Kashmir’s famed saffron fields are under siege

The fields are weathering everything from a prolonged dry spell to rodents, and cement dust to the influx of Iranian imports.

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Men, women, and children sifting through saffron in Kashmir. 

Men, women, and children sifting through saffron in Kashmir.  | Photo Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Five years ago, Nazir Ahmad, 55, a farmer in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, turned his 0.5-hectare (ha) saffron field into an apple orchard. He planted high-density apple trees, which began yielding fruit in three years. “My annual income has doubled, and growing apple is less challenging than saffron,” he says. Many saffron farmers in Jammu and Kashmir are doing the same and shifting to crops that consume less water.

In Lethpora, Pampore, Ghulam Hassan Khan, 70, has for decades been growing saffron on his 3.75-acre (1.5 ha) plot. In fact, he has been tending to saffron—a prized spice known for its enduring aroma, vibrant colour, and medicinal properties—ever since he was a child.

LISTEN: Kashmir’s famed saffron fields are weathering everything from a prolonged dry spell to rodents, cement dust to the influx of Iranian imports. And production has never been lower.

But Khan’s saffron fields lay barren this season. The dramatic decline in production has him struggling for an income, and he says he does not want his children to follow in his footsteps. “Saffron is no longer a profitable business,” he says.

A saffron field in Pampore, famous for the high quality of its harvest

A saffron field in Pampore, famous for the high quality of its harvest | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Over the past few years, Kashmir’s saffron cultivation has faced multiple threats. Prolonged periods of drought, poor technical support, and the lack of a proper irrigation system have hit production. On February 6, Union Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda said saffron production had dropped from 8.0 tonnes in 2010-11 to 2.6 tonnes in 2023-24: a 67.5 per cent decline.

A vibrant purple

The Himalayan region is the largest saffron-producing area in South Asia and second in the world after Iran. In Kashmir, saffron is grown in three districts: Pulwama, Budgam, and Srinagar. The soil in Pampore, in Srinagar district, is considered most suitable for saffron cultivation. Over 17,000 families in the Valley depend on the spice for income. Every year in October and November, Pampore’s vast saffron fields turn a vibrant purple as the plant blooms. One of the most expensive spices in the world, a kilo of it fetches anywhere between Rs.1,50,000 and Rs.2,50,000.

Also Read | Jammu & Kashmir: Stories from a region in transition

But according to the agriculture department, the area under saffron in Kashmir has declined from 5,707 hectares in 1996-97 to 3,715 hectares now. The government administration attributed this decline to a low cost-benefit ratio because of the huge cost of cultivation, low productivity, and the reliance on traditional cultivation methods.

A Kashmiri farmer picks saffron flowers in Pampore. 

A Kashmiri farmer picks saffron flowers in Pampore.  | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Scientists say drought and erratic weather patterns have also impacted the crop. This winter, the Valley witnessed a prolonged dry season. The month of January, according to the meteorological department, was one of the driest and warmest in the past four decades.

Habibullah Reshi, a 55-year-old farmer, points to the damage caused by porcupines in his saffron field in Lethpora, Pulwama. 

Habibullah Reshi, a 55-year-old farmer, points to the damage caused by porcupines in his saffron field in Lethpora, Pulwama.  | Photo Credit: Faisal Bashir

Saffron is a moisture-sensitive crop, and experts say it requires assured irrigation at critical stages of crop growth. Amjad M. Husaini, a senior scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir, says the changes in weather pattern due to climate change have affected the moisture the crop needs in the final stages of its growth.

“Water must be available from July to September for flower production,” says Husaini. Professor Shakil A. Romshoo, a top glaciologist and earth scientist of international repute, argues that production has come down due to dry spells in the autumn. “Fluctuation in temperature during the crop cycle causes an outbreak of pests and diseases. All these abnormal factors result either in partial loss of yield or in complete crop failure, which reduces income of farmers,” say sources with the government.

Iranian competitor
Kashmiri saffron is considered far superior to the Iranian variety: it has a unique flavour and aroma. This is evident from the fact that the price of Kashmiri saffron is far higher than that of the Iranian variety. Saffron from the Valley costs approximately Rs.2 lakh a kg, while Iranian saffron sells for Rs.1-1.3 lakh a kg. Kashmiri saffron earns its reputation for superior quality due to its rich concentration of crocin, a compound that gives saffron both its vibrant colour and its medicinal properties. Kashmir’s saffron boasts an impressive crocin content of 8 per cent, surpassing the Iranian variety’s 6.82 per cent. Despite that, it is difficult to differentiate between Iranian and Kashmiri saffron. Kashmir’s farmers claim that their saffron adds flavour and colour, while the Iranian one only adds colour. The botanical difference between Iranian and Kashmir saffron is that the latter has a broader stigma head and tastes bitter while the former tastes sweet. However, Kashmiri saffron is struggling in the Indian market as the country imports tax-free saffron from Iran through Afghanistan.

As a result the agriculture department is said to be encouraging farmers to adopt scientific methods of saffron cultivation. These include planting saffron corms in late spring or early summer, providing water immediately after planting to facilitate corm establishment, and avoiding excessive irrigation.

The government launched the National Saffron Mission in 2011, with a budget of Rs.400 crore, to enhance production, improve yield quality, and boost farmers’ income. It also aims to facilitate organised marketing, quality-based pricing, and direct transactions between growers, traders, exporters, and industrial agencies.

Proposed rejuvenation

Ghulam Mohammad Dhobi, Joint Director of Kashmir’s agriculture department, says the government has provided sprinkler irrigation under the mission and spent Rs.250 crore in 2015-16 to help the farmers deal with water scarcity. According to Dhobi, 3,715 hectares of saffron fields are proposed to be rejuvenated in a phased manner.

The government has also constructed 128 deep borewells, he says. But this February, Munda acknowledged in Parliament that irrigation facilities are not being used fully as “user groups” for the management and upkeep of borewells have not been created and handed over to the farmers as per the mission’s guidelines.

A bowl of saffron flowers.

A bowl of saffron flowers. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Apart from weather and water, saffron farmers face another pesky problem: rodent attacks on the fragile blooms. Every morning, Habibullah Reshi, 55, finds himself rushing to his field in Lethpora to ensure that the saffron crop stays safe from rodents and porcupines. “Look at the field, how they [porcupines] have created holes in the beds,” he says. Farmers are growing plants such as astragalus and iris to keep rodents away but to no avail. “Officials from the wildlife department visited the fields but expressed their helplessness in controlling rodents,” says Nadeem Ahmad, a farmer. “It’s impossible to keep a tab on them [porcupines]” said a wildlife official, requesting anonymity.

Farmers also alleged that dust from cement plants in the area is also contributing to the decline in production. Meanwhile, there has been a surge of tax-free Iranian saffron flooding the Indian market. “Iranian saffron is being sold at lower prices here, so customers choose it over the Kashmiri one,” observes Abdul Hameed, a farmer in Pulwama. Dhobi agrees that despite sanctions, Iranian saffron is being imported by India through intermediaries. It is then rebranded and sold in the domestic market.

GI Tag
In July 2020, in order to give Kashmiri saffron a major boost, the Central government provided the much-needed geographical indication (GI) tag to saffron grown in Kashmir. The main aim was to place the spice on the global map. The GI certificate stopped the adulteration of Kashmiri saffron and ensured that it remained pure. Farmers, despite challenges, believe that the GI tag helps the spice get prominence in the export market and ensures it fetches a good price. The GI tag has also helped customers distinguish between fake and adulterated saffron.

“However, I must say, Iranian saffron cannot match our product. It lacks the strong flavour, aroma, and colour of the saffron we grow,” says Dhobi. Farmers say that Iranian saffron has even reached markets in Kashmir where it is being sold by unscrupulous traders as the original Kashmiri saffron.

Brand Kashmir

To maintain the quality of the spice, the government has constructed the India International Kashmir Saffron Trading Centre at Dussu, Pampore. The idea, according to officials, is to establish a state-of-the-art facility with scientific post-harvest handling practices for stamen separation, drying, and grading. The centre also hopes to adopt quality standards and fix prices on the basis of quality grades at farm gate level; end adulteration; regularly evaluate and certify the spice; provide a common facilitation centre for e-trading; and brand Kashmir saffron.

Also Read | Kashmir faces a severe power supply crisis, but in the election, the vote is likely to be on Article 370

However, farmers continue to shift to other crops, especially in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. In February, Munda said in Parliament that the State agriculture production department, along with revenue authorities, was implementing the Saffron Act, Saffron Rules and other revenue laws that safeguard saffron fields from being diverted for any other purpose.

But for farmers such as Khan, the “king of spices” is on the verge of extinction in Kashmir and “only Allah can save it”.

Auqib Javeed is an independent journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir. He reports on human rights, politics, and the environment.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment