By Parvaiz Bhat
Expressing mixed feelings about the saffron yield this year, the growers in the South Kashmir’s Pampore say that even the much hyped multi-billion rupees National Mission on Saffron (NMS) being implemented since 2010 in Kashmir has not ensured a reliable irrigation system for their fields which plays a crucial role in saffron productivity.
The Rs 4.1billion NMS, launched in 2010 to rejuvenate saffron cultivation in Kashmir by helping counter erratic rainfall among other challenges, has yet to ensure a reliable sprinkler irrigation for saffron crop, the most basic requirement for their crop, farmers complained.
Putting in place sprinkler irrigation in saffron fields, which have traditionally depended on rain, was a key objective of NMS. The NMS was due to end in 2016, but has since been extended, though most of the works under this mission have been completed according to the officials of agriculture and irrigation departments.
Saffron farmers, who grow the “king of spices” in fields sprawling across several thousand hectares mainly in Pampore, have complained for years that lack of rainfall at crucial times has led to a decline in production –adding that things are getting worse.
One or two spells of rain in September and October are vital for the crop to flower, farmers said. But in most years since the late 1990s, it either hasn’t rained in those months or has rained too much, said farmer Mohammad Reshi, adding that farmers still rely on how the weather behaves in the cropping season.
“The sprinkler irrigation system which the government claims has been put in place should have been functional by now. But is it working? You can see for yourself what has happened to these pipes and the bore-wells. They are not serving any purpose,” Reshi told Kashmir Observer, while pointing at the defunct sprinkle irrigation system in a saffron field on the eastern side of Srinagar-Jammu highway in Pampore.
Reshi and several other farmers have had a “dismal production” this year as the bulbs in their farms had got damaged by drought and rodents. However, some farmers whose crops had survived, said that they got a good yield following a spell of rain last month.
Lack of rainfall, especially from August to October amid fluctuation in temperature during the crop cycle, causes an outbreak of pests and diseases which damages the crop, Reshi and other farmers said.
One of the farmers who has had a good crop this year is Abdul Rahman who lives in Lethpora-Pulwama, where most saffron production is concentrated.
Rahman said that it was a stroke of luck that his crop was not damaged as it received natural irrigation because of the rain spell. “The government has apparently spent hundreds of crores (of rupees) on irrigation infrastructure for ensuring a good saffron production, but we still depend on rainfall for saffron cultivation. This is a pity,” Abdul Rahman told Kashmir Observer adding that “our primary concern (about irrigation) is yet to be addressed.”
According to him, the most important thing the government was supposed to do for the farmers was to make water available for the crop. “Though tube-wells have been dug and pipes have been laid for years now, we are yet to see the water in saffron fields,” he said.
However, Ghulam Mohammad Dhobi, Joint Director of agriculture department who is also the Nodal Officer for NMS, said that the farmers are also responsible if the irrigation system is yet to work.
“We have observed that at many places the irrigation networks have been removed by farmers from their fields using them as barricades for their farms,” the Nodal Officer told Kashmir Observer.
But, farmers such as Rahman and Reshi argued that some farmers have done it out of anger as the sprinkle irrigation network has never supplied any water to the fields.
“The pipes only act as hurdles when we have to plant the bulbs and tend our farms. So, some farmers might be removing them out of frustration,” Abdul Rahman said and added that he and other farmers have informed the government many times about the failure of the sprinkle irrigation system, “but we didn’t get any satisfactory answer”.
According to Dhobi and officials of the mechanical wing of the Public Works Department, some work is also pending because there has been no funding for NMS in the last three years.
“We have dug 128 bore-wells in the saffron land out of which 111 bore-wells were dug in Pulwama district alone. We will dig the remaining bore-wells also when the pending funding (Rs 85 crores) is released,” Dhobi said, adding 22 bore-wells were tested and started this year.
But, this was refuted by farmers who maintained that they are yet to see any benefits of the sprinkle irrigation system even as infrastructure for the purpose seems to be in place.
“All the bore-wells will be handed over to the community (saffron growers), but the farmers have to make sure that the infrastructure remains safe and usable,” Dhobi said.
Reyaz Khan, Executive Engineer, Machinery, in the Mechanical Engineering Division (Kashmir) said that the department has completed its work (70 to 75 percent) and the remaining work will be done as soon as the funds are released.
“We have not left any lacuna in our work,” he said.
Scientific research has established that irrigation plays the most important role for saffron cultivation in Kashmir. Research published by noted saffron expert, Firdous Nahvi, who worked at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, highlights that saffron yields are falling 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 notes 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.” He was the expert who advised the NMS implementers about the need for installing the sprinkle irrigation system for saffron cultivation in Kashmir.
The world’s most expensive spice, saffron (Crocus sativus) – whose tiny orange strands are used for seasoning and colouring from southern Europe to South Asia – is grown mainly in Kashmir, Iran and Spain. Saffron crop is extremely sensitive to climatic conditions. One kg of Kashmiri saffron fetches around 250,000 rupees in domestic and international markets though prices have come down in recent years according to the farmers.
The orange stigmas of the saffron plant are harvested as saffron and used as a flavoring and coloring agent in various recipes. Within Kashmir, saffron is mostly added to Kahwa – the traditional Saffron Tea drunk by people in Kashmir which has also become very popular with the tourists who visit the region annually.
Saffron is one of Kashmir’s major industries along with horticulture and agriculture, supporting some 20,000 families according to experts at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. Saffron has been cultivated since 500 AD in Kashmir. Saffron production in the valley had reached its peak in the 1990s at an annual average 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.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared Kashmir as a heritage crop, a distinction only a few crops have achieved globally. “Saffron cultivation is typical in the Kashmir region. This plant is mentioned in the 5th century B.C in Kashmiri records and is still part of the agricultural economy. Known all over the world, Saffron became a cash crop for farmers resulting from a long traditional heritage,” FAO has noted about Kashmir’s saffron.
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.