On October 31, a bright sun shone over the vast saffron fields of Pampore in South Kashmir. But only a few flowers bloomed, in shaded patches. This time of the year, Javaid Ahmad, general secretary of the All Jammu and Kashmir Saffron Growers Development Cooperative Marketing Association, usually plucks the second batch of saffron flowers in his fields. Today, clusters of the purple flowers are barely in sight.

In a good season, Ahmad said, the farmers would harvest two-three batches of saffron flowers but this year is likely to yield the lowest crop in recent memory as most farmers are still waiting to pick the first batch of flowers. “We still have time,” he said, hopefully. “If it rains in the coming few days, before November 15, there may be some increase in the number of flowers.”

Ahmad foresees losses if the weather does not improve before mid-November, when winter begins to set in and it becomes too cold for the flowers to sprout. “If it rains we may have a 20-30% crop this year,” he said. “There is nothing there yet but we hope it rains this week. Otherwise we will face heavy losses.”

Waiting for rain

Saffron flowers are sensitive to vagaries of the weather. Currently, the Valley is witnessing a dry spell, leading to low soil moisture, which ultimately results in reduced flower density and hurts the yield. Ahmad said precipitation is needed for saffron flowers to sprout but also after harvest to rejuvenate the soil for the next crop. “The first setback was last year’s dry spell because of which there would already have been fewer flowers this season,” he said. “But now due to the dry spell there is nothing.”

Wherever the land was watered, Ahmad said, some flowers sprouted. But there are about 3,200 hectares of land under saffron cultivation in Pampore, and it is impossible to water all of it without an irrigation system. Ahmad himself owns a little over four hectares. “There is zero moisture today,” he said, pointing toward an empty flower bed. “We have lost connect with Allah. There has been no rain in the last six months.”

And waiting for irrigation

India is among the largest producers of saffron in the world and much of it comes from Kashmir. Over the years, even as production increased, the area under cultivation decreased from 5,707 hectares in 1996 to 3,715 hectares now. The decline is blamed on the low cost to benefit ratio in saffron cultivation. Traditional cultivation methods as well as the uncertainties of weather and disease make saffron cultivation less profitable.

In 2010, the Centre announced the National Saffron Mission, a Rs 400.11 crore project as per the Saffron Mission Directorate, to tackle the problems faced by cultivators. In 2015, the scheme was extended by two years.

Data available with the agriculture department does show a steady increase in yield since 2010, save for a sharp slump in 2014-15 when the Valley was hit by devastating floods. While total production was 10.40 metric tonnes in 2009-10, it went up to 16.45 metric tonnes in 2015-16. In 2014-15, it had dipped to 5.572 metric tonnes. The data also shows an increase in productivity on land rejuvenated under the scheme.

The scheme also envisaged a sprinkler system of irrigation that would help overcome dry spells. However, even as the period of the scheme nears end, saffron farmers complain it is still a distant dream. The agriculture department has sought another extension of the scheme.

According to a report by the Saffron Mission Directorate, 101 borewells were dug under the central scheme, of the total 126 proposed. There are two privately owned borewells as well. The scheme proposes that these 128 borewells be connected with an equal number of sprinklers. According to the report, the Mechanical Engineering Department, which has been tasked with the work, has used the sanctioned amount of Rs 1,885 lakh for procurement of required material. However, only eight out of 128 sprinkler systems have been installed so far.

On the ground, barely two to three borewells and sprinklers function. “Irrigation is the heart of the scheme,” said Ahmad. “But there is no implementation of it on ground. The infrastructure is also incomplete. Else we would have operated the irrigation systems ourselves.”

A borewell next to his field is locked because it is not connected to a sprinkler system. It cannot be used independently either. “We need electricity and oil to run it,” Ahmad said. “But even then what good is it when it isn’t connected to sprinklers? One borewell covers 500-600 kanals of land. How can we, privately, bear the cost for such a large sprinkler system? It has to be done by the government. Create coordination groups. It will fail if it is left in the hands of the growers. There will be daily feuds and the operation will crumble.”

A long dry spell

Altaf Aijaz Andrabi, director of the agriculture department, said the number of saffron flowers correspond to the number of corms, or bulb-like, starch storing organs that are part of the plant. “But in dry spells, there is less multiplication of corms,” he added. “And since there are fewer corms, the number of flowers also goes down.”

Andrabi said only the irrigation component of the National Saffron Mission failed while all other components had been implemented and showed results. “It failed because we outsourced it to the mechanical engineering department,” he claimed.

Worryingly for saffron farmers, there is little chance of rainfall anytime soon. Mukhtar Ahmad, deputy director of the Meteorological Department, said a dry spell after monsoon is usual and rainfall is unlikely in the next 10 days.

The Valley witnessed a similar dry spell during the early 2000s. Saffron production had then dipped to its lowest of 0.30 metric tonnes in 2002 from 3.59 metric tonnes the previous year, according to records maintained by the agriculture department.