Why Kashmiri Saffron’s International Recognition is Good News

The agriculturalists, as well as growers, are ecstatic over this recognition Kashmiri saffron has got.

4 min read
The agriculturalists, as well as growers, are ecstatic over this recognition Kashmiri saffron has got.

Saffron growers in Kashmir have reason to cheer. The costliest spice, grown in the karewas deposits of the Valley and known worldwide for its quality and aroma, has finally got the Geographical Indication (GI) tag, recognising its exclusivity in the international market.

The Union government’s Geographical Indication Registry conveyed the decision to Kashmir’s agriculture department last month. “It is the victory of Kashmiri saffron which is the best in the market,” said Director Agriculture, Kashmir, Aijaz Andrabi.

The department had initiated the process to seek GI tag in 2018. “We were able to prove that saffron is inherently grown in Kashmir and is a crop which is more than 500-years-old in the region,” said the director.


This Will Help Boost Price of the Kashmiri Saffron

The agriculturalists, as well as growers, are ecstatic over this recognition Kashmiri saffron has got. Agricultural scientist, Professor Firdous Ahmad Nehvi said no one in the world can now claim that Kashmiri saffron is cultivated at any other place.

“This is now preserved with us,” he said.

The GI tagging will help in the market promotion of Kashmiri saffron and boost its price, said Professor Nehvi. “This will, in turn, encourage growers to preserve the crop and motivate younger generations towards the cultivation.”

He added if J&K had not initiated the process to preserve exclusivity over the saffron, the crop could have been grown in some other state years later and they would have claimed the patent.

“This happened with some legendary crops. Basmati was an Indian gene but it was patented by the US,” he said.

Abdul Majid, President, Kashmir Saffron Growers Association said the growers were feeling dismayed owing to less returns and invasion of cheaper quality of saffron in the market.

“That will no longer be a case now. This tagging makes it now mandatory for dealers to purchase Kashmiri saffron from the growers only. They can no longer sell imported saffron under the Kashmir brand,” said Majid, a grower himself.

“Whosoever will now claim to be growing or selling Kashmiri saffron has to prove its originality,” said Majid.

The directorate of agriculture has been declared registered proprietor of the GI of saffron, implying it will certify the spice at the time of packaging before it goes to the market. This packaging and GI tagging will be carried out under the department at Saffron Park in Pampore town, which has a quality control lab and infrastructure for sorting, grading, and packing of the spice.

An official said the agriculture department would now undertake a fresh exercise to enlist all saffron growers across Kashmir and register the total area under cultivation.

Kashmir’s Saffron is of a Higher Quality

Known as the ‘king of spices,’ saffron is largely grown in karewas of Pampore and some pockets of Budgam and Srinagar. Around 16,000 families from 226 villages are associated with the trade, making it one of the largest employers.

Another grower, Showkat Ahmad said the onus was on the government as well as the farmers to preserve genetic characters of the crop, which give it an edge in the market.

“Now people across the world will be purchasing Kashmiri saffron with eyes shut and that is where we have to be careful,” said Ahmad, the 42-year-old third-generation growers from Pampore.

Kashmiri saffron is considered to be of superior quality because of the higher concentration of crocin – a carotenoid pigment that gives saffron its color and medicinal value. The crocin content of Kashmiri saffron is 8.72 percent compared to the Iranian variant’s 6.82 percent, said the director agriculture.

Each saffron flower yields three to four stigmas which are picked by hand by an army of volunteers and then dried to separate precious frail red saffron threads. For centuries, these prized red gold threads have been used for cooking and religious purposes, and in pharmaceutical, therapeutic and dyeing industries.


Concerns Regarding the Fall in Yield

Though Kashmir has a monopoly over the lucrative crop, the erratic weather pattern since 2000 has decreased its yield. The absence of dependable irrigation facilities has further aggravated the situation.

The saffron fields remain dormant till October when the bulbs germinate, sprouting into green shoots. Two to three spells of rain during September and October are critical for flowering.

As per official data, the land under saffron cultivation reached a maximum of 5,707 hectares in 1996 while total yield went up to 15.95 metric tonnes – the highest produce recorded, according to the state agriculture department data.

But six years later, in 2002, the yield fell to 0.30 tonnes, the lowest ever. The same year, land under cultivation shrunk to 2,710 hectares. Since then, average per hectare production has been hovering between one and a half kilogram to two kilogram, though it touched four kilograms in 1997.

The decline in the saffron yield was largely attributed to government apathy, farmers’ reluctance to shift to high-yielding plant varieties, traditional farming practices, unorganised marketing, and the growing pollution.

‘The Turnaround’

In 2010, the Centre approved Rs 371 crore under the National Saffron Mission for rejuvenation of saffron in the Valley. A few years later, the plan was increased to Rs 411 crore.

The focus of the program was to address irrigation issues by installing 128 tube wells and 1,548 sprinklers in saffron fields, apart from financial assistance to the farmers.

Though the entire program was to be completed in four years, the implementation has been tardy. Last year the Centre approved yet another extension for completion of the Mission.

As the Mission continued, the drought-like conditions for two to three years pushed the saffron fields to the verge of extinction. “Most of us had given up. Some growers were even thinking of selling the priced land to shift to some other occupation,” said Ahmad, the grower.

“We lost a lot of germ plasma owing to the drought-like conditions in 2016-17,” said the agriculture director. A revenue official said around 250 hectares of saffron land has been lost to urbanisation only in Pampore.

The focus of the program was to address irrigation issues by installing 128 tube wells and 1,548 sprinklers in saffron fields, apart from financial assistance to the farmers.

“It proved to be the game-changer. We had a bumper saffron production of around 15 tonnes this season,” said the director. More importantly, the timely wet spells helped in rejuvenation of the germplasm. “It augurs well for the future,” said Majid.

(The writer is a Kashmir-based journalist.)

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