Guwahati: The ‘saffronisation’ of the northeast region seemed to be turning into a reality. But we are not talking about political ideologies. A successful attempt by the North East Centre for Technology Application and Reach (NECTAR), an agency under the Ministry of Science and Technology, has shown the northeast can be the next destination for saffron cultivation in India.

It’s now believed that Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) monopoly on the cultivation of saffron may not last long. Saffron, the costliest spice, is on its way from the ‘saffron bowl’ Pampore in Kashmir to the northeast as NECTAR in an ambitious project has successfully grown the spice at Yangyang in south Sikkim and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya.

Huge demand, low supply

India consumes about 100MT of saffron annually, but produces only 15 MT (2020-2021) of saffron. Efforts were on to explore new areas of saffron cultivation to bridge the demand and supply gap and also provide an opportunity to the region’s farmers with a potentially high-value crop.

NECTAR advisor Krishna Kumar said, “We started the project two years back. The results were highly positive and impressive. The saffron, which has grown in the northeastern states, is found to be having the same properties and quality as those in Kashmir and since saffron cultivation in Kashmir is reaching a saturation point, we believe the northeast can be the next farming destination of saffron. With the conducive climatic conditions, the northeast can produce more saffron than other parts of the country. We are very hopeful.”

Research has found that the northeast enjoys climatic conditions similar to Jammu and Kashmir and possible commercial cultivation of saffron in the region can help meet the growing demand for the costly spice. A kilo of saffron costs anywhere between Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 lakh. 

To identify the potential locations for saffron cultivation, the geographical and climatic condition of the Pampore region of Kashmir was taken as a reference and a detailed survey were carried out in different geographical locations of the northeastern region by the GIS team. Parameters such as soil type, soil pH, temperature, relative humidity, moisture content, rainfall and elevation were taken into consideration.

A total of 17 sites were identified within the northeastern region. They were Chug, Dorjeeling, Shergaon and Walong in Arunachal Pradesh, Laitkor, Mairang, Nongshilliang, Thangsning, Umpling and Upper Shillong in Meghalaya, Ailwang, Lunglei and North Vanlaiphai in Mizoram and Lachung, Phengla, Sajong and Yoksum in Sikkim.

“Exploring new locations is ongoing. However, extreme climate conditions are also needed to be taken into consideration for suitable saffron cultivation in the region. This year despite growing good quality saffron in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh, heavy snow destroyed the crops,” Kumar added.

Also Read | Sikkim, J&K sign deal for saffron cultivation in Sikkim

Big gap in international market

Saffron is largely grown in Iran, India, Spain and Greece and the total world production is around 300 tons per year. Iran occupies the maximum area and contributes about 88% of the world’s saffron production. 

Although India occupies the second-largest saffron cultivation area, it produces only about 7 per cent of the total world production. In India, saffron cultivation is mostly limited to the Kashmir valley. Although the productivity declined from 15.95MT (1996-97) to 10.4 MT (2009-10) in the past years, the present productivity is 15 MT (2020-2021).

Ceba Lish, a farmer from Arunachal Pradesh’s Chug said, “We are happy to be associated with saffron farming. Now we are getting the training and acquiring knowledge for making it big. It can bring more money to us and change our lives if the government takes it forward in the right direction.” 

Farmers in these areas mainly grow paddy, millet, potato, kiwis, orange, plums, ginger, turmeric and other vegetables, at present.

Earlier, a total of 225 kg of saffron corms were transported to NECTAR, Shillong in the month of October 2022 and supplied to the collaborating partner in varied amounts. Approximately, 50 kgs of corms were distributed each to the collaborating partner from Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, 80 kgs to various collaborating partners in Meghalaya and 20 kgs to Mizoram.

An expert team from Kashmir demonstrated the important steps involved in saffron farming like land preparation and corm planting. After the demonstration, different collaborating partners carried out plantations in the month of October and saffron flowers were harvested between late October to mid-November.

An official NECTAR report on saffron cultivation in the northeast said, “From the results obtained it was observed that saffron corms survived in all cultivation sites. Yoksum, Sikkim showed the highest survival rate (100%) while Upper Shillong, Meghalaya showed the lowest survival rate (43.9%).”

Dorjeeling in Mechuka, Arunachal Pradesh, showed early flowering with the first flower blooming on October 12 in 2022 compared to other cultivation sites where flowers bloomed during late October or early November.

The highest flowering yield was observed in the cultivation site of Umpling (4.22%) followed by Thansning (4%) and Nongshilliang (3.26%) in Meghalaya. Dorjeeling in Arunachal Pradesh, Laitkor and Mairang in Meghalaya showed a flowering yield of >2 % while other cultivation sites showed a total flowering yield of <2%. The findings obtained can be good, and mass cultivation of saffron at the places with flowering yield >4% could be suggested, even though the observed flowering percentage is on the lower side given that corms were planted relatively late, the report added.

According to NECTAR authority, around 1,000 farmers were now connected with the project and it was targeted to do commercial cultivation in around 500 acres of land across the northeastern region.

Saffron, locally known as kesar, is the dried stigmas of the saffron flower, also referred to as “red gold” due to its high cost and high demand. It’s a slender, reddish-brown flattened stigma of saffron flower which is a rich source of carotenoids.

Chemically, saffron is composed of more than 150 bioactive compounds including crocin, picrocrocin, safranal, kaempferol and quercetin. The presence of these bioactive compounds provides several health benefits and is widely used as medicines.

Several important pharmacological properties including anti-cancer, hypolipidemic, anti-diabetic, anti-convulsive, anti-depressant, anti-psoriasis, anti-seizure, anti-nociceptive, anti-inflammatory, anti-genotoxic, and antidote have been attributed to the bioactive compounds of saffron.

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It’s also used as medicine to treat stomach disorders, bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, scarlet fever and cold, chronic uterine haemorrhage, amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, smallpox and insomnia, and cardiovascular disorders. Besides its use as medicine and food, it is largely used in the textile and cosmetic industry.

NECTAR has also recommended setting up or collaborating with a tissue culture lab for in-vitro corm generation in order to have a continuous supply of corms as well as establishing infrastructure such as storage unit and dryers by setting up a common facility centre (CFC) to help the farmers in groups with post-harvest facilities.

Also Read | Like Kashmir kesar: Sikkim to scale up saffron production

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