Buried in cement dust: Kashmir’s saffron production takes a hit, farmers forced to switch occupation

Despite protests, cement factories have been allowed to be set up right next to saffron fields, complain growers

By Hamaad Habibullah, Muhammad Aatif Ammad Kanth
Published: Tuesday 09 January 2024
Photo: Muhammad Aatif Ammad Kanth

The Khrew area of Pampore in Kashmir’s Pulwama district was once a hub of saffron cultivation. But now, only one saffron farmer cultivates the beautiful flowers which yield the world’s costliest spice. “Almost everyone in Khrew used to grow saffron back in the 1980s, but these days I am the only one engaged in this cultivation,” said Mohammad Maqbool Shah from Khrew, locally known as ‘Saffron Town’.

With 15 kanals of saffron land, Mohammad Maqbool is extremely worried about the future of saffron as an industry and the future of Pampore as one of the leading saffron producers. (One kanal is an eighth of an acre or 5,445 square feet.) The primary reason for Maqbool’s worry and the rapid decline in saffron cultivation in the region is the numerous cement industries present in the area. “Both the quantity and quality of the whole Pampore saffron field have been damaged by these industries. I see a very bleak future for saffron growing in Pampore,” he said.  

The stigma (male reproductive part) of the saffron flower (Crocus sativus L) is used to produce the spice, known as kong in Kashmiri and zaffran in Urdu. 

Only a few regions in the world are capable of growing the plant and Kashmir produces an average of 11-12 tonnes a year, making it the second-largest saffron producer in the world. Kashmiri zaffran or kesar, as it is called in Hindi, is sold at a whopping price of Rs three lakhs per kilogramme. A gram of kesar is extracted from around 160-180 flowers, which is extensive in terms of the productivity and labour required. 

Saffron is famous for the presence of crocin, an element that plays a crucial role in inducing the natural deep colour in saffron. In particular, Kashmiri kesar contains 8 per cent of crocin, while the rest of the varieties contain 5-6 per cent of the element. 

The exceptional presence of crocin makes the Kashmiri variant of saffron deeper in colour, with various medicinal (lowering blood pressure, treating anaemia, migraines, insomnia, and also preventing epidemics and plagues) and cosmetic properties (helping in improving skin, reducing pigmentation, spots).

It is also an integral part of many traditional dishes like kheer, biryani, sweet dishes, ice creams, bakery products, among others. Kashmiri saffron is an important part of cooking, in particular Wazwan and Kashmiri Kehwa. Kashmiri kong also finds its applications in beverages, confectionery, dairy products, and food colouring. 

But the recent decades have witnessed the colourful saffron fields vanishing from many of Kashmir’s cities, including Budgam and Pampore, and profits vanishing from the farmers’ collections. The land under saffron cultivation has declined a significant 60 per cent in the last 20 years.

Cement factories that have cropped up in the immediate vicinity of the saffron fields are the major threat. These units cough out enormous clouds of dust that have put the around 200 hectares of saffron fields in Pulwama under severe threat, according to locals. 

Saffron yield has halved over the years in the district due to cement pollution — to 70 gm per kanal which was 150 gm earlier, according to reports, with cultivation in Khrew the most affected.

The plant can no longer be produced in the fields adjacent to the cement factories due to dust and pollution, according to Abdul Majeed, chairperson of the Saffron Growers Association. So, the farmers in the surrounding areas have either sold their properties to these businesses or left them fallow, he added. “Every year, they invest money and grow the factories.”

The reason why cement dust is enough to decimate acres of saffron plantation is because the flower is extremely delicate. “During the flowering season, if heavy dew falls on the stigma of the saffron it  deteriorates the quality of saffron. Now imagine if a massive amount of cement dust falls on the flowers; it will certainly kill it, lowering the quality and quantity of  the produce,” said Niyaz Ahmad Dar, assistant professor at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences & Technology, Kashmir (SKUAST-k), who is currently working at the saffron research station in Pampore. 

Farmers are also advised to wear gloves while harvesting to protect the stigma, because impurities present on the hands also affect the flower, emphasising that saffron production requires a clean, pollution-free environment.

Cement dust released by the nearby factories primarily contains nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which get accumulated on the flowers, impacting the growth, quality and quantity of saffron. The list also includes other waste products like bottom ash, crushed concrete fines, filter residue, paper ash and lignite fly ash, that impact the overall cultivation process and end product. The harmful gases and other by-products are produced in large quantities, making the dust basic with a pH of 12-13, affecting vegetative and reproductive growth. 

Large volumes of cement dust also results in decreased chlorophyll, clogged stomata in leaves, interrupted light absorption and gas diffusion, inducing early leaf fall and resulting in stunted growth. 

Flowers of saffron. Photo: Muhammad Aatif Ammad Kanth 

The impact has also been observed in saffron fields far away from the cement factories. Syed Mohammad Shafi, a retired government school principal, currently works on his saffron farm in the main town of Pampore. His family was one of the first saffron farmers in the locality.

Shafi shared that although his field is not close to any industry, the crops are experiencing decreased output due to the cement dust. “One can imagine the situation in the fields which are close to these industries.” 

Saffron cultivation requires both a pleasant environment and good air quality, and the region's air quality has decreased as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions, he added. “The people who used to farm in the regions around Khrew have given up and say they are reaching their breaking point. They have either begun farming in other areas that are less affected by these industrial toxins or they have sold their fields to these industrialists.”

Other reasons such as diversion of land used for saffron cultivation for housing and industries, climate change-induced unexpected rainfall and usage of machines for ploughing have also contributed to reduced production, said Chowdhary Mohammad Iqbal, director department of agriculture production & farmers welfare, Kashmir, adding that saffron farming is wholly dependent on climate.

‘Government apathy can’t be overlooked’

Considering the sensitive nature of saffron as a crop and an industry, the region’s farmers have been resistant to welcoming any sort of industry in the surrounding area. Despite the repeated protests and resistance of saffron growers, the authorities set up the cement industries in the exact vicinity of saffron fields, they complained.

“Since 2005, I have been speaking out against these factories. I'm trying everything I can, but nobody is paying attention. These industrialists are compelling individuals,” said Abdul Majeed, chairperson of the Saffron Growers Association. 

He claims that industrialists are careless because the government is not stepping in. He even claimed that the media is reluctant to expose these industrialists. “I repeatedly tried to get media persons to visit the sites, but they never reported,” he added. 

“Not only cement factories but any factory that causes any kind of environmental pollution is dangerous from saffron production. Steps must be taken to decrease the amount of dust coming out of these cement industries to decrease its effect on saffron production,” said Dar.

The falling quantity and quality of saffron flowers has weakened the saffron spice  industry, which  largely contributes to the economic well-being of Kashmir. The market rates of Kashmiri kesar have dipped and the trade is no longer lucrative.

Mohammad Shafi, a saffron grower, said:

Saffron farming has a very bleak future. We don't know why saffron prices are declining, but the market for this spice is shrinking daily and both its quantity and quality are declining. Farmers are finding it more difficult to make a living, and many of them are abandoning the industry to pursue other careers because they don't think farming is financially rewarding anymore.

Although many people have left saffron cultivation for various reasons, the impact of the cement industries is the most common.

Many of those who have not given up feel that the government needs to step in. Although a lot of on-paper schemes and policies have been created to protect the saffron industry, these have not been implemented. The saffron growers and farmers feel that the time for mere assurances has passed and an actual plan needs to be implemented to stop future destruction and undo the past damages.

Chowdhary Mohammad Iqbal, director department of agriculture production & farmers welfare, Kashmir, asserted that authorities are taking necessary steps in this regard. “There is no denying that pollution affects every crop including saffron and I don’t deny that these factories have affected the saffron but we are doing our best to decrease the effect of these industries on saffron production. We are continuously writing to concerned authorities to take the steps which will lead to minimum possible pollution from these industries so that their impact on saffron production can be decreased,” he said. 

Hamaad Habibullah and Muhammad Aatif Ammad Kanth are freelance journalists based in Kashmir.

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