Unplanned construction and industrial activities have shrunk the land under saffron cultivation in Kashmir and resulted in 80 per cent decrease in the yield of the most important cash crop of the Valley over the last two decades, according to officials and cultivators.
From 7000 hectares in Pampore tehsil alone in 1990, the land under saffron cultivation has reduced to 3600 hectares in entire Kashmir. The central government has recently announced a Rs 376 crore National Saffron Mission to increase the yield and bring more areas under cultivation.
Despite efforts by the agriculture department to introduce saffron cultivation in areas with topography similar to Pampore, which accounts for nearly 90 per cent of the saffron produced in the State, the crop is virtually facing threat of extinction.
One of the major reasons for shrinking of acreage under saffron cultivation is the “mindless and unplanned” construction of residential houses in the midst of the fields, official claim.
Ironically, one such sprawling residential colony which has come up at Pampore has been named as ‘Saffron colony.’ Although the State legislature has enacted a law to prevent such constructions, officials in the agriculture department claim it is not being implemented on the ground.
“The legislation is there but enactment of these laws is not in the hands of officers in the Agriculture department,” Nigeen Ahmad Lone, the Chief Agriculture Officer of north Kashmir’s Pulwama district, said.
Mr. Lone said the department officials can only identify the violations of the Act but have no powers to enforce to take action.
“We can at the most identify and inform. Beyond that the district administration and the police have to act,” he said.
The decline in land under saffron cultivation has also been attributed to lack of irrigation facilities in Pampore tehsil.
Mr. Lone said the department will install tube wells, each at a cost of Rs 20 lakh, to solve the irrigation problem.
“Thirty hectares will be covered by one tube well, but farmers will not be compensated for the land which will used for installing it,” Mr. Lone said.
Saffron growers in Pampore said over the years there has been a sharp decline in the yield. Haji Abdul Samad Bhat, a saffron grower from Chand-hara area in Pampore, said one hectare of land would yield around 10 kilograms of saffron in 1990.
“However, at present we are getting only around two kilograms per hectare. The returns are meagre and it might not be economically viable to continue growing saffron over the coming years,” Mr. Bhat said.
The other threat to the saffron crop is from several industrial estates established in nearby areas of Khunmoh and Khrew in Pulwama district, another farmer Shabir Ahmad Dar said.
There are several cement factories in Khrew and stone crushers in Pampore tehsil, which are polluting the environment, he added.
Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight.
Adulteration and sale of spurious saffron have also increased the woes of growers, who claim that these have brought a bad name to the local produce.
“There were times when customers would not bargain about the price and we would also fix rates as per demand and supply. With the very genuineness of the product in question, we are facing a difficult situation in the market,” Mr. Dar said.