"Shrinking yields and rising land costs threaten cultivation," according to SAFFRON'S SCENT OF TROUBLE
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The difficulties experienced by saffron producers in the area were clearly highlighted in an incisive conversation with Khurshid Ahmad Ganai, a renowned retired IAS official with a long career in senior administrative posts in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ganai, who is renowned for his profound comprehension of complex topics, had a lengthy discussion with Greater Kashmir. The conversation went into the many concerns that saffron producers face, highlighted their seriousness, and looked at possible remedies.

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Ganai underscored the issues brought up by saffron producers and portrayed a vivid image of an impending catastrophe in Pampore, the centre of the saffron industry, and its surrounding regions. These are the interview snippets.

GK. On September 24th, you had a meeting with the saffron farmers organisation in Lethpora. What do you think about the saffron farming conditions in Pampore and the surrounding areas?

KAG. We held a thorough discussion with the farmers from the several saffron-growing regions in the Pampore area. We received the idea that there was a problem with saffron farming. A significant decline in productivity over the past two decades or more and high land prices, which encourage growers to sell saffron land for construction rather than wait for gradual and meagre income from saffron cultivation, are reportedly making it less economically appealing. In a nutshell, saffron farming has unluckily lost some of its economic appeal over time.

GK. But the law undoubtedly does not permit the conversion of saffron land for other uses?

KAG. It is true that the J&K Land Revenue Act and J&K Agrarian Reforms Act, which were not abolished even after the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, with the exception of certain particular sections, still forbid the conversion of saffron land. So, enforcement is the issue. The UT government must strictly oversee the sale and conversion of saffron land and must never, under any circumstances, permit conversion.

GK. It is understood that the competent authority must provide approval for the conversion of agricultural land within one month of the application date; otherwise, the licence is presumed to have been granted.

KAG. That is an identical issue. These new revisions have to be reviewed by the UT government. In Jammu and Kashmir, agriculture would decline if conversion authorization were liberalised, as it has been. If agricultural land can be transformed freely and without constraints, how can horticulture, floriculture, and saffron cultivation prosper? What effects will there be on rural jobs, earnings, and the economy? In the next 20 to 30 years, Kashmir Valley would lose all of its arable land and turn into a concrete jungle similar to any other large metropolis in the nation if the current pace of conversion is allowed to continue. The Kashmir Valley’s natural beauty will also go. The UT government needs to develop a new housing strategy to discourage the development of large residential homes and promote the building of apartment complexes and carefully planned communities of modest homes by local private contractors on the hard crust karewas encircling the valley and other designated locations. Future housing requires new ways of thinking. Stopping this rampant building of large homes and stores everywhere is necessary. It is regrettable that our previous administrations did not take this issue seriously.

GK. What factors have caused saffron’s output to decline over time?

KAG. Our interactions with the producers indicate that the primary causes are climate change, extended periods of hot, dry weather, and little rainfall. My own research exposed significant levels of localised dust pollution and traffic-related pollution as another potential cause. When the National Highway was expanded, the Pampore-Lethpora plateau should have been avoided, but apparently the designers received no feedback. Lethpora-Khrew-Sempora road is also dusty, if I recall correctly, and there is a lot of truck and tipper movement on this road, leading to air pollution. Productivity must have been impacted by dust and pollution. I don’t know whether SKUAST or the agricultural department have conducted any research in this area.

GK. How can farmers be assisted, and how can saffron cultivation be returned to its former state?

KAG. The growers want arrangements for drip irrigation and the bore wells constructed under the Saffron Mission taken over and maintained by one of the engineering departments, as community ownership has not succeeded. The UT Agriculture department must work out some way out in consultation with the growers to promote drip irrigation. The growers also want seed production to be done by the department or otherwise through another scheme, as seed availability has become a pressing issue. Perhaps SKAUST could also help with this. So, the UT agriculture department and SKUAST must work together to work out sustainable solutions to these problems, not a one-time bailout.

GK. What about adulteration of saffron and competition from saffron from Iran, Spain, and other saffron-producing countries?

KAG. I don’t know much about this, nor did the growers mention it. However, it is well known that saffron from other countries is competing with Kashmir saffron in the market. We told the growers in clear terms during our interaction that they also have responsibilities and that the days of over-dependence on government are gone. No doubt, the government will do whatever is justified and reasonable for the government to do and facilitate, and that is given, but it is ultimately the growers who have to shoulder the responsibility for themselves. It is for them to make saffron cultivation an economically viable activity by addressing productivity and quality issues. And that the farmer or grower associations have a big role to play. The associations must lay down a code of conduct and a code of ethics for all members and then enforce such codes. To be fair to the growers, they are also in favour of the revival of saffron cultivation and trade to its past glory and the ban on the conversion of saffron land. In fact, they are quite worried about the various challenges to saffron cultivation in Pampore and surrounding areas. The UT government must come forward with a helping hand to save the saffron industry in Kashmir.

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