Over a dozen cement factories and illegal constructions have wreaked havoc in around 300 villages within and outside Pampore where Kashmir’s prized saffron is cultivated. Fields that earned the Valley handsome revenue, and an enviable reputation, are fast shrinking due to a variety of reasons. Growers cite massive road-widening and a number of cement factories that have come up in the area. Saffron-producing land has also been eaten away by construction carried out in contravention of regulations.
From 5,707 hectares in 1997, saffron farms have shrunk alarmingly a mere 3,010 hectares. And annual production has come down from 16 metric tons to a mere six.
By weight, Kashmir saffron is the world’s most expensive, selling for anywhere between Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh a kilogram. Experts at SKUAST believe that cement dust and lack of irrigation facilities have caused extensive damage to the cultivation. Though dry weather too has had an adverse role, growers say the major part of the blame lies with authorities. By their own estimates, yield per kanal of land has dropped from 15 or 20 kg to just ten last year. The fall was registered across the saffron belt and not only in a particular area.
A grower with six kanals in the Pampore karewa picked only six kilograms last year, harvesting only 75 percent of the yield the previous season. Similar results were seen in the Chandhara karewa. Curiously, production in areas under the National Saffron Mission was slightly better as compared to areas observing traditional methods of cultivation.
The `golden crop’ provides livelihoods to thousands of people directly and indirectly. Authorities and experts, therefore, have to intervene with knowhow and quality seeds to improve production. Growers too will have to abandon primitive modes of cultivation and adapt themselves to improvements under proven scientific methodology, particularly when areas under the National Saffron Mission have shown better results.
Growers have been observed to be reluctant to give up their old ways and adopt modern techniques, little realizing the magnitude of the loss to their trade and to the state. Experts suggest proper irrigation in September which is a crucial period for the crop. But besides technical inputs, the government must take urgent steps with regard to hazardous dust rising from cement factories that have been allowed to be set up in this sensitive zone without sufficient forethought. Saffron happens to be one of the last Kashmiri specialties still surviving – if only by a thread. This thread must not be allowed to snap.