Managing Dal and houseboats

Houseboat operations have been stopped to save the dying Dal, but environmentalists say that is too little too late.
Zubair A. Dar
Deserted scene at Dal as houseboats are barred to host guests. Photo: Bilal Bahadur
Deserted scene at Dal as houseboats are barred to host guests. Photo: Bilal Bahadur

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has stalled the operations of houseboats in Dal and Nagin lakes following a report by the Pollution Control Board, putting the coming tourist season in jeopardy. The court order allows houseboats to operate if they do not discharge their kitchen and bathroom waste into the lake. For now, however, there are no alternatives available to them.
Though the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) – the nodal agency responsible for controlling pollution in the lake – is testing mini-STPs for installation on each houseboat, chances are rare that the testing shall be over before the tourist season ends.
“So far mini STPs has been installed in two houseboats,” says Sabah-Ul-Solim, a senior scientist with the LAWDA. “Four companies have approached us with their models and we will be monitoring their efficiency. After that we can decide which one is best suited.”

“We can be sure of test results only when we test these (Mini STPs) to full capacity. It will take a full tourist season to test it,” Solim says.
With no work as the main tourist attraction in Srinagar is out of bounds, the stalemate is threatening the livelihood of thousands of families associated with the trade.

Testing time is not the only issue facing restoration of the lake that has lend Srinagar a part of its tourist fame. Raw sewage produced by lakhs on people on its western banks flows into the lake and land encroachment is on rise. State Pollution Control Board’s 2003-2004 report indicated that Dal Lake was among the 93 sick lakes across the world as pollutants were six to eight times higher than the permissible limit by central pollution control board. Factors like human settlements (60,000 people), hotels, houseboats, floating gardens and even dhobi-ghats are contributing to the pollution. Erroneous engineering and inept policy decisions by concerned authorities have in fact added to the pressure on the lake, thus threatening its survival.

“A detailed project report by Roorkee University stated that houseboats were responsible for only three percent pollution,” says Azim Tuman, chairman of the Houseboat Owners Association.

Tuman blames LAWDA for neglecting his association’s advice while framing policies to prevent pollution. “The authorities neglected our plea to allow water level to recede during the winters. It would have allowed polluted water to flow out and fresh water to flow in, thus refreshing the lake. While polluted water remains in, the lake has turned into a cesspool.”

There are around 1200 houseboats in Dal Lake. During the peak season in summers the place is buzzing with visitors and the revenue feeds thousands of families across Kashmir. “It is a chain of beneficiaries. Tourists who stay with us also hire the services of travel agents, tourist guides, taxi operators and pony wallas. They visit places and eat out at restaurants. All these families are likely to be affected this summer if houseboats are taken out of the list of tourist attractions,” says Tuman.

But the concern among masses is about the future of the lake than this summer’s tourist season. Environmentalists say thousands of tonnes of sewage spew into the lake, feeding weeds and choking the lake and its aquatic life of oxygen. The lake’s size has been halved in a few decades, to some 11 square km, due to farming land encroachment.

But the authorities are unable to check the encroachment. Dwellers, especially on the western banks of Dal, fill the lake’s waters to carve out more space for their houses. While the encroachments have been going on for years, the process of saving Dal in recent years has actually accelerated the process of its destruction.

Government announced relocation of residents of certain colonies in Dal without a concrete action plan. Sensing an opportunity, Dal dwellers rapidly started filling the waters in order to get a better deal from the government. Environmentalists say that government did nothing to stop this process that was further accelerated during months of protests in Kashmir last year.

“Extended families have been divided and each one now has a new house,” said Ghulam Muhammad, an environmentalist. “The worst part is that government is ignorant of the amount of building material that is transported right to the banks of Dal for more construction. Steel barricades could have at least been erected at the mouth of the lanes that lead into Dal, thus preventing big trucks to reach the shore.”

Encroachments unchecked, the process is further complicated when these illegal homes get basic facilities like electricity that later justifies their claim for compensation. Few weeks back, lakhs rupees were distributed in Rainawari, Saidakadal and Hazratbal as discretionary development spends for basic amenities like electricity lines, transformers, lane repair and foot bridges.

In this backdrop Tuman says that three months of tourist rush would not make a major difference.
“We were looking forward to a tourist season that would boost our income and in turn help us procure infrastructure like mini-STPs,” says Tuman.

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