The chestnuts they collect are more visible than the lives they lead. Haroon Mirani narrates the story of chestnut collectors, tucked around the fringes of mighty Wullar Lake where they lead an unnoticed life and do a thankless job.
Locally known as ‘Gaer’, water chestnuts have been confined to roadside carts in Kashmir where vendors sell dried, roasted, fried nuts. Outside Kashmir chestnut floor is highly valued. It is also used as a milk thickening agent.
An estimated 40,000 people earn their livelihood from the chestnut trade. Most of these comprise of the collectors, living in villages on the peripheries of Wullar.
According to Trapa historians, towards the end of 19th century, English authorities in Kashmir leased out lakes for chestnut cultivation. The fruit would feed tens of thousands of people for several months.
Water chestnut collection is a painstaking job. Every member of a family has a role in the collection. Beginning with the onset of winters in November, the male members pack their belongings in a large boat and row deep inside Wullar Lake. The boat stays inside the lake for the entire winter before returning in March. Sometimes, women also take part in the collection.
Habib Dar, 55, of Banyaari Sharki has been doing the job since his childhood. Sitting near his recent crop, Dar says, “We carefully collect nuts during these four harsh months in rain, snow and wind. We are simply at the mercy of Allah during these days.”
The villagers tell you that more than hundred people have died collecting water chestnuts. We live or die, nobody cares. We have no choice either. Life has to move on,” says Jana, an elderly woman. She says that a couple of years ago a pregnant woman fell off the boat during chestnut collection. Her body was traced months later.
The water chestnut, however, is sweet and aromatic. It grows under the leaves of the plant and drops off once ripe and is scooped out with the help of a net.
Generally, four men board one boat and collect around 300 kilograms of nuts in one season. Women dry the crop, sort it and take out its kernel. “Earlier the kernel was taken out manually which involved a lot of labour, but now machines have changed things,” says Dar.
The collection and processing of water chestnuts, villagers say, is a dirty job. “These nuts are glued with a lot of dirt. While processing, our hands and face get blackened. Our entire body looks dark at the end of the season,” Mehrajudin Dar, another nut farmer of Banyaari Sharki says. While the mud blackens the body, the sharp horns on the surface of these chestnuts injure hands, feet and face. “For all this work, we earn Rs 900 to Rs 1200 per quintal of nuts,” says Dar.
The farmers blame the dealers for cheating them. “They make excuses like lesser quantity and inferior quality of chestnuts and thus reduce the price,” says Dar.
The residents also blame the government for failing to look into their needs. Not much has changed since the ancient times in this village. While the technique is old, new impediments have added to the farmers’ trouble. Farmers say that they have to face harassment from troops in Wullar. “We have to register ourselves with army camp and report regularly at their camp. They regularly check our identity and keep us under their gaze all the time,” says Dar.
The farmers say the marine commandos posted at the Watlab camp have set some strict rules “which we have to follow otherwise they are always there to beat us.” Farmers allege that if a boat member falls ill, the troops don’t allow shifting the person o shore and bringing in another one. They also limit the number of persons on one boat to four. “Earlier we used to have even seven members on a boat but nowadays army rules work,” said a farmer pleading anonymity.
Their inability to speak Hindi adds to their problems. “As we speak Kashmiri, army thinks we are lying and they beat us,” says Dar.
Their boats are also ageing and wood is scarce in the market. “The government had earlier planned to open a timber depot in our area but the promise is limited to papers,” says Mehrajudin.
They buy timber from smugglers at high rates to repair their boats as these are essential for their survival. A new boat costs anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 1,00,000.
Experts say water chestnut industry has a huge potential. G N Ahanger, a food technologist is the proprietor of Agro Food Processing Emporium (AFPE), the only company that deals with export of water chestnuts in Kashmir. “Our chestnuts are of better quality and it has tremendous potential, which unfortunately even government doesn’t know,” says Ahanger. “Kashmiris have been naive. Outsiders used to come and buy these chestnuts for pennies and later sell them at exorbitant rates.”
Ahnager says a businessman in Punjab built a water chestnut flour plant on one square kilometre just by getting raw material from Kashmir.
Water chestnut is a good source of protein, potassium, vitamin B and antioxidants. It has many health benefits as well. Water chestnuts make nutritious snacks. It relieves indigestion, controls hypertension, cures soure throat and haemorrhoids, helps in curing coughing and clears phlegm.
It is also a fertility agent and has antibacterial, anti-tumour, mutagenic and cytotoxic activity. It also reduces wrinkles and protects skin from ultraviolet rays. As bioactive agents, chestnuts reduce hair loss when combined with nimenynic and lauric acids, reduce inflammation and pain caused by sprains and other injuries.
The chestnut flour is sought after by Hindus as this flour is the best alternative to grain-items, which are prohibited during fasting days of Navratras. Hindus are not allowed to break their Navratra fasts with anything that contains cereals, lentils and ordinary salt.
Ahanger says his company is investing in developing new products from these water chestnuts. “One needs to develop new ideas and be innovative to harness their potentials,” Ahanger says.
According to an estimate, Wullar lake produces 4-5 million kilograms (approximately 4,000-5,000 tons) of nuts annually.
Experts suggest the government should intervene to organize this sector at the basic level. A separate Mandi on the pattern of fruit Mandi for water chestnuts can reduce the role of exploitative middlemen.