Saffron and Copra! Chalk And Cheese
This week this writer will discuss two commodities which are as different from each other as chalk and cheese—but hold a salient positions in their respective eco-systems. The first of these is saffron, which is grown in the Pampore region of Kashmir valley by about 20,000 farming families, and is among the world’s most precious commodities (between Rs 1.5 and 2 lakh per kg), and the second is coconut which is grown in the coastal regions of the country (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra, Andaman & Nicobar, Lakshadweep) and is facing a major glut in the market.
Let’s take up saffron first. The SKUAST (Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology) had organised the fourth edition of the International Saffron Symposium at Srinagar from the 22 to 24 October in collaboration with the Belgium-based International Society for Horticultural Sciences. This society has been providing a platform for professional interaction and inputs from various stakeholders—existing and potential—to encourage an informed discourse on the subject.
The first conference had been organised in Spain in 2003, followed by the second one in Iran in 2006, and the third in Greece in 2009. Held every three years, each symposium selects a theme—and the focus of the Srinagar conference was on Advances in Saffron Biology, Technology and Trade. India, along with Iran, Spain and Greece is the world’s leading producers of saffron—tough efforts are now being made to extend saffron cultivation to Afghanistan and Azerbaijan as well.
In biological terms, saffron is a spice Crocus Sativus, and is produced from the careful separation and drying of the stigmas of flowers. Until recently, it was acknowledged for its value as a spice and as a natural colour additive, besides its cultural importance. Recent research findings also point to its medicinal properties, especially for its use as an anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant and pro-memory treatments. As some of these studies have reached the clinical trial stages, interest in this plant has increased considerably across the globe. India is emerging as an important centre for many of these innovations.
All this is fine: but from the perspective of this column—what does this augur for the grower? Is he better off than he was five years ago? Is he getting a higher value for his produce? Is he part of the value chain? Are new technologies reaching him? Are women engaged in saffron production getting their due recompense?
To the first question, the answer is yes. Five years ago, not only was the production and productivity going down, farmers were abandoning saffron and selling off their fields because prices had touched record lows.There was hardly any connect between the university, the department of agriculture and the farmers. However, with the introduction of the National Saffron Mission two years ago as a sub scheme of the RKVY, the declining trend has been reversed. The basic strategy of the mission is to ensure the planting of healthy corms, assured water supply, integrated nutrient management and proper post-harvest handling techniques including dryers, besides of course the establishment of an electronic auction centre to ensure a pan-Indian market for the saffron in the first instance.
To the second and third questions also, the answer is that although his price realisation is higher than before, he is not part of the value chain. He can be part of the value chain provided there is a strong commodity organisation or co-operative which can take care of the post-harvest management, but this has not received the attention it deserves. Technologies are beginning to reach him, and the farmer is also more responsive to them as labour becomes scarce and expensive. On the last point of women getting a fair share for their labour on the field, a paper by Shaheena Nagoo, Sabeena Naseer, Gowhar Ali and FA Nehvi acknowledges that from cultivation till storage, saffron is handled by farm women with meager support from men, but they are often at the margins when it comes to marketing decisions. Hopefully with empowerment training and support for co-operatives, women will have a greater salience in the saffron sector. Incidentally, in Afghanistan, saffron cultivation is being supported though self-help groups of women.
Over to coconuts. While Coconut Development Board has promoted the cultivation in all the coastal states, the problem faced by coconut growers is that of marketing—not just of tender coconut but also coconut oil, copra and coco products, the competition from imported palm oil is making it difficult for the coconut farmers to survive. It is not that coconut cannot compete with palm: the issue is that palm oil is a product of industrial plantations whereas coconut is grown on the fields of individual farmers. Most of the palm oil is imported at zero duty from Malaysia where it is an industrial product. Over and above the zero duty import (which makes it difficult for the domestic producers to compete with it), the Consumer Affairs Department of the Government of India, and the Government of Tamil Nadu give an additional support to palm oil as it is part of the PDS. Therefore, it is imperative that coconut oil be treated at par, given support under the PDS, and coconut products be introduced in the mid-day meal schemes of the producing states. It is imperative to save the ecosystem of coconut farming—for coconut is also part of the cultural and culinary domain of our coastal states!
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)