By M.L.Dhar ; Kashmir has the proud privilege of producing the finest quality saffron, which is famous for its colour and flavour all over the world. The Central Government launched the National Saffron Mission (NMS) in November 2010 after the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh announced it during his visit to Kashmir earlier in the year. In Kashmir valley, 90 percent of saffron production comes from Pampore uplands, locally called ‘wudar’ on the southern outskirts of Srinagar city. As elsewhere in the world, saffron is grown here too by small individual farmers and the traditional quality control methods are the only way to maintain the quality and the originality of the world’s costliest spice. Saffron which is considered as nature’s precious wonder gift to mankind is in great demand for its medicinal, cosmetic and aromatic properties. It grows from a very small plant botanically known as Crocus Sativus. Its purple coloured flower is the only part mostly seen above the ground. The blossoms appear during late autumn (mid-October to early November) and present a very fascinating memorable sight in moonlight particularly on ‘Kartik Purnima’. The aromatic reddish stigmas of these flowers are harvested which form the most expensive part of the colourful spice called ‘Mogra’. The remaining stalks are also processed to get inferior grade of saffron called ‘Lacha’. There has been a drop in saffron cultivation area as well as in production yields. The official production figures show that saffron area has gone down from about 5,700 hectares to just around 3,800 hectares and the productivity too has dipped from 3.13 kg per hectare to 2.50 kg per hectare in the last few years. Officials say that “mindless and unplanned” construction of residential houses in the midst of saffron fields during the last two decades is one of the major causes for shrinking of acreage. Other reasons that threaten the costliest cash crop of the state, according to experts, are the lack of irrigation facilities, poor techniques adopted by the growers and lack of post harvest management that have led to low productivity and poor quality. Moreover, a commission appointed by the Government pointed out that there has been a shortfall in the replacement of seed for the last twenty years partly due to neglect in improving the seed quality. A multi-crore industry engaged in production of eatable colour dyes, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and other uses depends on Kashmir Saffron. However, due to its shortfall in production, the industry looked other wards to meet its raw material requirements. The dwindling domestic production has led to demand outstripping the supply and thus spurting the prices, making saffron smuggling a lucerative business. It is reported that the Iranian saffron fetches double its price in India. Expressing concern over the smuggling of Iranian saffron Union Agriculture Secretary, Shri A. K. Basu conceded that ‘’while this was happening no one paid any great attention to the problem or failed to address it.’’ He said that National Saffron Mission would wipe out many aspects of the problem. The 371.18 crore rupees National Saffron Mission Programme with 286.06 crore rupees as the Central Government’s share and 85.12 crore rupees as farmers’ share will be executed in four years to revive saffron production in Jammu and Kashmir. The mission would cover drip irrigation, research, mechanization, processing and marketing support to ease the crisis. An amount of Rs. 39.43 crore is being utilized during the current financial year. Jammu & Kashmir Minister for Agriculture, Shri Ghulam Hassan Mir said ‘’the objective of the Saffron National Mission is to improve the overall production of saffron, enhancing quality of saffron, enhancement of research and extension capability and develop appropriate system for organized marketing for the growers’’. The Minister said that the main objective of the scheme is to extend support for creation of irrigation facilities through tube wells and sprinklers, which would help better crop production in the area. In order to provide improved irrigation facilities to the saffron growers 253 tube wells would be set up under the NSM in the state, with each tube well having a potential to irrigate 30 hectares. Of them 128 tube wells would be in Pulwama and 106 in Budgam districts. Fifty-three tube wells would be bored during the current financial year. At the same time, it is proposed to strengthen the existing Lathipora lift irrigation scheme on the river Jehlum adjacent to Pampore fields to create a permanent water source for saffron areas. The saffron mission also envisages to make available over 3,700 sprinkler sets to the farmers with 50 percent subsidy over an estimated cost of Rs 5000 per set. The mission also proposes to introduce mechanization techniques by procuring costly machines for use by farmers through the Agriculture Department for digging of fields and plantation of saffron corms. This would increase profitability of saffron growers by reducing the production costs. Each year 125 dryers are also planned for distribution among farmers for drying and seasoning of the harvested crop. The NSM also seeks to develop appropriate systems for organized marketing, quality-based pricing of saffron and for formulating direct transactions between growers, traders, exporters and industrial agencies. National Spot Exchange would establish a Quality Control Lab at Pampore at a cost of Rs 8.90 crore to ensure quality testing and marketing of the saffron. There is also a proposal to set up a Spice Park for which a site has been identified at Pampore. Its purpose is to promote direct transactions between growers, traders, exporters and industrial agencies by developing organized marketing with quality based pricing of Saffron. It is expected that after completion of the National Saffron Mission the state’s income from saffron production would increase from the present Rs. 236.55 crore to Rs.4,642.50 crore, said the state Agriculture Minister.The saffron farmers and their association have received well the National Saffron Mission and have started registering farmers groups as societies. ‘’We really require this Mission and if it is implemented, the growers will be benefited,” said Raja Mushtaq, a saffron grower. They expect that the mission would go a long way in improving production and productivity and bringing in consistency in processing and marketing. “The saffron mission will go a long way in helping farmers enhance quality and productivity of Saffron,” said Seed Pathologist Farooq Ahamd Mandoo.