Waiting For A Bloom!

With both production and prices falling drastically since last one decade saffron is turning out to be a costly affair for growers. Shams Irfan talks to farmers to understand the factors that led to the doom of once prized crop   

A man near his apple orchard in Lethpora village which was previously a saffron field.
A man near his apple orchard in Lethpora village which was previously a saffron field.

Two weeks before the September 7, devastating floods, the famous saffron yielding Karewas of Pampore that boundary the town, were buzzing with activity, as preparation were on for a late October bloom.

Families involved with the cultivation of this prized spice, since centuries, mark their calendars’ beforehand for final ploughing of their saffron fields before September rains settle the karewa soil. This year too, everything went as per the plan. Anybody passing through the town in late August would have been fascinated by the sheer hard-work and labour that goes into saffron cultivation. By ending August, entire Karewas were one large swath of perfectly trimmed landscape criss-crossing through villages, almond trees, newly laid highway, under-construction houses, army camps etc.

But early September rains, which locals consider good omen and a must for good cultivation, turned into unending nightmare. There was no stop to rains till it flooded the entire town under 20 feet of water. As the water receded and people started to rebuild their lives, September had already sped past, giving way to uncertainties and October.

Over the years Pampore has slowly emerged as a place which is not entirely depended on wealth derived from cultivation of this crop only.

Post-decline of per hectare yield in saffron during 90s, a new class of millionaires emerged in Pampore who have abandoned their ancestral occupation of saffron cultivation and invested in infrastructure and new businesses.  Still a major part of Pampore and its adjoining villages remain directly dependent on saffron cultivation for their livelihood. And it is this population that have their hopes pinned on weather, amount of rainfall, price fluctuations, arrival of tourists etc. from August onwards.

But with record rainfall in early September causing historic floods, hopes slowly started to fade. “There is no way we can recover money that goes into pre-yield process,” says Farooq Ahmad Wani, a government employee who inherited five kanals of saffron land from his father.

Ghulam Hassan Magrey, 65, who lives in Lethpora village and owns around 50 kanals of saffron land, likes to forget the year 2014 as quickly as possible. “I could not even retrieve money I had invested in preparing the fields for saffron crop,” says Magrey.

Despite saffron selling at around Rs 800 per 10 gram in 2013 compared to this year’s Rs 1700 per 10 gram, Magrey had managed a handsome profit because of high production. “But this year I could just manage 300 grams of saffron from 50 kanals of land,” says Magrey. “It will not be sufficient to recover my investments even.”

But  Haji Aqil Bhat, 72, who is a fifth generation farmer and owns around 30 kanals of saffron land  near his village Hathiwara, sees recent decline in yield as a God’s way of saying “enough is enough”. Since his childhood he has been associated with saffron cultivation as it helped his family earn decent living. “There is nothing wrong with production or yield. It is just that we have become more avaricious and impatient,” says Bhat who feels that people equate saffron cultivation with other crops which effects production. “You cannot use fertilizers for saffron as you use for other crops. Saffron is a delicate crop and needs proper care. Nothing like apple, peach, or paddy,” says Bhat.

For Bhat, the process of decline in per kanal yield started since early 90s when people shifted from traditional techniques of cultivation to so-called modern ones.  “After every 20 to 25 years of yield land needs to be kept idle for 5 years at least so that it rejuvenates. But who has got that kind of patience nowadays?” he asks. “I remember how my father used to sow pulses, sunflowers, mustard, red lentil, red kidney beans etc. during those five years of rest so that it (land) is usable again,” he says. “Using chemical based fertilizers no doubt help in yield to some extent but they ultimately harm the fertility of the land,” argues Bhat.

Another pressing issue that Bhat feels has adversely impacted saffron production in last two decades is use of non-local labour for ploughing and other purposes. “This (cultivation of saffron) is like an art that gets passed down through generations. How can you expect a non-native labourer to understand it in a fortnight!” asks Bhat.

In August 2010, GoI launched Rs 373 crore National Saffron Mission Scheme (NSM) under which new and scientific techniques of cultivation were passed on to the cultivators for better results. The NSM scheme offered farmers a support of Rs 25 thousand per kannal for cultivating saffron corms as per new guidelines. The scheme envisioned a hike of around 10 per cent in overall production by the end of 2014.

Haji Aqil, 72 is the fifth generation farmer.
Haji Aqil, 72 is the fifth generation farmer.

But Bhat and other seasoned cultivators feel that the new scientific method might be effective to some extent, it does not have the capacity for a sustainable result. “It is like using fertilizers. It pays in the short run but does no good if you want to sustain the high productivity,” feels Bhat.

In 2011, Bhat employed his father’s traditional technique of saffron cultivation on 5 kanals of land while rest 25 kanals were cultivated as per the guidelines of NSM scheme. “Can you believe, 5 kanals yielded more saffron than 25 kanals,” claims Bhat. “I am not saying that scientific method is not effective. I am just saying what I observed after applying traditional methods.”

From Saffron to Apple

With the selling price of per tola (10 grams) fluctuating between Rs 800 and 1500, it is not enough to cover the costs of production; especially when the yield is on a decline.

Fed up of fluctuating prices, unpredictable crop patterns and low returns, Abdul Ahad Kuchey, 50, from Lethpora village in Pampore town converted 8 kanals out of total 25 kanals of saffron land in to apple orchids. Kuchey claims that he was among the first few farmers from his village who did the unthinkable by converting their saffron fields into apple orchids.

“Saffron doesn’t fetch anything,” says Kuchey. “It is like a white elephant for a farmer who looks beautiful to others but is a burden for its owner.”

There were times when Kuchey’s large family, headed by his late father, was totally dependent on earnings from saffron production.   “We hardly bothered about any other crop as saffron was sufficient to take care of all our needs,” recalls Kuchey.

But as production declined, farmers started to look for other options promising higher and assured returns. “Apple being the mainstay of horticulture sector was a natural choice. And besides saffron soil is highly fertile and can produce good quality apples,” says Kuchey.

According to independent estimates around 1000 kanals of rich saffron yielding land was converted for horticulture purpose in last one decade in Lethpora village only. “With money earned from saffron we used to live a decent life. But once prices started to slide, it became difficult to sustain on Saffron only,” says Kuchey.

Abdul Ahad Kuchey’s two brothers, who now live separately, have converted 18 kanals of saffron land into apple and walnut orchids in last one decade. “They have just a few kanals of saffron land left now,” says Kuchey.

In main town Pampore, most of the saffron land is either converted in to un-regularized and unplanned residential colonies or is being used for other commercial purposes. Interestingly, entire Saffron Colony was once blooming with saffron bulbs in October. But all that is left are traces of glorious velvet past.


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