Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kashmir saffron yields hit by drought, smuggling and trafficking

Cheap imports from Iran and Spain are flooding the global market pushing farmers to the brink of desperation
Srinagar: July 21: GM Pampori, president of the Kashmiri saffron farmers and growers association, said illegal traders were harming the industry. Photograph: Jason Burke for the Guardian For the moment the fields are bare, marked only by the occasional dry bulb lying on the pale earth. Within a few weeks the shoots will come and finally the flowers and the finest saffron in the world. Yet after years of declining yields, the farmers of Pampore in the fertile valley of Kashmir fear that this year too will bring problems. "Demand is rising everywhere so prices are rising. But the trafficking and smuggling is causing us huge problems," said Mukhtiar Ahmed, 33.
The industry in Kashmir, where saffron has been grown for thousands of years, is in deep trouble. The once regular seasons that brought the wet springs and dry summers that ensure good crops have given way to unpredictable bouts of drought. Cheap imports from Iran and Spain are flooding the global market. In recent months, however, there have been a series of high-profile seizures and arrests that have highlighted another growing problem: the illegal import of saffron made overseas. The Pioneer newspaper reported recently that customs officers in India are uncovering every day up to three cases of saffron which were smuggled, mainly from Iran where the spice costs half the £2,000 a kilo it can fetch in India. To avoid high import duties, criminals gangs based in the gulf are running mules to carry parcels of the spice in their luggage on international flights, the newspaper said, quoting customs spokesmen.
GM Pampori, the president of the Kashmiri saffron farmers and growers association, said that about 100kg each month was entering India illegally. "I have tried to raise this problem with the government in Delhi but without any success," said Pampori. "We have also had three cases of people faking saffron in Kashmir this year." For many years there have been problems in India with unscrupulous dealers mixing grades of saffron or saffron from different countries. There is little regulation of the trade. Ghulam Reshand Ghani, a dealer in Pampore who served a six-month jail sentence for trafficking fake high-quality saffron, said he was framed by ignorant policemen. Local police officers insist however they got the right man. Sitting on the floor of his home surrounded by sacks of aromatic spice in the heart of the once celebrated saffron fields, Ghani admitted however that "when people are under financial pressure sometimes they do bad things". "Anyway there is almost no difference between Kashmiri saffron and imported saffron," he said.
The industry in Kashmir is said to employ 120,000 people in 226 villages. But there has been no investment for years and knowledge of modern farming techniques, let alone distribution or marketing, is low. "In Iran they have the latest technology and can get four kilogrammes of saffron from one hectare. In Kashmir we get one kilo if we are lucky. As for Spanish or Italian saffron, it is just a different world," said Pampori. The growing international demand for the spice has pushed prices to record levels. Little of the cash generated has reached places like Pampore and the younger generation are turning away from the profession. "None of our sons want to be saffron farmers," said farmer Mukhtiar Ahmed. "They want to be doctors and engineers. It's a shame but I cannot really blame them."

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