Mission Impossible

The multi-crore NSM scheme was launched to revive the dwindling saffron production in Kashmir. But since its launch the ambitious scheme is in news for all the wrong reasons. It has become money-well for officials leaving growers in a dock, reports  Saima Bhat

The excavation of rich Saffron land going on.Pic: Bilal Bahadur
The excavation of rich Saffron land going on.     Pic: Bilal Bahadur

In order to revive the dwindling saffron cultivation in Kashmir Government of India (GoI) in November 2010 launched a 376 crore National Saffron Mission (NSM) scheme. The ambitious scheme envisioned to increase the per-hectare yield by replacing traditional ways of cultivation which according to agriculture scientists are obsolete and unproductive.

Farmers associated with the sector viewed NSM scheme a shot in the arm for Kashmir’s once famous saffron. But as time went by the initial excitement too waned. NSM, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh counted as one of his achievements viz-a-viz Kashmir took off on the wrong note. Poor implementation, unnecessary paper work, bureaucratic hurdles, corruption, huge swindling of funds created mistrust among farmers.  The multi-crore scheme envisioned remove the grey areas which experts believed is root cause of declining saffron production in Kashmir. After proper review NSM scheme was designed to take care of many concerns including, lack of irrigation facilities, traditional techniques adopted by the farmers and lack of post harvest management which ultimately affects productivity and quality. In addition to this a commission appointed by the GoI pointed out the shortfall in replacement of seeds used by the growers in last two decades. In order to improve the quality of the saffron seeds under NSM scheme state agriculture department acquired 37 hectares (740 kanals) of land at Alawpora, Shopina in South Kashmir. for seed multiplication. Since 2010, state agriculture department, started utilizing the Alawpora farms for seed multiplication in a phases manner.

In the first year i.e. 2010 a total of 5 hectare were utilized where 21.20 tonnes of saffron seeds were sown for multiplication purpose. In 2011 another 14 hectares were cultivated with 54.17 tonnes of seed sown. Likewise in 2012 and the remaining 18 hectares were put to use and 78.08 tonnes of seed were sown. The process was part of the NSM scheme envisioned to provide farmers high quality seeds bread at Alawpora farms which can help them improve the quality and yield.

But in 2012 the total produce from first two phase of seed multiplication scheme spread over 19 hectares was just 2 kilograms of dried saffron.

The revelations made in a letter (dated: 26.07.2013) sent to joint director agriculture (inputs) stationed at Lal Mandi Srinagar by the manager seed multiplication farm Alawpora clearly indicate that only a fraction of 153.45 tonnes mentioned in the official documents was actually sown. The said letter claims that state agriculture department is “day dreaming” when it claims to provide new seed to the growers from Alawpora farms at the end of 5 years when cycle of seed production is completed.  The letter criticizes the scheme by terming it a “while elephant” which is completely futile.

When contacted joint director (inputs) state agriculture department SR Galotra said “our priority is not how much saffron we got from the farms. We are concerned about the seed multiplication only and it is going as per the schedule.”

Galotra says between 8 and 10 kilograms of saffron was produced in Alawpora farms in 2012 against just 2 kilograms mentioned in the letter addressed to him by manager farms.

Another allegation that came to fore recently was the size and weight of seeds that were multiplied at Alawpora farms. While director agriculture, Mushtaq Peerzada maintains that as per the standards set by the department 8 grams of corms should be sown, joint director (inputs) Galotra says they have sown seeds weighting 5 grams.

“They are both lying. At Alawpora they have sown seeds well below 5 grams. It is of inferior quality,” says Sameer, a Pampore based grower who has visited Alawpora farms recently to inspect the site after agriculture department flouted tenders to dispose of fresh saffron flowers recovering in 37 hectares. “I went to check the site before actually filling the tender documents. It was a shock for me as there was nothing at all. It is just a large piece of barren land,” said Sameer. “There was no seed visible as I dug out land at many places.”

On July 23, 2013 a high level committee visited Alawpora farms to look into the allegations. Interestingly, the report submitted by the committee is so far untraceable.

Another letter sent by the farms manager, Allowpora [dated February 16, 2013], points out various reasons like insufficient supplement of inputs in the soil, non commissioning of sprinkler irrigation system, age of the corms (seeds), effect of weather and the texture of soil – are reasons responsible for the lower produce in Alawpora farms.

But the agriculture department puts the blame on the soil quality of the Alawpora farms.

Interestingly Alawpora farms previously hosted department of Drug Research Laboratory who used it the land for producing Medicinal and Aromatic plants since late eighties.

“Alawpora has Sandy loom soil but the ideal soil for Saffron cultivation is clay soil, which has the power of retaining moisture in it,” says the Galotra.

Recently the NSM has come under the radar of State Vigilance Organization (SVO) after its anti corruption body received a number of complaints regarding misappropriation in Saffron seeds sown at Alawpora farms.

The SVO has shot a notice to Agriculture Department, which is the chief agency for implementation of NSM scheme in Kashmir, and demanded all details regarding “various allegations of quality and quantity” of saffron corms sown during the current fiscal year in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district where saffron is mainly grown.

But refuting all these allegations, Galotra say the end results of the farm can be checked only in 2014. The corms were sown in 2010 and it is only after 4 years that the corms will give desired results.


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