conflicting claims of success hampering progress, it remains to be seen whether next year’s showers will blossom into redemption for the 19,000 families dependent on saffron cultivation in Pampore.