Decaying lake destroying lives

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Dal lake is central to Srinagar’s landscape, however, the government plans to restore it don’t accommodate the people who have been living on it and off it. Asgar Qadri reports.

One June morning I fled the punishing heat of New Delhi, the Indian capital, and flew home to the valley of Kashmir. A gentle blue sky spread over the Srinagar airport tarmac and the cold breeze felt soothing to senses. Srinagar was desolation, as I drove in a cab past sandbag bunkers, edgy, gun-totting soldiers, and closed shops staring at empty streets. Few weeks earlier, two young Kashmiri women had been allegedly raped and murdered by soldiers, four Kashmiri boys were killed when police had opened fire on a peaceful protest march; and the newspapermen had failed to count much more. Srinagar was under curfew. Yet again.

One of those tense, late June Kashmiri mornings I drove with a friend to the Dal Lake in Srinagar. The curved asphalt road climbing the Himalayan foothills along the shore of the lake shimmered under a bright sun. The lake was calm, motionless; its ornate houseboats ponderous. A stilled shadow of white clouds and hills framing the Lake mirrored in the water and few boats, looking oddly solitary, wandered slowly on the surface. Far, a stroke of gentle breeze disturbed the shadows; a hint of life breathed into deadness. This was the Dal Lake: a mythical place, whose water froze in winter and became a cricket playground for the children of Kashmir; an idyllic beauty which has captured the imagination of people across the continents and remained central to the ethereal beauty of the valley of Kashmir .

But this small corner of paradise too, was inching towards hell. The lake has suffered serious damage over the years. Constant disposal of waste into the lake from the surrounding city and people living on the lake has been poisonous to its beauty. I had heard and read about the Lake’s decay, about the physical frailty of its beauty not withstanding the crushing force of human expansion, but my idea of this whole phenomenon of beauty and its consummation was fractured and vague. Over the last few decades the lake has considerably shrunk in size, its waters, as if subjected to some permanent evanescence, are making place for mud and mulch. Once being the soul of Srinagar’s exuberance, the lake today looks like a bedraggled beauty whose pulchritude is fading like a dying man’s pulse.

More than the lake itself, the decay is threatening the lives of those who live on it; an exotic mix of people whose life begins and ends on the lake while engaging themselves in different professions supported by the Lake. They can be houseboat owners, boatmen, fishermen, or farmers. All these people are facing a serious threat as the government plans to conserve and develop the lake. This would mean that all these people will have to leave what has been central to their existence. There is a constant threat of being pushed out; displacement.

I hired the boat of Ghulam Qadir for the visit after somehow managing to come out of a jostling bunch of boatmen who wanted me hire their’s. Qadir is in his seventies, half bent as if there is a constant burden on his shoulders. Crouching on the prow of his boat, he began to speak before I had finished my question. His voice rising and subsiding with the gushing sound of water made by the movement of his oar. “Only the one who has pain can understand what he is going through; they (the government) don’t know it, so they play with us.” Qadir and many others like him who live in small hamlets on the lake have been told by the government to vacate their homes, as their property is illegal and amounts to encroachment on the lake area.

However, marred by its own bureaucratic inertia, the government has not taken any conclusive steps so far. For the last more than five years, the government has been telling them to leave, but not to where. They are not allowed to add even an inch to their already built brick houses and this has led to a crammed living, as families have expanded over the years. The compensation offered by the government is paltry, and the city outside is expensive. They are caught in a deadlock.

Among the Lake dwellers there are strong differences of class and occupation; there are houseboat owners, barge operators, fishermen, and farmers. Within this hierarchy, houseboat owners constitute the richest class, discernible from some palatial houseboats and physical appearances of those who live in them. The most wretchedly poor are the bargees whose only source of income is the meager sum they earn from taking the visitors around the lake. Their number is huge, but the visitors are few. The conflict brought their doom also; today they earn less than 3 dollars a day.

The tourist inflow to Kashmir valley fell drastically after the conflict broke out in early 1990’s. Among its first victims were houseboat owners whose livelihood depended entirely on the visiting tourists. Much of this business has been lost and today they are facing a hard present, out of which they are struggling to wring a life. The labyrinth has only been exacerbated by the increasing pollution the lake has suffered over the last few decades. The government considers houseboats as the major source of pollution, more incorrectly so, because a large number of restaurants and residential houses which have come up along the lake front, and around it, have majorly contributed to the lake’s slow poisoning. Due to this rapid and unplanned urbanization, large quantities of raw sewage finds its way directly into the lake.

Houseboats in Kashmir were first introduced in the 19th century for the British Raj officials who were seeking refuge from the heat and turmoil of the Indian plains, but were forbidden by local Kashmiri laws from owning the land in Kashmir. As per some houseboats owners, the first houseboat on the Dal Lake was built soon after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when their ancestors went to the British Army’s Rawalpindi garrison and sold the idea of Kashmir as a safe heaven from hostile Indians and Afghans. The first recorded houseboat is said to date back to 1888, when the colonial civilian officers began visiting Kashmir regularly. By the time the Beatles George Harrison came here in 1966, the lavish cedar-wood houseboats had become the iconic image of Kashmiri’s tourist industry.

A lot has changed since Harrison visit. After 1989, when the armed conflict broke out in the Kashmir, houseboats remained deserted – waiting for their patrons who once charmed their Persian carpeted rooms. Today a routine sight is owners and their families squatting on the wooden verandas of their houseboats, with doleful faces and sunken eyes fixed on the nearby jetty in the hope that some one will come and rent the rooms again.

Mohammad Sidique Bakhooru runs a small consumer goods shop on one of the islets in the lake. He is in his late sixties and has a family of ten to look after. “I can’t be young again and work in the city as labourer; I am too old for carrying load on my shoulders,” says Sidique, “Government has done nothing for us, neither letting us die nor live.” Sidique has four sons. None of them goes to school; three work in the city as labourers and one has no work. He says that they had to quit school as he was unable to pay their fee. Sidique was born on the lake and spent all his life on its waters. He says, “We are like fish of this lake, if they take us out we will die.”

There are many like Sidique whose life has come to a shuddering stagnancy, their business has gone down, Dal has become polluted, and the constant threat of removal has been a perpetual psychological trauma that they are living every day.

It was already late afternoon when Qadir brought me back to the shore. An arch of orange colored horizon had fallen over the western side of the lake, creating a stunning show of landscape. I paid him 120 rupees for some three hours of boarding his boat, may be that was all he earned on that day. Qadir lives with his wife and a blind brother-in-law. His only son lives with his wife in a different house.

All the lake dwellers have an objective designation; they are all referred as “Hanjis’, water people. The word is commonly used to refer to the class of fishermen among the lake dwellers.

Next day I went to the lake again, to see the plight of the fishermen living in Dal, who evidently are very poor and live in huts and boats on the lake margins. They are a minority plainly threatened by plans for the Dal. My acquaintance (Qadir) took me to the newly established fishermen colony on the northern shore of the lake. Small brick houses, packed close to each other as if they were built in a hurry. The rhythmic sound of children reciting the morning assembly prayer at the colony’s only school reverberated through air. The land was given by the government and houses were built by fishermen themselves. Mohamed Salam, a fisherman, has three sons. The eldest is 15 years old and works as labourer. The other two help him in catching fish. “We were poor and had no access to schools,” says Salam. He says that today every one in the fishermen community want their children to study. “The fish catch is down as fish stocks have depleted in the lake and the government is not replenishing it.”

Salam, like his ancestors goes to catch fish in the night. He learned each crevasse and outcropping of the bottom, and most of all to sense where fish are lurking, from his elders. I was keen, but at the same time reluctant, to ask Salam about the social distance that people in Kashmir have maintained with the fishermen community over centuries. Kashmiri society is quintessentially a conservative one and an informal social code still exists for women. As women in fishermen families, over the centuries, carried the responsibility of selling the catch; this market dealing and its harsh confrontations were looked upon as the means of moral decadence among fisherwomen and hence their families, which thus led to social gulf between them and the rest of Kashmiri society. However, this whole phenomenon was a classic example division of labour enforced by harsh circumstances. As men fish throughout the night, they need some sleep in the day so that they can go out again on the following night; thus women in the family go to the market in the day to sell the catch.

Fisherman Manzoor, who lives in a brick hut, said, “If the government establishes a market where we can sell fish, then our women will not have to wander from place to place in search of customers”.

Khazere travels some 70 kilometres every day in and around Srinagar city to sell fish. But today she was home. Her husband had not been well the preceding night. So no fish catch and nothing to sell. Khazere has four sons; three work as labourers and the youngest is in the school.

Fisherwomen have been the brave souls of their community, over the centuries they have worked equally hard for their families. But the burden has proved very heavy over the years; most of them remain illiterate.

Among 72 households of the fishermen colony, no woman had studied up to 10th grade. Manzoor Ahmad’s small brick hut is not far from Salam’s house.

The only graduate in the entire fishermen colony teaches at the colony’s only school. The school, a small three room brick shelter, rests on the bank of one of the Dal Lake’s many channels, the waters of which have turned turquoise black. As I approached the building, children were moving in and out of their class rooms. Nearby, some men were shouting, a lone cock crowing and a woman beating a soaked cloth on the stone producing a thud. I waited for Abdul Rehman, the teacher, in the small school courtyard as he was out for some work. Rehman arrived after some twenty minutes and invited me inside his small office, adjacent to two class rooms. Rehman spoke with carefully handled English. Rehman’s sense of identity was strong and he repeatedly used the term – my community, as he spoke about fishermen. Rehman said that teachers from the city don’t like to be posted here as the “social distance which people have maintained with the fishermen community comes in the way”. “I belong to these people and I know their condition, if I run away what will happen to these children”, Rehman said.

There are about 90 children enrolled in the school. He said that he consistently pressed families in the colony to send their children to school. Rehman had big dreams and sound plans. He spoke about the need of revolutionizing his community and his dream of making it to the Kashmir administrative services, so that he can “represent his community in the bureaucracy and address their problems”.

I left the school with some relief that there was someone who felt for these people and he will certainly pass his vision to the children he mentored; who may, one day, lead the way to a bright future.  

Besides fishermen, another class which the Lake has sustained over the centuries is farmers. The lake farmers are responsible for encroachments on the lake as the centuries old horticultural encroachment has destroyed as well as created a unique character of the lake. A remarkable and artistic creation of these people (farmers) is the floating gardens. These are dense mats made of reed clumps, about two meters wide and up to eighty meters long. They are treated with weed and silt from the lake bed, and used for growing, mainly, tomatoes and cucurbits. They can be poled from place to place, and by providing shade and a downwash of mulch, help to prepare lotus beds. Over time – as much as forty years the floating gardens become very ponderous, perhaps a meter thick, at which stage they are parked at a suitable place , treated with weed and silt, and sunk as the basis for solid land. These strips of new land (called dembs) set among the hamlets, lotus gardens, and reed beds give the western side of the lake its special character. Over the centuries, this slow but insidious process has devoured the lake and the burden of mats has exhausted its beauty. The farmers are as poor as fishermen and bargees. Marred by social and educational backwardness, their condition has not improved much over the years.

Though most of the people living in the lake live off it, no one, surprisingly, opposed the plans to conserve and develop the lake. They claimed to be ready to leave their homes, as long as they could be relocated in the vicinity of the lake and guaranteed a livelihood.

The government says that interests of a “handful” of lake dwellers cannot override the welfare of Kashmir, as the lake stands central to its tourist industry. A valid argument but far from being comprehensive. The resettlement won’t be easy, there are thousands who will be displaced and forced to invent a new life away from what has been central to their existence. The Lake needs to be saved from a shuddering end, which is alarming by its eminence and those who live on it need a hope for a better world.

(Asgar Qadri is a Grad Student at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, US.)

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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