Fading Glory: Khrew’s Transformation from Saffron Capital to Sparse Cultivation

Dust and smoke emanating from a cement factory in Khrew, located 20 kilometres from Srinagar. Photo by Aatif Ammad.

Mohammad Aatif Ammad Kanth and Hamaad Habibullah, TwoCircles.net

Srinagar: Khrew in Kashmir’s Pampore town, which is known for its lush saffron fields, once thrived with abundant blooms. However, the emergence of nearby cement factories has precipitated a decline in farming of the world’s most expensive spice. “For generations, we cultivated saffron and enjoyed substantial profits. But with the increasing number of cement factories, our yields diminished and its quality suffered greatly,” explained Fayaz Ahmed, a farmer who ultimately abandoned saffron farming due to rising production and labour costs — which outstripped earnings. He chose to transition to a new livelihood, purchasing a truck instead.

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Saffron, known as “kong” in Kashmiri and “zaffran” in Urdu, is derived from the stigma (male reproductive part) of the saffron flower, Crocus sativus. Few regions worldwide are suitable for its cultivation, with Kashmir standing out as a significant producer. The Valley produces approximately 11-12 metric tonnes of saffron annually, securing its position as the second-largest producer globally.

Known as “Kesar” in Hindi, this spice commands a staggering price of three lakhs per kilogram, reflecting the intensive labour and inputs required. It takes around 160-180 flowers to produce just one gram of saffron, highlighting the extensive effort and meticulousness involved in its cultivation.

However, saffron cultivation in Kashmir has faced a stark decline, with the land under cultivation shrinking by 60% over the past two decades. Various factors have contributed significantly to this downturn.

Chowdhary Mohammad Iqbal, director of the Department of Agriculture Production & Farmers Welfare in Kashmir, acknowledged the decline in saffron quality and production. “Over time, the productivity of saffron in Kashmir has decreased due to several reasons, including the reduction of fields and construction of residential and industrial buildings,” he noted.

Cultivators and experts attribute climate change, unexpected rainfall and the increased use of machinery for ploughing as key factors driving this decline. “Saffron farming is highly sensitive to climate conditions, and climate change has adversely affected both the quantity and quality of the produce,” explained Maqbool.

Maqbool Shah tending to the final saffron field in Khrew. Photo by Aatif Ammad.

Another significant factor contributing to the decline in saffron production is the establishment of industries near fields. Over the past decade, several cement factories have been set up in close proximity to saffron fields, severely impacting its production and quality. Mohammad Yousuf, a saffron grower from Pampore, pointed out that dust emissions from these cement industries settle on the flowers, negatively affecting its growth.

“Given that the crop thrives in a pleasant environment with good air quality, the region’s air quality has deteriorated due to greenhouse gas emissions, significantly affecting its production,” explained Syed Mohammad Shafi, a retired government school principal currently tending to his saffron farm in Pampore.

He noted a decline in his own crop yield despite his field being located away from the industries. He emphasised the dire situation for fields nearer to these industrial sites. “Farmers in the Khrew region have been forced to give up,” he lamented, adding, “Many have reached their breaking point, either shifting their farming to less affected areas or selling their land to industrialists.”

With 50 kanals of saffron land in Khrew, Maqbool Shah, who considers himself the sole remaining saffron farmer there, expresses deep concern about the future of the saffron industry. He laments the impact of nearby industries on the quantity and quality of saffron production in Pampore.

“In the 1980s, almost everyone in Khrew cultivated saffron, but today I am the only one left engaged in this cultivation,” he remarked.

Shah displays saffron seeds to be sown in the upcoming September. Photo by Aatif Ammad.

The release of cement dust in significant quantities has detrimental effects on saffron plants, including decreased chlorophyll, clogged stomata, reduced light absorption and hindered gas diffusion. These factors contribute to early leaf fall and stunted growth, significantly diminishing overall saffron production in Kashmir.

Dr Niyaz Ahmad Dar, an assistant professor at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences & Technology (SKUAST-K) who works at the saffron research station in Pampore, underscores the delicate nature of saffron cultivation.

Saffron requires a clean, pollution-free environment. During the flowering season, even heavy dew on the stigma can deteriorate its quality. Now imagine the impact of a substantial amount of cement dust on a flower — it would undoubtedly harm it, reducing both the quality and quantity of production,” he explained.

Given saffron’s sensitivity as a crop, local farmers have vehemently opposed the establishment of any industries in the surrounding areas. Despite their protests and resistance, authorities permitted cement industries to operate near saffron fields.

“Since 2005, I have been vocal against these factories. I have tried everything possible, but no one is paying attention. These industrialists are forcing their way,” said Abdul Majeed, chairman of the Saffron Growers Association.

He criticised the government’s inaction and claimed that the media has been reluctant to expose these industrial practices. “I have repeatedly invited media representatives to visit the sites, but they never reported on it,” he added.

The cement factories near saffron fields initially seemed promising for locals seeking job opportunities, with many investing in trucks for cement transport across the Valley. However, the consequences quickly became apparent as saffron crops suffered and quality declined.

“Today, the situation has worsened significantly. Many former saffron growers in Khrew either sold their land to buy trucks or abandoned their fields to become full-time truck drivers,” explained Fayaz. “As the number of trucks increased, demand plummeted, leaving drivers waiting hours or days to load their trucks. This has drastically reduced earnings, and now everyone regrets their decisions.”

The final saffron field in Khrew. Photo by Aatif Ammad.

The proximity of cement factories has led to a substantial release of cement dust, endangering approximately 200 hectares of saffron land in Pulwama. This pollution has severely impacted production, reducing yields by more than 50%. Reports indicate production dropping from 150 grams to 70 grams per kanal.

Khrew, known as the ‘Saffron Town’, has been particularly affected, witnessing a significant decline in saffron quantity and quality due to nearby cement industries. Majeed noted that pollution and cement dust have rendered nearby areas incapable of saffron cultivation, compelling farmers to sell their land or leave it fallow.

Saffron cultivation relies heavily on a clean, pollution-free environment, essential for maintaining quality and yield. The emission of greenhouse gases by cement industries has severely degraded air quality in Khrew, affecting saffron fields both nearby and distant.

Despite continuous protests and resistance, growers and industry stakeholders struggle to gain traction with policymakers. The relentless expansion and operation of these industries underscore growing capitalism’s impact, threatening the future of the saffron industry in Kashmir.

Majeed has persistently voiced his opposition to the continual expansion of these factories, stating, “Every year, they invest money and expand the factories.”

Cement factory waste. Photo by Aatif Ammad.

While greenhouse gases and harmful dust oxides are detrimental to any crop grown in the vicinity, saffron is exceptionally delicate. It requires a pristine, pollution-free environment and its stigma must be handled with meticulous care to prevent contamination. Even the slightest disruption can significantly affect the produce quality.

Dr Niyaz emphasised, “Not only cement factories but any industrial activity causing environmental pollution poses a threat to saffron production. Measures must be implemented to reduce dust emissions from these cement industries and minimise their impact on saffron cultivation.”

The saffron industry significantly contributes to the economic wealth and well-being of Kashmir. However, fluctuations in the quality and quantity of Kashmiri Kesar have led to substantial losses across various aspects. As the quality and quantity declined, overall market rates also decreased.

The declining prices of Kashmiri Kesar are significantly impacting the economic status of the saffron industry and the region as a whole. This economic downturn has prompted many individuals to leave the industry and pursue alternative livelihoods.

“This industry has a very bleak future. We are witnessing a steady decline in saffron prices, and the market for this spice is shrinking daily. Both the quantity and quality of saffron are diminishing,” reflected Mohammad Shafi, a saffron grower. “Farmers are finding it increasingly challenging to sustain a livelihood, prompting many to abandon saffron cultivation in favour of other careers they deem more financially rewarding.”

The pervasive impact of cement dust extends beyond affecting crop production, quality and quantity; it has also disrupted the entire saffron industry. This includes labourers, growers, farmers and other associated workers who have been compelled to seek employment elsewhere. While people have departed from the saffron industry for various reasons, a prominent factor driving this exodus is the detrimental effects caused by cement industries.

“There are numerous factors, but one of the primary reasons driving people away from saffron farming is the mushrooming of cement industries in Khrew. The dust particles emitted by these factories settle directly on the petals of saffron flowers, destroying them and thereby severely impacting the quality and quantity of our output,” explained Maqbool.

Expressing his concern, he emphasised the urgency for government intervention and proactive measures. “The government must monitor these factories’ emissions regularly. It seems these industries are either not complying with existing regulations, or if they are, the regulations are inadequate to prevent serious environmental damage. These industries have become a major source of frustration for us.”

Chowdhary Iqbal acknowledged the impact of pollution on crops, including saffron, due to nearby factories. “There is no denying that these factories have affected saffron production, but we are actively taking steps to minimise their impact,” he stated. “We are consistently urging relevant authorities to enforce measures that will reduce pollution from these industries and mitigate their effect on saffron production.”

Despite the existence of numerous policies on paper aimed at safeguarding the saffron industry, growers and workers in the fields feel disillusioned by the lack of tangible on-the-ground implementation. They believe that unless concrete actions are taken soon, the future looks bleak for saffron farmers and labourers. They emphasise the urgent need for an effective plan to prevent further damage and rectify past harms.