Vanishing Saffron Fields

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Kashmiris once famed saffron fields are fast vanishing under the layers of concrete and mortar. With ill conceived policies to stop conversion of saffron land and nature playing spoil sport worlds costliest crop is under threat, reports Saima Bhat.

A child sorts Saffron flowers in the world famous Saffron fields at Pampore

A child sorts Saffron flowers in the world famous Saffron fields at Pampore

After completing his post graduation in Botany from the University of Kashmir, Sameer Ahmad Mir was very keen to join his family business. Only a decade back, in his ancestral hometown, Pampore almost everybody was one way or other associated with saffron cultivation.

Unlike his siblings who are working outside Kashmir, Sameer chose saffron cultivation hoping to earn a decent livelihood. But saffron, the world’s costliest spice is fast turning into a history in Pampore.

Every years in October Pampore used to remain abuzz with activity, as saffron flowers carpeted its famous Karewas. But this year these Karewas are wailing for attention. Only sing of life in these Karewas is of big dumper trucks which work round the clock to serve a multi-million rupees highway project, a part of which cuts through these saffron fields.

Ironically the soil used for land filling for this new highway project is extracted from these saffron fields illegally.

Mushtaq Ahmad Ganie, a local activist who is actively campaigning against illegal construction in saffron fields feels that land mafia with help from local administration is responsible for the decline of saffron production in Pampore.

“Land mafia is purchasing cultivable saffron land on higher rates which they later turn into residential colonies,” says Mushtaq.

But Mushtaq, who is also a member of the Saffron Growers Association, says the conversion was started by the government itself.

“State government converted acres of saffron land into government offices and joinery mills even before the militancy broke out,” says Mushtaq.

And later during militancy, government forces converted part of fields into garrisons. However, the threat to saffron cultivation was realized by the state government and a law was passed by the state legislature banning land use in the area in 2006. But nothing really changed on ground and the illegal structures are still coming up in the area.

The local farmers allege that government is itself responsible for the mess and that is why this menace is not stopped.

“All PHE bore wells have been constructed by the government in saffron fields and then it is quite obvious when you have water, electricity available at a place people will start moving to these places,” says Mushtaq and adds, “In Konibal area in Pampore, where our local MLA resides, first a bore well was constructed in the area and then government started building quarters. People then automatically started shifting to the area and it became residential area. Same happened in the Chandhara village.”

Recently SKUAST-Kashmir constructed a laboratory in the Dusoo for which they have build 2 to 3 concrete buildings using 06 kannals of saffron land. When the locals informed the concerned ministry about the issue, the minister of Agriculture Ghulam Hassan Mir on record has said that if farmers are selling saffron fields in Pampore, we are growing it in other areas of Kashmir. “Saffron is not now Pampore’s personal property (Zaffran Pampore ki Jaagir nahi).”

Mir was referring to the new saffron park in Alovpora in Shopian, where 74 kannals of land are under saffron cultivation from past four years. “Besides other issues Alovpora gets at least 3 to 4 feet of snow every year and which melts only in March, which is not good for the saffron corms,” says Mushtaq.

But the Manager of the Alovpora farm, Shabir Ahmad Alaqband, refused to comment on any issue regarding the saffron fields and said, “I don’t know how you will quote me.” And added he has recently joined the farm and is not aware what has happened before him.

According to government figures in last 10 years, almost 20 per cent saffron fields of Pampore have been converted into residential plots. “Pampore is now a safe haven for land mafia. Nobody is there to stop them from turning saffron land into concrete jungle,” says Mushtaq.

Recently a delegation of saffron growers from Pampore met GN Ratanpuri, Member of Parliament, Dr Asgar Samoon, the then Divisional Commisioner of Kashmir and Dr Shah Faisal, Revenue officer, and informed them about the mess created by land mafia.img-20131031-wa0012

Mushtaq who was part of that delegation told Kashmir Life that, “government had actually identified Karewas from where contractors can extract soil for construction of highway. But they are extracting soil from famous saffron Karewas which are adjacent to construction site.”

Mushtaq claims that in order to keep him quite he was offered a huge amount by the land mafia but he refused. “They (land mafia) are extracting top quality saffron soil during wee hours in order to avoid attention,” says Mushtaq.

The concerned Tehsildar, Mushtaq Ahmad told Kashmir Life, “We are aware of the issue and have already booked an FIR in the concerned police station regarding the tippers who take soil in the wee hours.” He said they are following the issue stringently. When asked about the report of the committee set by the government, he said, “I don’t know anything about the committee or its reports.”

How saffron came to Pampore is not clear. There are many myths and legends attached to its origin. It is believed that Saffron arrived in Kashmir in 11th or 12th century AD with two Sufi saints, Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin. A local tribal chieftain cured the foreigners after they fell ill. The two holy men rewarded the chief with a saffron crocus bulb. Since then it is a practice that every year the saffron farmers of Pampore offer prayers at the shrine dedicated to the saints.

Under the much hyped National Saffron Mission (NSM), the sanctioned irrigation schemes are yet to reach farmers after four years of its completion.

“In these years only one well was allotted at Gundbal which is still under construction and dysfunctional. Initially its construction cost was put at Rs 20 lakh but now they are saying it will come up at a cost of Rs 80 Lakhs. Saffron land in Pampore is spread over 30 to 40 kms and on that farmers were asked to get their own pipes to get water from that single well,” says Mushtaq.

But the Director Agriculture says that the department has constructed around 70 bore wells in Pampore among which 40 are functional presently but people are ‘reluctant’ to get sprinkle sets which costs them Rs 5, 000 for one kannal.

One bore well will cater 600 kannals and its sprinkle set will cost Rs 80, 000 out of which Rs 50, 000 will be given by the government and the farmers are expected to pay only Rs 30, 000 only. “But farmers are not ready to invest that much even. How can anyone blame our department for this?” asks director.

Under NSM the project envisages establishing 253 tube wells- 128 tube wells in Pulwama and 106 in Budgam districts. Fifty-three tube wells would be bored during the first year and one well will be for 30 hectares of land. At the same time, it was proposed to strengthen the existing Lethpora lift irrigation scheme on the river Jhelum adjacent to Pampore fields to create a permanent water source for saffron areas.

Under NSM 3,700 sprinkler sets would be given to farmers with 50 percent subsidy over an estimated cost of Rs 5000 per set.

Mushtaq says that the farmers are in distress and wish if they can get adequate supply of water so that they could see the flowers sprouting out. “Presently we are dependent on miracles.”

In past irrigation was not a problem, Mushtaq says the wet lands present in the area used to be natural sources for the moisture content in the soil. “But now those wet lands have vanished and so has the moisture content from the soil.”

In addition to that the three cement factories present in the area are also polluting the crop, making the crop difficult to respire, says Mushtaq.

Although, the money under NSM has been sanctioned and allotted by the central government, sources say those funds are yet to be released by the state government and the amount that was released has already been distributed among the ‘big sharks’ of this industry.

Under this scheme, a saffron grower was to get Rs. 25,300 per kanal of land for construction of bore wells in their saffron fields. But Sameer says instead of providing this amount to the growers the money ends up in only a few pockets. “They change the records like for a kannal the officials will write 2 kannals for their ‘favorite’ farmers and in this way both the parties earn at least Rs 25, 000 for each single kannal of land which deprive others from availing this benefit,” said a farmer who wishes not to be named.

The National Saffron Mission was launched in 2010 to boost saffron production in the state. The prime minister’s Rs 3.76 billion programme, saffron renewal mission covers drip irrigation, research, mechanisation, processing and marketing support to ease the crisis.

Under the NSM programme, “National Spot Exchange would establish a Quality Control Lab at Pampore at a cost of Rs 8.90 crore to ensure quality testing and marketing of the saffron. There is also a proposal to set up a Spice Park for which a site has been identified at Pampore. Its purpose is to promote direct transactions between growers, traders, exporters and industrial agencies by developing organized marketing with quality based pricing of Saffron. It is expected that after completion of the National Saffron Mission the state’s income from saffron production would increase from the present Rs 236.55 crore to Rs 4,642.50 crore per annum.”

For the construction of Spice Park, which is expected to function on patterns of a mandi, government had identified 100 kannals of land in Galander, situated on the National Highway but at the last minute the spice park was shifted to Dusoo village, which is around 6 kms away from the highway.

“The idea behind having the Park on Highway was to attract the attention of tourist and to make them aware of the crop but by shifting the park to Dusoo village they have ruined a novel idea,” feels Mustaq.

He adds that some 30 to 35 years back this was a unique idea drafted by Late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and then followed by Dr Farooq Abdullah. “I still remember those childhood days that how ‘Jashn e Zafran’ was celebrated in Chandhara (ancestral village of Habba Khatoon) and for those celebrations participants used to come from far off places like Punjab.”

Mushtaq says this idea used to attract tourists which actually helped the local farmers.

Another major reason for decline of saffron as prime cash crop for farmers is high level of adultration. “Farmers sell their produce to middle men who mix it with sub-standard and cheap Iranian saffron and pass it on as Kashmiri saffron. It has dented our credibility in the market,” says Mushtaq.

In the recently held KONG POSH – Fight Against Counterfeiting and Smuggling programme, the agriculture minister Ghulam Hassan Mir said that Saffron growers and traders should cooperate with state government and farm universities to eradicate the menace of adulteration of saffron crop. He said the illegal, inferior Iranian saffron has had the worst impact on the industry.

 Sameer says farmers knocked on almost every official door to get Iranian saffron taxed heavily or ban it completely to save the local produce but nothing has happened so far.

India’s saffron consumption is estimated at 20 tons a year, half of which is met by Iran, Spain and China, world’s major saffron producers. Kashmir, one of the only four producers of saffron in the world, barely consumes a fraction of what it produces. Most of its produce gets exported, around 4,000 kgs every year.

To help the farmers to increase the production of the crop, Director Agriculture says that the first problem is with the soil itself, over the years the health of the soil has decreased. So the department, post harvest make the farmers understand how to improve the health of the soil. After that the corms are treated with proper medicines.

Under the NSM, Mushtaq says the only benefit provided to the farmers was that the experts showed the farmers how to actually sow the saffron corms.

In a serious concern in the NSM, farmers also allege that agriculture department has swindled a huge quantity of saffron seeds.

They say the department on September 23 this year invited tenders for the purchase of saffron. Various interested contractors visited the site. However, they were shocked to find only a little amount of seeds sown on over 740 kannals of land at Alovpora, Shopian by the department. And the sown seeds were not of the good quality (8gms). The contractors had approached the department to raise the issue. But they allege the department did not pay any heed to their queries.

Pertinently, the department had cultivated saffron on 100 kanals in 2010, 280 kanals in 2011 and 360 kanals in 2012 at Alovpora under NSM and had promised to provide qualitative seeds to farmers from 2014.

But contractors, who are mostly local farmers, are doubtful that these farms can be of any help to locals.

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