The sprawling saffron fields of Pampore have its own tales of trysts to tell for becoming experimental labs in the name of rejuvenation and revamp. After being threatened by the land mafia, the precious land has witnessed regular fall in saffron production. Then, eight years back, National Saffron Mission was launched to boost the crop, but it ended up escalating farming woes and paving way for a new cash crop on the saffron terrain.
His tanned hands refuse to slow down amid the sweltering sun. Nearby, as the vehicles rumble on the highway, he takes a long look at the pervasive barren sight. The fresh saffron bloom might be around the corner, but Ghulam Hassan doesn’t seem to be in high spirits. He rather wants to think about a new crop in his saffron field: Apples.
As an alternate seasonal farming, Apple might be still in a nascent stage to become Pampore’s second best option, but growers like Hassan see a ‘secure’ future in it, given how Saffron Town’s native crop is falling.
The farming shift is still fresh for Hassan, who as a beneficiary of National Saffron Mission (NSM) is yet to yield any improved saffron crop, as promised by the project proponents.
However, well before his tribe was told that technological interventions can help them reap more, there were times, he says, when saffron farmers used to yield almost 35 kgs of precious crop, fetching them almost a fortune.
“But now we hardly yield 1 kg,” Hassan says, while taking a long look around. “Last year I could only yield 20 tola [1 tola is equal to 11.66 grams] and my brother grew only 12 tola.”
Over the years as saffron production slumped in Pampore, government mulled an action plan to come to the rescue of the growers. That’s how the highly ambitious NSM was sanctioned by Government of India in 2010 ‘to prevent the declining production of saffron in the valley’.
As part of the four-year mission (2010-14), the government approved Rs 373 crore for it. Agriculture Department, SKUAST and Mechanical Department became its implementing agencies.
In the year 2010-2012, around 3,321 farmers were roped in for rejuvenation, vermicompost, weeder and D-Plot under NSM scheme. In 2012-2013, the number of farmers rose to 11,208.
While the farmers were provided high-density seeds, Hassan says, the other requisites are yet to see the light of the day. “As a pending process, irrigation remains a major issue,” Hassan says. “SKUAST was the research body for NSM. They were supposed to provide improvised and good technology to farmers for a high yield. But they never did.”
Allocation for 2010 was Rs 177 lakh, out of which Rs 144 lakh were released, and Rs 59 lakh spent. In subsequent years, almost Rs 61 lakh were disposed to SKUAST, suggesting that the high-density plantation would’ve harvested 11 kg saffron per hectare.
But SKUAST’s NSM team says they’ve played their part in the project and aren’t responsible for its failure. They even blame the other concerned departments about the delay in the completion of the other aspects.
Keeping the situation and work culture of government offices in Kashmir in view, GoI increased NSM’s deadline by two more years with an additional funds of Rs 40 crore for reviving 800 hectares of saffron fields.
“But nothing has translated on the ground so far,” Hassan says, standing by his apple tree. “This is already forcing saffron growers to look for an alternative.”
Even the rejuvenated seeds, he says, have not improved the production. “We were quite apprehensive about this project from the very beginning itself,” Hassan says. “In the long run, our fears indeed turned true.”
But as such, says Majeed Ahmad, President Saffron Association, there’s nothing wrong in the saffron mission itself. The crisis in it, he says, was created by the implementing agencies.
However, before the failed coordination between the three departments would become a stumbling block for the saffron mission, politics played a spoilsport.
“Irrigation part was politicized by the likes of the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Agriculture Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir,” Majeed says. “The politics delayed the allocation of tenders for irrigation purpose.”
But officials of mechanical department—one of the implementing agencies—say the project got delayed and missed its deadlines due to the 2014 floods and 2016 uprising.
“During both the occasions,” a senior official in the department says, “the contracting agencies left the work midway.”
But sadly, the saga doesn’t stop there.
Apparently to hide their incompetence to implement the farming welfare project, the three departments and their contractors are now engaged in a blame game.
“If SKUAST, for instance, claims that NSM project is successful, why aren’t results visible on the ground,” says Rakib Ahmad, a NSM contractor engaged by the mechanical department.
On their part, however, SKUAST makes it succinct, like a snappish boss: The project is successful because we’ve given all the details about our main objective: seed rejuvenation and irrigation.
But the glaring absence of irrigation makes a mockery of such claims. At the same time, the agriculture department is also facing farmers’ anger over the dismal project progress.
Agriculture department’s official website shows that the total amount released in 2015-2016 to Mission Director National Horticulture was Rs 7 Crores, while Rs 124,44,5 lacs were released to Joint Director Agriculture Lalmandi during the same period.
These numbers might be the usual pestering figures that hardly make any sense to the commoners like Hassan, but the way the implementing agencies are being accused for failing the ambitious project is appalling.
Lately, the crisis threatened to snowball when the contractors involved in the mission locked down the office of the Mechanical department, twice in a month. Accusing the agriculture department for delaying their payments to finish the work, the disgruntled contractors weren’t happy with the overall mission handling.
“It’s been eight years, and the concerned agriculture department has not been able to figure out a plan of how to make bore-wells functional and arrange manpower for its maintenance,” Rakib, the livid contractor, says. “Six persons are needed to maintain one well. But the agriculture department has only provided one casual labour for six hundred kanals.”
When even those casual labourers went on strike for non-payment of salary, the saffron salvaging mission became a comedy of errors.
While the agricultural department doesn’t even spare a single remark over the allegations for failing NSM, one of the causal labourers and Hassan’s son is now concentrating on his orchards.
The family now runs the bore-well on their own expenses, which exceeded the profit they earned last year.
“Even as government occupied our 4 marla land for setting up bore-well on a promise of providing a government job, nothing has been done so far,” Hassan says. “I really don’t understand what’s happening to the Saffron Mission’s money.”
But as the project has already missed four deadlines, New Delhi withheld funds for NSM in the last financial year. And without counting on NSM anymore, the resenting farmers are now tying their cattle with sprinklers meant for the mission. The telling scene itself highlights the demise of the glared-up project.
Meanwhile as sunlight is creating a mirage on Pampore’s saffron fields, Hassan focuses on his apple orchard. He may not part ties with saffron any time soon, but he’s happy to have found an alternate means of seasonal farming on his saffron land for sustaining his family.
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