Mohammad Habib Mir looked pensive as he walked towards his saffron field on a cold day in November. Fifty years ago, the 67-year-old farmer was accustomed to collecting between 20 and 40 kilograms of saffron from each kanal—around 4,500 square feet—in large baskets made from willow twigs. Nowadays, he is lucky if he manages to collect around two kilograms, and he only needs a small bag.
Mir, who was brought up in Pampore, a town around 13 kilometres from Srinagar, took up saffron cultivation full-time to support his family after his father’s death in 1967. “My grandfather used to tell me, the deeper you dig, the land will become more viable for sowing, and you will produce more,” he said, referring to the labour-intensive nature of saffron production.
Since farmers have to extract the stigma of saffron flowers, and each flower only has three stigmas, it takes anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 flowers to produce a kilogram of dried saffron.
India is the third-largest producer of the spice. It is used as an ingredient in cosmetics, medicines, dyes and perfumes. Nearly 7.3 percent of the world’s saffron is produced in Jammu and Kashmir, where saffron cultivation is the second-largest industry. But the last two decades have seen more than a 25-percent decline in saffron cultivation in the state. Heavy construction in Pampore reduced the area under saffron cultivation from 5,707 hectares in 1996-1997 to 3,785 hectares in 2014-2015, which led to a decrease in yield per hectare from 3.13 kilograms to 1.88 kilograms. Today, around 3,500 hectares are available for cultivation. A severe drought in 2017 exacerbated the crisis. The state received around ten millimetres of rainfall between August and October, a tenth of the average for those months, which drastically reduced the yield.
Mir felt that other factors had contributed to the slowdown of saffron production. “Nowadays, families hire workers from outside who have little or no expertise in cultivating the spice,” he said. He noted that there had been a move away from saffron cultivation to other livelihoods, and suggested that the new generation was not enthusiastic about learning the techniques of saffron farming, because of the social taboo attached to the occupation of farming and also the low pay-out of the labour-intensive work. “I want my children to do this job,” he said. “The new generation feels a sense of disgrace at being called a ‘farmer,’ and they find other means to earn their livelihood.”