by AFP/Izhar Wani, Nov 14, 2009 | Destinations: China / India / Kashmir Region

Saffron spice cultivation should be a growth industry for Indian Kashmir as it begins to recover from decades of unrest, but drought, pollution and corruption are threatening its future.

Kashmir is famous for its crocus flowers and their fragrant reddish-orange stamens which are plucked, then dried, before being used in cooking the world over to add taste and colour.

It's a niche industry with potentially high returns: the spice is the world's most expensive by weight and sells for more than 5,000 dollars a kilogram (2.2 pounds) in India alone.

All is not well, however, with local farmers struggling to make ends meet at a time when violence here is subsiding and companies are re-opening amid signs of stability after a deadly 20-year anti-India insurgency.

Production of the labour-intensive crop totalled 40 tonnes a year in the early 1990s but now has slumped to just six tonnes annually from the 226 villages that grow the crop, according to the government agriculture department.

Former farmer Mehraj-u-Din, 44, is part of the trend. He turned his back on the industry and now makes a living by brokering sales between saffron land owners and prospective buyers.

"This area used to be blanketed by saffron flowers but now we have houses everywhere," he says, surveying a piece of land in Acha Nambal area, a 20-minute drive from the state summer capital Srinagar.

Huge buildings have mushroomed in the area, once a prime location for saffron cultivation, despite a government ban.

"Officials who are supposed to protect this land are demanding huge bribes to allow construction," says Din.

Many former farmers say that falling production prompted them to sell up and walk away from a tradition that dates back at least 1,000 years.

"I sold off my land as I got good price at a time when production had gone down considerably," says Mohammed Ramzan of Pampore, a 15-minute drive from Srinagar and known as the saffron capital.

"I had to feed my family and marry off my daughter. Selling the land was the only option," he said.

A truant monsoon

Elsewhere, the picture is the same in the Indian part of this divided territory, twice the trigger for a war between India and Pakistan.

An ancient industry with huge export potential is withering on the stalk.

Poor rainfall over several years is blamed by some on climate change, while others lament the lack of irrigation and years of official inaction in the face of the problems.

"There has been almost no rain over the past three years, and this year too rains have eluded us," says farmer Altaf Bhat as his mother and sister tend their roadside farm in Lethpora village, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Srinagar.

The fields are divided into small rectangular flower beds which, when in full bloom, resemble a huge tawny blanket with spots of purple and green.

The crocus is an autumn plant raised from a bulb. It remains dormant until mid-October when green leaves shoot up followed by bright, strongly scented purple flowers.

The flowers carpet the fields but then die off after several weeks.

The final stage is a period of furious activity for thousands of Kashmiri families who spend their days collecting the flowers, then painstakingly snipping off the stigmas, which are dried before being sold.

Firdos Nehvi, Indian Kashmir's leading saffron scientist and an associate professor in the state's main agriculture university, says declining rainfall in the mountainous region is a serious problem.

"Less rains have led to a decline in saffron productivity," says the scientist, who has been tasked with rejuvenating saffron growing and has toured foreign countries looking at the best practices.

After years of studying how to help the farmers, the local government has finally formulated a policy to provide tube wells to the farmers -- but with a major drawback.

"The farmers will have to create the facility themselves and then claim the money back," says Nehvi, who acknowledges the response has been underwhelming so far.

Growers say that due to the drought-like conditions of the last few years they lack the money needed to invest in the wells, which cost 50,000-60,000 rupees (1,070-1,300 US dollars).

Other ways of irrigating the highland fields, including taking water from rivers and streams, have not materialised owing to a lack of financial support from the government, says Nehvi.

Innovate or fail

One of the consequences is that Indian Kashmir has been eclipsed by growers in Iran, who use irrigated land. Saffron is also grown in the Mediterranean region.

Iranian saffron undercuts Kashmiri produce even in India where it sells for 250,000 rupees (5,102 dollars) a kilogram, compared with 300,000 rupees for the Kashmiri version.

In a bid to catch up, Nehvi and his fellow scientists are trying to promote irrigation and other new technologies to replace old methods, such as open-air drying of the stamens.

"We are encouraging farmers to go for drying under controlled conditions. It retains the flavour and colour of the spice," says Nehvi, adding that the government would help farmers to acquire solar or electric dryers.

Nehvi and his fellow scientists are also helping villagers to increase their production by swapping animal-drawn ploughs for power tillers at subsidised rates, which help to prepare the seedbeds for higher density sowing.

"We will have to sow 50 plants per square metre, instead of 15 to 20 as we are seeing currently," said Nehvi. "If we do this our output will increase three times," he said.

Despite these efforts to introduce modernity in this conservative Muslim region, there are many other problems, both man-made and natural.

Over the past two years the crop has been hit by a disease called saffron corm-rot, caused by a pathogen that spread when apples and saffron were grown in the same fields, said Nehvi.

Economic development in the region, where 400,000 educated youths are unemployed, is also a threat to farmers.

"The dust and pollutants emanating from the factories is damaging the crop and nothing is being done," says agriculture scientist Nazir Ahmed, referring to south Kashmir's Wuyan, Khrew and Khonmoh areas where huge factories have been set up.

* * * * *