Saffron: An unintended victim of conflict in Kashmir
We look into how production of the golden spice has been on a decline.
The ripple effects of the terror attack in South Kashmir’s Pulwama, on February 14, are still being felt.
India withdraws Pakistan’s MFN status, the BCCI wants the ICC to ban Pakistan from the World Cup, Kashmiri students have become targets of a nation-wide witch hunt, fake news abounds… the list continues.
But there is another unlikely victim of the violence in the Valley: Saffron.
Grown primarily in conflict-ridden south Kashmir, the ‘king of spices’ has been on a steady decline.
According to the state agricultural production department, in 2015, Kashmir produced 9.6 metric tons of saffron from 3,674 hectares of land. In 2017, the yield went down to 6.5 metric tons from 3,715 hectares.
This is a steep fall of 33% in output. Saffron production decreased by one-third in two years.
Saffron from Kashmir has only one real competitor. Iran accounts for 90% of the world’s saffron. But there is an almost mythical reverence for the golden spice that comes from the Valley.
Associated with royalty and emperors, it comes at a steep price. Saffron can sell for up to Rs. 2.5 lakh per kg.
Why does one spice enjoy such an exalted status?
Saffron comes from the inner sanctum of its flowers. The petals are used in medicine. The outer yellow strands are not of much use. But the red strands, right in the middle, are equivalent to gold.
One flower produces only three red strands. A single gram requires 350 strands, that is, about 120 flowers. For a kg of saffron, over 1.5 lakh flowers are plucked and painstakingly scanned.
For many Kashmiris, saffron production and trade have been a generations-old way of life. From April, when the soil is ploughed; to November, when the flowers are dried and plucked; entire families are involved in each and every step of the process.
With climate change reducing water levels and artificial irrigation washing off the rich humus content of the soil, it has become that much harder to get a good yield.
In 2010, the central government, under Manmohan Singh, set up the National Saffron Mission to revive saffron production in Kashmir. With a large budget of over Rs. 400 crores, its objective was to provide borewells for irrigation, to conduct research on how to increase yields, and to educate farmers on new methods adapted to the changing environment.
But a rise in violence and conflict in the Kashmir Valley has thwarted institutional attempts to revive production.
Data from Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society – a body keeping track of human rights violations in the state – shows that in 2018, from January 1 to November 24, at least 520 people have been killed in J&K. This includes 144 civilians, 234 militants, and 142 members of armed forces and police.
Over 800 terror incidents have been reported in J&K over the three years ending 2017 – up from 208 in 2015 to 342 in 2017 – according to an IndiaSpend analysis of government data.
Kashmir is also the most militarised zone in the world.
The youth of Kashmir have little incentive to stay on and tend the land when there are men touting guns close by. The much-reviled Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants extraordinary powers to the army, has been in force in the state since 1990.
AFSPA gives the army the authority, if reasonable suspicion exists, to arrest a person without a warrant, enter or search a premises without a warrant, and ban the possession of firearms.
So, the next time you enjoy a plate of biryani or a warm cup of Kashmiri kahwa, you should think about where the signature golden saffron in them comes from. And the blood and tears of those who are now being forced to abandon not just a once-profitable cash crop but also an age-old tradition.
The decline of saffron marks the end of an entire way of life.