The harvest of saffron, known as the king of spices, has been declining in recent years and has failed farmers in Kashmir completely in 2017 because of a severe drought caused in part by climate change

A woman showing her meagre collection of saffron flowers (Photo by Athar Parvaiz)

“Earlier, we used to squat and move around slowly in our saffron fields for harvesting bounty crops. But over the past few years, production of saffron flowers has come down to such a level that we virtually run through the saffron fields while collecting the harvest,” said 68-year-old Ghulam Hassan Rather as he sat on his knees and scuffed the soil with his hands to show the impact of drought conditions on the soil.

Rather has grown saffron for the past four decades in his fields spread over four acres in Lethpora area of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Kashmir got the first proper rainfall in the past three months on November 18, but not before destroying the highly lucrative saffron crop, which costs around USD 3,000 per kg in the international market. From August to October-end, the region got just 10mm rainfall against an average 100mm for these months, according to Sonum Lotus, Director of the regional meteorological department in Srinagar.

Ghulam Hassan Rather has grown saffron for the past four decades in Lethpora-Pampore of southern Kashmir (Photo by Athar Parvaiz)

With the exception of 2015, when the crop was good, droughts or untimely excessive rainfall have repeatedly damaged saffron crops in recent years, farmers say. In 2014, excessive rains in September had damaged the crop. According to Rather, every farmer would get around 50 tola or 600 grams (one tola equals 12 grams) per kanal (one-eighth of an acre), which has now got reduced to around 150 grams in recent years since 2009.

This year, the worst ever for saffron, farmers didn’t get even that much, said Rather. “This year we had a terrible experience of our life-time. We just got 5-10% of what we had got last year,” Rather told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Saffron, widely known as the king of spices, is grown in Kashmir, Iran, Spain and recently in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s saffron fields have given better yields than Kashmir this year and last year and many believe it can wean away Afghanistan’s farmers from opium poppy cultivation.

Quoting the success of saffron in Afghanistan, Kashmiri farmers draw consolation in seeing the funny side of their failing crops. “Five years back, Afghanistan’s experts and farmers had visited our fields to get a sense of how we grow saffron. The Afghan government wanted to train their agricultural experts and farmers for cultivating saffron in that country in order to wean farmers away from poppy cultivation. And, now, there are chances that we might end up assuming the role of Afghanistan’s farmers considering our repeated saffron-crop failures,” quipped Showkat Ahmad Shah, a saffron grower in Lethpora.

Shah was referring to the visit of a delegation of Afghanistan’s agricultural experts and farmers in December 2011 to Pampore’s saffron fields during which the Afghan delegation was shown how Kashmiri farmers grow saffron and improve saffron production.

Rain-fed saffron industry

Supporting around 20,000 families directly, the saffron industry is the second largest industry after horticulture in Kashmir. But, according to Kashmir’s agriculture department, saffron land has reduced from 5,700 hectares in the 1990s to 3,715 hectares in 2016, while per hectare production has come down to less than 1.88 kg compared with around 6 kg in other parts of the world.

The reducing yields are discouraging saffron farmers of Kashmir such as Rather. “The success of saffron crop is entirely dependent on rains. If it rains three-four times from August to November, we get a good crop. And if it doesn’t rain as per the need, the crop suffers extensive damage,” Rather said and added that lack of rainfall caused extensive damage to this year’s crop as there was no rainfall from August to November. “It is all up to God. If he wishes, he causes the rainfall. But, if he is not happy with us, he makes us suffer.”

Firdous Ahmad Nahvi, who has carried out extensive research on saffron and has helped the government design a project for helping the farmers to tide over droughts and technical difficulties, said that the issue of irrigation is the actual reason why saffron yield is on decline.

“Creating irrigation facilities was the critical part of the project (I had designed) because we have observed in recent years that it doesn’t rain when the crop needs the moisture. In any part of the world, farming is unthinkable without water,” Nahvi told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

He said that rainfall in the months of September and October becomes an issue, which is being observed more intensely in recent years. “If it doesn’t rain in these months, the flowering is delayed due to delayed sprouting which does not correlate with critical limits of day and night temperature, thereby, affecting crop productivity.”

According to Nahvi, till 1999–2000 Kashmir was receiving well-distributed precipitation in terms of rain and snow to the extent of 1,000–1,200 mm which at present has decreased to 600–800 mm.

Dejected farmers

As Rather spoke, dejected farmers, carrying wicker-baskets and bags in their hands, could be seen hurrying through their saffron fields as they collected sparsely-spread saffron flowers.

Shakir Ahmad Sofi, in his late 20s, said that he vividly remembers from his childhood how Pampore’s saffron fields would get a festive look and turn abruptly into market places at harvesting time every year. The annual activity, he said, was aptly called the Saffron Festival.

“All small traders like crockery-sellers, cloth-sellers, cosmetic-dealers etc. used to set up their kiosks and stalls to sell their products to people in lieu of saffron,” Shakir told indiaclimatedialogue.net as he moved around diligently to spot saffron flowers. “We as children used to derive great enjoyment from the festive mood. And we also used to get good pocket money.” Not anymore. “Now, we find it boring when we are asked by our parents to work and collect the harvest from the fields.”

Rafeeqa Begam, a middle-aged woman, said that women used to take their own little shares from the saffron harvest. “We used to sell our share on our own for buying different things including jewellery. But now, because of frequent droughts, we are unable to make the money from saffron harvests which we used to get earlier.”

As he stopped while hauling his tractor on a bumpy track, Ghulam Mohammad, a farmer, told indiaclimatedialogue.net that he was carrying the water containers on his tractor for irrigating his saffron crop. “This is what some of us (who can afford) are doing now. We are taking water from a long distance to keep the soil of our saffron lands moist so that the seeds stay in proper health until the next crop,” Mohammad said and expressed his dejection regarding the government’s failure to provide drip irrigation facilities.

“As you can see, they have kept those pipes there for display only. They are of no use. If they had any utility, our saffron fields would have got irrigated,” he said, and added that it would take him around 80 trips to irrigate his crop.

Failed drip-irrigation scheme

In 2010, the central government in New Delhi had launched an INR 3.71 billion National Mission on Saffron for “rejuvenating” saffron cultivation in Kashmir, which was later upgraded to INR 4.1 billion.

Creating sprinkler irrigation facilities for saffron cultivation, which has traditionally been dependent on rain, was one of the basic objectives of the mission after it was felt that natural precipitation had almost stopped occurring as per the requirements of the crop during the crucial months of September and October in the past one and a half decades.

But farmers in Lethpora, where most of the saffron farmers are concentrated, said that their concerns about irrigation are yet to be addressed. “The most important thing the government was supposed to do for us was to make water available for our crop. Though a few tube-wells have been dug at some places, we are yet to see the water in saffron fields,” Imtiyaz Ahmad Bhat, a farmer, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

As per the details of the project, INR 2 billion was meant for creating sprinkler irrigation facilities for the crop. The money has been almost entirely spent, but farmers are still complaining about lack of irrigation.

Officials have held the land mafia responsible for the situation. However, requesting anonymity, a top official of Kashmir’s Mechanical Engineering Department (MED) – which was assigned the job of creating the irrigation facilities – said, “They (the land mafia) did create problems indirectly at one or two places, but it was not the only reason why the irrigation facility is yet to be created effectively. It became an excuse for the department to hide its sluggishness.” He also said the department has been unable to coordinate between the many companies involved in the project.

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