Kashmir's Saffron Farmers Face Ruin as Iran Rules Expensive Spice Trade

Saffron flowers
A young girl with a handful of saffron flowers in south Kashmir's Lethpora village. Sameer Mushtaq/Zenger

"The end seems nigh," says Bashir Ahmad Rather, in a voice oozing disappointment.

This sense of loss is everywhere in Kashmir. The whole valley seems draped in it and, for many who call the conflict-ravaged region their home, the fear of "losing" is ceaseless and merciless.

Caught in decades of political turbulence and violence — roaring guns and deafening explosions are a near-daily affair — that fear is often about human lives, too. But the 55-year-old Rather worries about the art of growing saffron that his family in the disputed Himalayan territory has preserved for generations. It's disappearing, he says.

"Perhaps it is one of the few things that conflict left untouched, yet it seems dying a slow death," Rather's nephew Kamran told Zenger News.

For generations, both men's families have farmed the world's most valuable spice on their ancestral land in Pampore, famously known as "the Saffron town of Kashmir." Now they're unsure whether the centuries-old family tradition has a future.

Picking saffron flowers
A woman picking the saffron flowers in the Battapora area of Pulwama District in south Kashmir. Shahid Mushtaq/Zenger

Kashmiri saffron— locals call it zaffran—is the pollen-germinating stigma of the Crocus sativus flower, which is dried and used worldwide as a seasoning for many South Asian and Mediterranean dishes.

Largely believed to have been brought to Kashmir by Iranian saints on missionary expeditions to the region, a pound of zaffran can cost up to $5,000 by the time it reaches the West, making it one of the costliest spices in the world. But the growers of the exotic spice say they share little of the dividends.

"The produce has dwindled over the years and it is becoming increasingly difficult to survive on saffron cultivation only, especially for families who are solely dependent on it, " Rather said.

"A few relatives have started converting saffron fields into horticulture lands; sowing apple and almond samplings in their saffron fields. It hurts, but there seems to be a no way out."

Local saffron growers from the region say Iran is flooding Indian markets with an inferior product that's passed off as Kashmiri and then sold at lower prices. Kashmiri saffron is considered to have a stronger aroma and higher nutrients than the Iranian product, which has far more market share and a lower retail price.

Red stigma of the saffron
The red stigma collected in a vessel is all set to be dried before sending to the market. Sameer Mushtaq/Zenger

"Our rates are double compared to it. But many traders add different chemical syrups to Iranian saffron and then sell it as Kashmiri Saffron. This has badly affected our trade," said Kamran while referring to the adulteration of the spice by marketers.

Iran grows 90% of the world's saffron. Most of India's roughly 5% is cultivated in the Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir.

Greece, Afghanistan, Morocco, Spain and Italy also produce saffron in very small quantities. Kashmiri growers believe theirs is an heirloom, artisanal product that's being swallowed up by an unscrupulous market.

Syed Altaf Aijaz Andrabi, Director of the Agriculture department of the region, hopes geographic labeling will solve the problem.

In July 2020 the saffron produced in Kashmir was granted an international Geographical Indication (GI) tag, which certifies its origin and reserves their region's name for them alone — like "Champagne" in France, or Swiss "Gruyère" cheese.

Elderly man collecting flowers
An elderly man collecting the saffron flowers in his field at Chandhara area of Pulwama District in Kashmir. Ahmad Mukhtiyar/Zenger/Getty

"We have managed to get the GI tag for our saffron. Now the issue adulteration is solved for once and all," Andrabi told Zenger.

Local farmers aren't ready to declare victory. They still fear for the future of their prized cash crop.

Kashmir Saffron Growers president Tajamul Bashir blames unnecessary government intervention for the decline of cultivation.

"Since the National Saffron Mission was started a decade back, everything is under government control. They tell us what seeds to sow, when to irrigate and where to sell, yet they have failed to increase the produce. In fact, it has declined drastically. Earlier a kanal (1/8 of an acre) of land would fetch 400 grams of saffron. Now we don't even get 200 grams," Bashir said.

Saffron fields
Saffron Fields in full bloom on the outskirts of Srinagar. Ahmad Mukhtiyar/Zenger

The total area under saffron cultivation in Kashmir declined to 3,700 hectares in 2010-11, from the 5,700 hectares in 1996. Saffron production has also declined from 16 metric tons to less than six metric tons in the last two decades.

The government launched a much-hyped National Saffron Mission in 2010 to boost saffron cultivation, but many farmers saw it as a bureaucratic failure.

"I tried all my life to preserve it with a sense of responsibility that the skill was passed on to me. But this generation is different. Why would my children take so much pain for no or little returns?" said Rather, the farmer in Pampore.

"They would definitely prefer some private job instead."

Picking saffron flowers in field
People collecting the saffron in the south Kashmir’s Pulwama area. Ahmad Mukhtiyar/Zenger

Because yields are low and a flood of Iran's saffron is squeezing them from the north, more and more traditional saffron growing families in Kashmir have begun to outsource their tilling work to cheap migrant laborers whose heavy hands injure saffron seeds and turn them into waste.

"Cultivating saffron is an art. Not everyone can do this. It has taken years of experiential training for us to learn these skills," said Rather. "How can we suddenly expect unskilled laborers from the plains to do what we have learned over years?"

"The saffron flowers are so scant in the fields now. The heritage is plunging into twilight."

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.