Heritage crop,’ Kala Zeera’ Spearheading economic turnaround in Gurez Valley

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
‘The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer’-Will Rodgers.
The profession of farming is as old as the evolution of human civilization and constantly evolving at that, as has been the case with the humans since neither can survive without each other’s express indulgence in their quest to better themselves. India having already surpassed china as the most populous country on this planet with close to 1.4 Billion mouths to feed and still counting has only 4% of water resources of the world with 95 million hectares of land at its disposal. As per the NSSO (National sample survey office) study of the recent past India will not be able to meet the food and nutritional needs of its ever burgeoning population unless it makes agriculture an attractive option for its teeming millions. The 3 farm laws passed by the country in the recent past purport to help the farmers anywhere in the country ; they can benefit from contact farming with legal back up and there will not be any limit while storing farm products except in extraordinary circumstances like natural calamities and war. If the majority of our farmers were rich, educated, computer -savvy and had marketing and management skills, they could have reaped the benefits from these reforms. Unfortunately 86% of our farmers are illiterate, poor or have only school -level qualifications with much of their bargaining power eroded by politicization of farmer’s bodies. On top of it a major part of country’s agricultural land falls in border areas with tiling restricted either due to weather conditions or interference by our neighbouring countries that are inimical to our national interests. One such border area defying all odds as stated above is that of ‘Gurez valley’ of Jammu and Kashmir where some locals are spearheading and scripting a story of revivalism of their so called ‘Heritage crop’ going by the name of ‘Kala Zeera’ or ‘Black cumin.’
As per the popular definition going around ‘Heritage crops’ or ‘Heirloom crops’ are a variety of crops that were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history but are not used in modern large scale agriculture. Moreover these crops are ‘Site specific’ and are known by the place of their origin and people. ‘Kala Zeera’ or black cumin is one such crop that fulfills the definition of a ‘Heritage crop’ and grown in abundance in places like ‘Bagtore’, Izmarg, Davar, in Gurez valley, North Kashmir’s Bandipora district bordering the Line of control with Pakistan. ‘Elwendia persica’ is a plant species in the family ‘Apiaceae’ related to ‘cumin’ and sometimes called ‘Black cumin’ ,black seed or black caraway. I have had the good fortune of being in the area of Gurez valley, ‘Badaub’ to be precise that actually falls immediately due east to Gurez valley going by the name of ‘Tulail valley’ way back in 2003 while still serving in the army and witness to this unique crop being grown by the locals all along the R.Kishan Ganga. There are quite a few locals of Gurez valley who are now at the forefront of revival of this so called ‘Heritage crop’ despite having a no formal education. ‘Khadija Begum’ a farmer from ‘Bagtore’ village is one such progressive farmer who despite being literally illiterate has been harbouring an intense zeal to grow this ‘Kala Zeera’ with particular focus on preserving local bio-diversity and the scientific cultivation of this crop. Khadija embarked on an initiative aimed at bio -diversity conservation, taking possession of a hillside plot at Bagtore. She collected ‘Zeera tubers’ from neighbouring areas planted them and protected the plot with traditional fencing. At the forefront of all these efforts is the all-important SKUAST-Kashmir (Sher-e-kashmir University of agricultural sciences and technology -kashmir) toward conserving local biodiversity ,offering training on scientific cultivation and emphasizing the importance of domestication of this ‘Heritage crop’.
One only has to go back to his or her roots to find out what and which implements, local knowledge, and cultivation methods to undertake in order to make these heritage crops thrive. The lady farmer simply employed raised beds, and planted garlic around the ‘Kala zeera beds to deter rodents who pose a significant threat to this particular crop during winters when they can cause substantial damage to the tubers. Her efforts weren’t left unnoticed when she received recognition from none other than the Bandipora district administration and was honoured by the VC of SKUAST-Kashmir. As for the spread of this ‘Kala zeera’ its dried variant is found in northern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. It is practically unknown outside these areas. In Hindi language it is also known as ‘Shahi Zeera’. In Bengali language it is known as ‘Kalo zeera’ whereas in Urdu & Persian language the same goes by the name with ‘Siyoh Dona’. The plant bears slender, elongate, ribbed fruits which are harvested once the plants become dry. Not more than 5 to 8 grams can be plucked from each plant contributing to its high price. The seeds are most valued as a garnish to high value, very special Indian dishes; they should not be ground as their flavor would be reduced. As for its health benefits ‘Kala zeera’ contains vitamin A, C .Phosphorous, iron and potassium. It is beneficial for good memory, balanced sugar levels, heart health, reducing cholesterol, and improving concentration. It also alleviates joint pains and headaches. Since it contains phytosterols, known as fat -cutters it is essential for weight loss that could prove to be a fetish for the members of the opposite sex. As for its side effects, though they are not many but at the same time they should be known to all and sundry. Some of them which are associated with this excellent spice are causing drowsiness with a sedative effect, cause skin rashes, vomiting or upset stomach etc.
Gurez valley though co-located all along the LOC, off late has been sitting at the cusp of change with both the UT and the central Govt pitching in their might to ameliorate the cause of the locals who have been leading sub-human lives since independence. With a plethora of welfare programmes initiated by the country in the form show casing the area’s cultural cum social life by way of opening ‘Shenon Meeraz ‘museum at Davar, the border roads café, giving special incentives to airbnb and such like to help the locals with their homestays has definitely opened new vistas of opportunities for these hapless locals who include people like Khadija Begum. With the valley now opening up to both Indian and foreign tourists an excellent marketing opportunity waits for such progressive farmers whose produce will be carried far and wide by word of mouth and also in physical domain. The spice in the form of ‘Kala zeera’ which was once the mainstay of Gurez valley has been given a heft due to her efforts that has motivated many rural women and young people to embark on their journey of self-discovery and a massive reconnect with their roots having a tinge of economic freedom. Individuals like her have now become a byword for innovative agricultural technologies across the ‘Razdan pass. The lady in Bagtore is truly epitomizing the prophetic saying of ex US President late George Washington—quote-‘I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world’-unquote.
(The writer is a retired army officer)