Grey days ahead for Kashmirís saffron fields

Kashmir's world-acclaimed saffron and its vast fields are fast dwindling, courtesy the poisonous dust emanating from nearby cement plants.

Officials say the production per kanal has reduced from the normal 150 gm to as low as 70 gm, directly affecting the livelihood of thousands of farmers in and around Pampore, Khrew and Khanmoh villages of South Kashmir.

"As dust falls over tiny plants or leaf surfaces, it blocks its stomata," said Dr Farooq Ahmad, associate professor, Sher-i-Kashmir Agricultural University, who has done research on the adverse effects of cement dust on saffron. "The dust forms a crust first and changes the smooth soil of saffron fields into solid patches," he added.

Saffron production in Kashmir dates back to 500 AD. However, crop production reached its zenith in the early 90s with Kashmir exporting more than 5,000 quintals of saffron annually.

In the past few years, however, the crop output has declined, especially in the belts located around the cement plants. In Pulwama alone, more than 5,000 hectares of land are under saffron cultivation.

Dr Farooq said that Kashmiri saffron matches the quality of saffron grown in Iran, Spain and Italy. "In the rest of the world, per hectare saffron yield is 6 kg, while in Kashmir it is only one to 2 kg. Around the cement plants, per hectare yield has dropped to less than a kilogram," he said.

He said that most saffron fields where production has been hit are located near Khrew, Wuyan, Pampore and Kanmoh that have cement plants operating in the area. "All these cement plants operate without electro-static precipitators," he said. "The fields situated far away from cement plants show 2.5 to 3 kg of saffron yield per hectare."

There are nine cement plants operating in the area and construction of another six are in the final stages. Mian Javed, regional director, State Pollution Control Board, said that it is only after proper checks that the pollution control board gives clearance for cement plants. "We will never allow any industrial growth at the cost of environment and agricultural products," he said.

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