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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 22:51 GMT

World: South Asia

Kashmiris pin hopes on saffron

Every member of the community helps harvest the crop

By South Asia Correspondent Daniel Lak

For two weeks every year, thousands of people in the troubled state of Indian Kashmir stop their daily lives and head for the fields to start the region's famous saffron harvest.

Daniel Lak reports from the saffron plains of Indian Kashmir
In the past the industry was hit hard by confilct between armed separatist groups and the Indian army.

But a decline in militancy in the area means farmers now believe their businesses will finally get a chance to flourish

Rehana Rather makes her living picking the world's most expensive spice.

[ image:  ]
She and her family have to gather 150,000 crocus flowers to get just one kilo of saffron. Each kilo takes 40 hours of hard manual labour to produce.

They work non-stop for a week, all day and all night. The crocus blooms for just a few days every year and it has to be picked quickly.

"We get up early and pick flowers all day. We have five fields and we move between them. We eat our lunch out here and work until dark. And after that, there's still a lot more work to do," she says.

40 hours labour for $1000

Normal life comes to a halt as families work painstakingly together to strip the saffron flowers.

[ image: Rehana Rather's family pick all day and process all night]
Rehana Rather's family pick all day and process all night
The best saffron comes from the female part of the flower - the three red stigmas at the heart of every blossom.

Kashmir has produced saffron for more than 1,000 years. Even when the militant insurgency was at its height there a few years ago, people still flocked to the field for the annual harvest.

Despite the fact that their crop commands a high price, they are struggling to produce enough to meet the massive demands of the Indian market.

Growers and distributors of Kashmiri saffron say their efforts aren't getting enough support from the government.

[ image: The best saffron comes from the crocus stigma]
The best saffron comes from the crocus stigma
Each kilo is worth $1000 on the Indian market. But growers say they could earn a lot more if the government helped market their product to the rest of the world.

Shabeer Ahmed Malik, International Saffron Company says they need backing: "We produce the world's best saffron.

"If the government gives us proper help, proper guidance and proper marketing steps are taken by the government inside and outside India then I am sure that the common grower will benefit."

Saffron may be expensive to buy but it's not lucrative to grow, and certainly not for the people who pick it. Not much of the purchase price percolates down here, to the fields.

The government says it is doing what it can but it is short of money too.

The annual autumn saffron harvest goes on now much as it did two thousand years ago, but for many of these farmers and pickers, it is a tradition that badly needs to be modernised.

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