Fortnightly Feature- An Engineered Crisis: Ambush on Cash Crops

The nails of a multi-front offensive launched by the BJP-led Indian Government to crush the economy of Kashmir, have surfaced on the saffron fields of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. After apple and walnut growers, now the farmers associated with saffron cultivation are facing the brunt. Policies of denial and exclusion, adopted by the Indian Union in Kashmir, are optimized to deprive people of livelihood and destroy the environment and the foundations of centuries-old native traditions and way of life. 

Sitting on the ground, wearing a traditional Pheran, Gul Fatima reminisces about the old days when the entire village would gather in these fields of Pampore and pluck saffron flowers. In Central Kashmir, this region has unique soil characteristics that make Saffron cultivation possible. Fatima puffs on a hookah and gazes at the serene purple field. 

“The women would sing traditional Kashmiri folk songs and perform Rouff (traditional Kashmiri dance)  during lunchtime. It used to be like a festival for us. Now you see only two people on the field,” she points towards her son and a migrant laborer from India’s Uttar Pradesh working in the field. 

Fatima’s two other sons have left farming and drive a Taxi. “I am too old to work in the field, so I bring him lunch,” she says, puffing on the hookah again.    

Kashmir, a dichotomic open-air prison surrounded by picturesque mountains, was once badged as the only saffron-growing region in the sub-continent. It is here that the world’s most expensive spice grew. The cash crop contributed significantly to the economy, creating jobs and employment while preserving fully organic traditional farming. An estimated 16,000 families in 226 villages grow saffron in the Kashmir Valley, of which nearly half the workforce consists  of women. However, this is changing. 

The policies deployed by the Delhi Government, like the National Saffron Mission, have ensured a total collapse of the sector. Over the past two decades, the area used to grow saffron has decreased from approximately 5,707 hectares to 3,715 hectares. This has resulted in decreased saffron production and a change in land use over time.  The land originally used for saffron cultivation has now turned into housing colonies or fruit orchards. In addition, per hectare production for the land currently available for cultivation has dramatically dropped  due to the ‘meant-to-kill’ policies and rapidly changing climate and weather patterns. 

Data from the Agriculture Department reveals that productivity had dropped  from an average of 3.13 kg per hectare to 1.88 kg per hectare in 2010. Confidential sources in the department say that even the 2010 data was deliberately misreported and not reflective of the actual drop in production as things are even worse than reported.

To grow successfully, saffron requires a delicate balance of soil quality, sunlight, and moisture. The spice comes from the vivid crimson filaments,stigma and stylus in the flower, commonly known as saffron crocus flower. As the costliest spice in the world, each kilogram costs between $1,500 to $2,500 and requires roughly 75,000 saffron blossoms. 

Kashmir’s saffron cultivation has historically been limited to a small geographical area, primarily Pampore, Budgam, and Kishtwar, and has helped farmers become self-reliant. However, in recent years, the government of India has taken saffron bulbs from Kashmir and has successfully grown it in labs in Pune. The state of Himachal Pradesh has boasted about overtaking Kashmir’s saffron production in the next ten years. Cultivation of the plant in regions of Northeast India has also shown results.

With the research done by The North East Centre For Technology Application and Reach (NECTAR)an autonomous entity within the Department of Science and Technologythe Indian state of Sikkim began growing saffron in 2020, and in 2021 there was an effort to increase production. The Kashmiri horticulture director visited Sikkim to look at the possibility and viability of saffron growing. 

“This industry is on the decline and has been heading towards an impending collapse for the past few years. The administration, along with the Indian media, has been showing false and fabricated stories about the massive production of saffron,” says Nisar Ahmad, a saffron grower from Pampore. “Yet, instead of providing enough irrigation supplies, the GOI is robbing us of whatever is left here. We are even denied water for our land. The entire  saffron growing region along the Indo-Kashmir highway is controlled by the military. We are thinking about selling our land and moving away from here.”

According to the farmers, what is being propagated by India about ‘bumper crops’ is far from reality on the ground. Farmers cannot fulfill their basic needs from the revenue of saffron now, and things are getting worse with each passing year. 

The much-hyped National Saffron Mission has not yielded results as the authorities could not make water pumps meant to irrigate the dry season fields functional. 

In a statement last week, the Chairman of the Saffron Growers Association Kashmir, Abdul Majeed Wani, said that the former Manmohan Singh-led government released over 50 million USD under the National Saffron Mission. However, the mission could not achieve its target as the irrigation system remained incomplete, he said. This, according to him, prompted many to switch to other crops. 

Wani said that since 2014 most of the growers had lost interest in Saffron, and the last three years have seen an alarming decline in production. “Saffron production has decreased from 16.45 metric tonnes to 0.02 metric tonnes in the last five years in Kashmir,” Wani said. 

“They want to take us back to the stone age. Earlier, during any uprising, we had a stable economy. Delhi wants to push us into an economic crisis and keep us busy with surviving,” said Gulam Mohammad Wani, a former saffron grower. 

“They are killing the most important industry to damage our economy. The Modi regime wants to cripple everything in Kashmir. My family has shifted towards horticulture, but look at the conditions of apples,” he says.

Around 8,000 fruit trucks were stalled on the Highway for over a week in September this year. Earlier, in July, the movement of trucks was stopped by the administration for the “smooth flow of the Amarnath Yatra”. And finally when the fruit did reach the markets, they were rotten, and apple’s stock prices fell. In addition, as the harvest season approached, India’s fruit markets and cold storage facilities were flooded with apples from Afghanistan, Iran, and the United States. 

“This year, they allowed smuggled Iranian apples to engineer a price reduction. Our prices dropped around 60% in some cases. This was coupled with halting the transport carrying our produce on the highway until we hit the market too late. Now I have left Saffron cultivation, but I am in a much worse position with apples,” Wani says. 

In a recent statement, Basheer Ahmad Basheer, President of Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers-cum-Dealers Union, which is an elected apex body of all Fruit Growers Associations in the Valley, said the prices of Kashmiri apples have declined from Rs 1,200 per box to Rs 600-800, which inflicted huge losses on the growers. 

Things are no different for walnuts and almonds. For almost a decade now, the walnut industry has been suffering losses. 

Data reveals that with an annual production of roughly 2.66 lakh metric tonnes on 89,000 hectares, Jammu and Kashmir provides nearly 98% of India’s total walnut production. However, the industry has suffered a blow as walnuts from California, Chile, and China have been used to engineer a market crisis in a pattern similar to what is being done with the saffron industry.    

“There are concentrated efforts to kill the economic strength of Kashmiris by the government. It is on the pattern of how Israel has controlled parts of Palestine using economic warfare. A desk in the largest army camp is now dedicated to this. They study our trades and devise strategies to counter it in every aspect,” a senior trade leader said on the condition of anonymity. 

“Farmers are for sure the worst sufferers. Indian government agents are sent to hound our traders under the pretext of a security crackdown for ‘money laundering and ‘black money,’ but the real aim is very different from what is being shown to the public,” he said. 

Back in Gul Fatima’s field, her son returns to the resting spot with a wicker basket filled with saffron. He pulls his Pheran over his shoulders, washes his hands, and sits down to eat. 

“I don’t know if we will have such meals next year. We have been farming organically for many centuries, but people will have to give up this way of life. Our next generation won’t indulge in this traditional way of farming saffron. It makes me sad, but there is no other option left for us,” he says.