Kishtwar saffron needs pragmatic backup

C M Sharma
Mid November is the peak time when saffron growers of Kishtwar should be celebrating saffron harvest with smiles. The prolonged dry weather this season and other reasons have, however, forced them once again to draw long faces as they reap negligible yields of this very high value crop. This calls for a fresh review of strategy for revival of Saffron of Kishtwar, which could be different from that adopted in Kashmir because of location specific requirements. SKUAST Jammu and Directorate of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare with active participation of Saffron growers of Kishtwar need to relook into the Research and Development issues seriously and sincerely so that the traditional glory of Kishtwar Saffron is restored and its productivity becomes sustainable.
It may not be known to most of the readers that once upon a time in former days saffron seed was imported to Kashmir from Kishtwar. This became necessary to revive this ancient industry after the people of Kashmir in their distress had eaten up the corms following a famine. The episode is mentioned in a ‘must read’ chronicle on Kashmir titled ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ by Sir Walter Roper Lawrence (1895) on page 343. Since the seed of saffron is neither imported from other parts of the country nor from outside, it implies that much of the stock of saffron seed in Kashmir today is from Kishtwar only. Further, may it be recalled that GI tag has been accorded recently to Kashmir Saffron while the cultivation practices and post harvest management of the crop in Kishtwar continue to be largely traditional which are different from that of Kashmir.
Kishtwar is a unique and picturesque town located on an oval plateau on the high bank of River Chenab, famous for the niche crop saffron. The plateau is a ten km long and three km broad stretch of land at an altitude of about 5,360 ft. above sea level on the left bank of Chandrabhaga river. Surrounded by high mountain peaks, Kishtwar offers special attraction to trekkers, mountain climbers and adventure tourists and is about 232 km from Jammu.
A.K. Khanna (2020, ff hf) refers to “the cultivation of saffron back to the Mahabharata period in Kishwar town. There is a reference of Lohit Mandal in saloka or verse in the 27th chapter of Sabha Para in the Mahabharata Part I along with other Manuals. The cultivation of saffron in Kishtwar even today is done in the area called Mandal. In Tuzak-i-Jahangiri translated by Alexander Roger (page 140), the author states “in Kishtwar there are produce such as wheat, barley, lentils, millets and pulses….. Its saffron is finer than that of Kashmir– — all the saffron is assigned as pay to a body of Rajputs and to 700 musketeers or topchi or gunners who are old retainers”. Khanna writes, “The Mughal kings preferred to have the saffron from Kishtwar District in Jammu region, which produces fine saffron with stronger dye than sweet fragrance of the Kashmir Valley. The quality of saffron is superior to that of Kashmiri in fragrance and colour due to the dry technique used by the people of Kishtwar.”
In 1985 Sir Walter Lawrence had suggested that the saffron cultivation ‘system being followed in Kashmir was unnecessarily slow and primitive, and the European methods of producing seed bulbs might increase the production of saffron’. Taking cue and with the popularization of scientific temper, the then State Department of Agriculture followed by Sher – e – Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology Jammu/ Kashmir (SKUAST J/K) have developed standard production recommendations for the crop. The recommendations aim at enhancing productivity of quality saffron by overcoming the bottlenecks of longer planting cycle, low seed rate of unsorted seed corms, infestation of corm rot disease, poor soil health, and rain fed cultivation and traditional post harvest practices.
With a view to expeditiously implement the recommendations through economic and sustainable interventions, a mega project titled ‘National Mission for Economic Revival of J&K Saffron’ was sanctioned by the Government of India and launched in the year 2011to popularize amongst saffron growers the use of sorted seed corms of good quality and larger size that are free from injuries and rots and treated against fungal infections. Quality of the produce depends upon the quality of the land, the climate of the place, the technique of plucking flowers, separating of red and yellow Carpel from the petals and other post harvest management methods. The crop requires moderate rain during the period of planting of bulbs and a little before flowering. Therefore, adoption of a shorter 4 to 5 years planting cycle of 4 to 5 years instead of 10 to 12 years, integrated use of chemical, organic and bio-fertilizers for improvement of soil health, appropriate time, method and spacing between corms for sowing, efficient irrigation methods, rodent management, proper weeding and hoeing (intercultural operations) and improved skill and technology including use of improved machinery and devices for hygienic picking of flowers, separating the stigma and drying, packing and storage of saffron by farmers have been stressed as the key interventions.
Kishtwar saffron was also covered under the Mission, although somewhat partly. Presently, the district of Kishtwar has 25 identified villages traditionally involved in saffron cultivation. These include Pochhal, Sangrambhatta, Lachkhazna, Lachha Daya Ram, Cherhar, Dugga, Berwar, Hullar, Hutta, Sarkoot, Berabhatta, Matta, Hidyal, Hudre, Drab, Arsi, Laniyal Malipath and Bindraban. Pochhal, Matta, Lachha Daya Ram and Hidyal are the principal good quality saffron producing villages and about 5000 families are reportedly associated with saffron cultivation here. There are some nontraditional, but potential saffron villages of the district too which include Thakrie, Kuchal, Inderwal, Chattroo, Palmar, Trigam, Dool, Padyarna, Nagsani (Ligree and Tatapani) besides some other villages of Drabshalla block. During the year 2016 the Revenue Department estimated saffron coverage to the extent of 202 hectares and the potential saffron area notified by Agriculture Production Department in the district was 350 hectares.
Experts say that productivity level of more than 4.0 kilograms (and even 5.0 kg.) per hectare can be achieved during normal weather conditions when critical rainfall needs are met. Under such conditions, the total production projections for the district from the said 202 hectares area are estimated at around 8 quintals of dried saffron stigmas with the local market value of about rupees sixteen crores.
Unfortunately, in the total absence of irrigation sources and facilities in the otherwise drought prone agro-climatic conditions prevailing in Kishtwar besides increasing tendency of erratic or scanty precipitation, the average yield per hectare has frequently dipped to less than 2.50 kg during the past decade. Untimely rains have played the spoil sport often. In the year 2016, the all time low average yield of 0.74 kg. per hectare was estimated due to complete drought. Thus, the total production estimates for saffron in the district have shown great fluctuation between 1.50 qtls. to an odd 6.00 qtls. since the year 2010. Kishtwar having little irrigation sources and very deep water table, optimizing yield continues to remain a challenge.
For good crop growth and satisfactory yields, Saffron neither requires too much water nor too much of fertilizers, but optimum levels at right stage are necessary. Due to a very long dry spell during the Kharif 2020 season till the end of October this year the crop prospects appear to be very grim again. A light drizzle in the higher mountain reaches during the last week of October/ first week of November seems to have made some difference, but it was too late.
Therefore, it would be apt to underline that the Directorate of Agriculture Jammu maintains the only large enough Government Saffron Development Farm of the division at Berwar village in Kishtwar district, but over the years it is generally reported to be either under staffed or irrationally staffed. Financial requirements of this demonstration – cum – seed production farm for production of adequate quantity of good quality seed corms and demonstration of appropriate technology to saffron growers, demand appropriate and pragmatic technological and financial back up from the government; no doubt, proper supervision, guidance and monitoring of concerned staff and scientists is essential. If that is not possible, it is better for the government to outsource the underutilized and unutilized public assets and infrastructure rather than announcing new schemes, missions and projects which either remain incomplete or remain opaque before the public eye.
(The author is Dy. Director of Agriculture, J&K, (Retd.)