One of the most expensive spices in the world is getting some very expensive support, to ensure that it becomes a hallmark of Kashmir in the global scene. Tasavur Mushtaq reports on Mission Saffron.
Pulwama—the “Saffron Bowl” of Kashmir—is gradually losing the distinction of being the only place in Kashmir to produce saffron at a large scale. The launch of a major Rs. 372 crores project aimed at a complete overhaul and revival of the saffron sector promises to boost saffron production in the regions of Budgam, Srinagar and Kishtawar districts.
Until recently, this industry was becoming as rare as the saffron spice itself. But now, there are massive amounts of money and effort from both state and central level being pumped into the sector with the aim to revive it. “More land was allocated for saffron cultivation in Pampore this year,” says Bilal Rather, a saffron grower from the area. “It’s because of government incentives to growers.”
In the past decade, saffron productivity and area under saffron cultivation have both declined. “Area under saffron cultivation has declined from about 5707 ha in 1996 to just 3715 ha in 2009-2010. Productivity has also declined from 3.13kg/ha to 2.50kg/ha in the last few years,” reads the report released by the Indian government’s Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture.
The government’s strategies for reviving the saffron sector has increased the local grower’s interest in the industry, as it is promising them growth and monetary benefits—which was largely not the case in the past.
Grower Khursheed Ahmad, who lives in a village on the outskirts of Pampore, says he has seen more people choosing to cultivate saffron. “If I was cultivating it on one kanal (one eighth of a hectare), it has gone up by four kanals because the government is giving incentives that is making it more remunerative,” he said.
Under Mission Saffron, a grower will get Rs 25530 for every kanal by way of fertilizers and required pesticides, in addition to guidance and monitoring. In the first year, the government has already dispensed Rs 10 crores of the Rs 17 crores of incentives covering more than 3500 growers owning 350 hectares of saffron land. The one-time incentive will be extended to all the 3700 hectares in four years. “We strictly followed expert advice, and it helped us in getting produce in the newly planted crops for the very first year,” Khursheed said.
The Department of Agriculture is aiming to achieve positive results within next few years.
“ This year we have more area under crop and our expectation is around 11000 Kgs, last year we had produced around 9460 kgs,” Dr Farooq Ahmad Lone, Director Agriculture, Kashmir told Kashmir Life.
To accomplish Mission Saffron, interventions are to be made in phased manner. To improve productivity the replanting of existing saffron area is to be done. The target is to get 3715 hectares of land till 2014 under this scheme. Having average productivity level of 2.5kg/ha is to be enhanced to 5 kg/ha. To rejuvenate 3715 hectares, 18575 MT corms would be required. The target for first year is to replant 5 lakh corms per hectare that would produce over 15 lakh corms per hectare after four years.
“We are working towards a target of producing 18500 kilograms within four years by increasing per hector yield from 2.5 kgs to five kilograms which is reasonably possible.” Dr Lone said.
The financial requirements to achieve this target are Rs. 6.75 lakhs per hectare which comes to be around Rs 25076.25 lakhs. On the basis of actual costs central government will share burden of 75 per cent of the total costs which comes around Rs 18807.18 lakhs.
Analyzing and Improving
Saffron—one of the world’s most expensive spices—is cultivated by more than 16,000 families located in 226 villages. Most growers have a land holding of less than 0.5 hectares. Over the years, the price of saffron in the market has been fluctuating. However, in the year 2010-2011, the average price of saffron has been Rs. 1. 745 lakhs per kg.
Experts believe that the low productivity of saffron is due to the production mechanism adopted for it in Kashmir. They state that some of the factors responsible include: longer planting cycles (more than 15 years), use of unsorted corms of different grades for fresh plantation and availability of water, as saffron is the rain fed crop of highlands where irrigation sources are generally not available.
However, things are gradually getting better. “Draught and the corm rot disease that hit saffron in the past few years had reduced the land under saffron from 5707 hectares in 1997 to 2713 hectares in 2002. “Last year it was sown on 3700 hectares and this year it is much more,” says Dr Lone.
Strong demand and high prices in the domestic market rejuvenated efforts to revitalise saffron cultivation in state of Jammu and Kashmir. As per trade estimates, domestic demand is in range of 20 metric ton (MT) per annum, while current domestic production is in the range of only 10-15 MT.
In addition to its wide reaching implications, the new mission will also create employment. Collection of norms will require 700 days of skilled labor, while sorting and relaying of corms will require 378 and 850 days of skilled labor respectively. The cost of manpower has been estimated to be Rs 350 per day.
The time frame to carry out replanting corms is four years. The first year will be used for preparatory work. It is proposed to cover 41 percent of the actual area (1520 ha) in the second year, followed by 31 per cent (1150 ha) in third year and 28 per cent in the fourth year (1045 ha). The maximum area to be brought under rejuvenation shall be targeted in district Pulwama followed by Budgam (300 ha), Srinagar (165 ha) and Kishtawar (50 ha).
Experts have recommended adoption of seed rate of 5 lakh corms weighing more than eight grams each per hectare. There will be ample support given to farmers to achieve productivity of around 5kg/ha. “As the production is expected to commence within three to four years of planting, farmers will receive support for nutrient, disease and water management,’ read the document of saffron revival.
Contributing its bit to save the legacy of Kashmir, SKAUST-K has designed a roadmap for improving soil health by integrated nutrients management, integrated pest management and integrated disease management. They have developed a practice for saffron which can enhance productivity per unit area. They suggest use of manure, inorganic fertilisers, vermicompost, fungicides for control of corm rot and pesticides for rodent management. The total project cost for this component is Rs 1857.5 lakhs which is Rs 0.50 lakhs per hectare. Out of this the share from government will be 75 per cent (Rs 1393.12 laks).
For maintaining soil health and to achieve high corm multiplication ratio, about 892 tonnes of critical inputs are required over a period of three years. “The entire cost of critical inputs like farm yard manure, vermicompost, inorganic fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides shall be borne under the project,” the report mentions.
The expansion plan needs to have increased availability of corms rich in quality. The mission envisages having corm multiplication program through establishment of public and private sector nurseries. To achieve targets under area expansion, 55 hectares of 63 hectare seed farm of department of agriculture at Allowpora in Pulwama district will be brought under cultivation after land development. Presently the farm is used for seed production, including seed corm production in 2 hectares. KD farm of SKAUST-K will spare 12 hectares of land for seed corm multiplication. Coming forward to be part of progress, 15 hectares will be provided in Kishtawar by saffron development farm in Berwar for seed corm production.
“Established in an area of 82 hectares, the annual corm production from these nurseries is estimated to be 410 MT which will be sufficient to replant 246 hectare area expansion from 2014,” the report reads.
The survey also reveals that there is need to establish 128 tube wells with complete network of 3715 sprinklers in the targeted area. This will be entirely supported by the project. In addition to setting up tube wells that are going to feed 30 hectares of saffron land, efforts are on to have a permanent water source for areas adjacent to river Jhelum near Patal and Lathipora, by strengthening the Lathipora lift irrigation scheme. To irrigate Konibal karewas, Chatlam Sar- perennial water body is emerging as option to be explored. Sprinkler sets with a distribution system would cost Rs 5000 per set. The set shall be made available to the farmers with 50 percent subsidy, whereas 82 sets shall be installed on government farms with 100 project share.
Known for high quality, Kashmiri saffron suffers from poor post harvest handling. It is believed that the traditional method of sun drying reduces the quality due to degradation of colour along with fragrance. To ensure high product quality SKAUST-K designed scientific drying method using solar/ hot air dryers as it reduces drying time from 27-54 hours to 3-4 hours. Dryers with an initial cost of Rs 15000 shall be made available at 50 percent subsidy. The total physical target for distribution o dryers is 8000 till 2013-2014 which incurs cost of Rs 1200 lakhs of which government will share Rs 600 lakhs.
This labour intensive crop requires 80 days of labour for hoeing of fields to facilitate soil aeration and emergence of sprouts. Majority of this work is being done by women. To facilitate quick weeding and hoeing, five hundred weeders (60 already issued) costing Rs 1.0 lakh per weeder are proposed with 50 percent subsidy support, one for every two saffron growing families. To reduce the time and labour requirement to around 147 days, saffron planters with 100 percent project assistance will be provided.
“There is lot of emphasis on mechanical intervention both at pre-harvest and post-harvest stage,” Dr Lone said.
Keeping abreast with the local weather data, weather stations will be established in the growing areas. “Weather stations would ensure that local weather data is utilised to provide weather forecasts and crop advisory messages to the farmers through SMSs,” the report mentions. To have a full fledged weather station, the incurring cost will be around Rs 40 lakh.
To compliment the technology and infrastructure, the department will train farmers, helping them to change age old practices and increase their awareness of improved technologies.To spread awareness, an annual national seminar has been proposed. To begin with, an international seminar on saffron will be organised this year in collaboration with ISH, Belgium.
Flourishing saffron will remain a dream, if the menaces of spurious saffron and adulteration are not tackled on fervently. There have been various gangs operating in the area for the past few years who have invented different ways of adulteration. Police did nab a few gangs but growers say the problem still exists. The general belief amongst farmers is that until saffron is freed from this menace, investment in the saffron project will be futile. Quality control is very much needed to establish the Kashmiri saffron brand.
Currently, there is no mechanism of enforcing quality standards and price standards based on quality grades at the farm gate level. There is no state owned quality evaluation laboratory to carry out regular evaluation, and formally certify the saffron. The government is now establishing a quality control lab with ISO certification in Pampore.
A major part of Mission Saffron is to set up a saffron park that has a world class quality control laboratory and an e-auction centre. “We have already issued the tenders for the Rs 22 crores project and progress on this should be visible early next year,” Dr Lone said. This park will end the monopoly of 200 odd brokers on the trade, as it will help the grower get in direct touch with the buyer.
Farmers growing one of the world’s most expensive spices are happy in the saffron township of Pampore and at places where saffron production is coming up. It’s not just the marginal increase in both production and the prices of saffron, but also the formal launching of the major multi crore project Mission Saffron, that is giving farmers a reason to hope.