By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar
Jala-uddin Bhat owns two hectares of land in the saffron town of Pampore in Indian-administered Kashmir - but he has not sold his produce for the last three years.
Kashmir saffron is considered the best, but its production is in decline
"It was a flourishing business once," he says.
"It fetched us millions of rupees. But now there is no market."
He wants the government to procure the saffron land for housing colonies.
"This land is of no use to us now. It
brings us no income."
Kashmir saffron, known as a heritage crop of the state, could not face international competition at a worse time - for the industry has been almost crippled by drought and disease.
Lately, the Indian market has been flooded with saffron coming from Iran.
Agricultural experts say that Kashmir saffron is the best, its crocin content being higher than that of Spain or Iran.
Yet it has failed to stand up to the competition because Iranian saffron is cheaper.
Experts have suggested that Kashmir saffron be promoted as a geographical brand.
But a few greedy growers and dealers are said to have caused great damage by passing off Iranian saffron as Kashmiri, or adulterating the Kashmir saffron.
The president of the Saffron Growers and Dealers Association, G M Pampori, says police raided the premises of a few adulterators sometime ago, but none is known to have been prosecuted.
The Minister for Agriculture, Abdul Aziz Zargar, goes further.
Saffron growers say the government is not doing enough
"It is well known that the police shield the criminals," he says. "We never claim to have broken this nexus".
Scientists of the Sher-I-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Training (SKUAST) have suggested the government set up a regulatory council similar to that of Spain, to sell the product under its own brand name.
The proposed council would have growers and buyers as its members. The buyer would be assured of a quality product, while the grower would have a guaranteed market.
But the government has yet to respond positively
to this the proposal, so while the adulterators make a fast buck, the honest growers wring their hands in distress.
Experts say that Kashmir saffron has to increase its productivity so the industry becomes cost-competitive.
But production has actually declined steeply in recent years as a result of disease which has seen plants rotting in the soil.
Dr F A Nehvi of SKUAST says it has fallen by 30%. The growers say the loss is twice or three times as much.
"There are hardly 10 plants left in every square metre of land. That is one-fifth of the desired number," says Dr Nehvi.
A 10-year planting cycle might be one of the causes behind the growers' plight
The farmers complain that the government has done little to help them fight the drought conditions prevailing over the past five years which, experts say, has caused - or at least aggravated the disease.
Mr Pampori says it is four years since the government promised to provide irrigation for saffron growers' fields. But not a single well has been dug so far, he adds.
For Dr Nehvi, irrigation is crucial for the saffron fields. But he also says that the growers are responsible for their plight.
"They have not been following the scientists' advice regarding the planting cycle, method of sowing seeds, or the use of fungicides or fertilisers."
Kashmiri saffron growers have been following a planting cycle of 10 years, while those in Spain and Iran replace their seeds after every four years.
"Many a Kashmiri grower has no idea about who sowed the seeds in their land and when," said Dr Nehvi.
"Before the drought, they used to harvest millions of rupees without toiling much on the land.
"But we have been impressing upon them that now they do have to follow scientific methods of cultivation".