by Mudasir Farooq Parray
SRINAGAR: Mukdamyari, situated in Bandipora district, northern Kashmir, stands as a pivotal supplier of water chestnuts, locally referred to as Gaer, to markets spanning the Kashmir valley.
Boats laden with the harvest return in the evening, with some individuals opting to team up, sharing a boat and spending a week together to display their productive collaboration on the lake.
Wular Lake in Bandipora district stands as the exclusive source of water chestnuts for the Kashmir valley. Families in various villages hold licenses to harvest chestnuts from the lake. Harvested in November, these chestnuts, renowned for their medicinal value, find their way to markets in Kashmir and beyond.
However, locals affirm that the dry weather conditions have caused a decline in production, impacting the workload of chestnut crushing unit and decreasing availability. With productivity low and challenges arising from the dry weather, local extractors are exploring alternative earning opportunities over water chestnut harvesting.
“Harvesting chestnuts from Wular Lake is no simple feat, especially when it freezes during harsh winter days. We leave home just after pre-dawn Fajr prayers, row boats in frozen waters amid bone-chilling cold and winds,” emphasised Mohd Shaban Malla, a 60-year-old extractor from Mukdamyari village.
Abdul Aziz Khanday, boasting over 50 years of experience, sheds light on the challenges arising from dry weather conditions. “We find it very difficult to extract chestnuts in low water levels. If the weather remains dry like this, next year there will be a significant decrease in production,” remarked Khanday.
In Mukdamyari village, the landscape is marked by piles of raw chestnuts. Aijaz Ahmad Dar, an 8th-grade student, dedicates two hours daily to kernel extraction while juggling academic commitments. Dar has observed a decline in kernel prices from 10,000 to 5,000 per quintal in recent years.
While men predominantly collect the chestnuts, women assume a pivotal role in processing the final product at home. “My husband and son extract the chestnuts from the lake, while my daughter and I process them at home,” shared Rafiqa Begum, a 50-year-old woman.
Abdul Hameed, another extractor emphasising the impact of dry weather conditions, stated, “There is a decrease in production compared to last year, so we’ve decided to sell these chestnuts along Wular Lake’s shores after extraction, instead of processing them at home.”
The chestnuts, post-roasting at home, are ground into pieces to form Gaer. The edible kernel, concealed beneath a thick outer layer, is peeled off. The kernel is then dried and transformed into flour, while the sturdy outer shells are stored for use in fire pots (kangris) as burning fuel.
“Due to dry weather conditions, there is a decrease in production affecting the workload of our chestnut crushing unit, forcing my husband to seek other work,” stated Mubeena Begum. She added, “Now, I have to manage the crushing unit and take care of my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter who requires regular medical treatment.”
Mubeena’s nephew, Firdous Ahmad Negoo, a ninth-class student, provides some support to Mubeena, stating, “I have stepped in to help my aunt in the crushing unit after her husband had to take up another job.”
Gulshana Begum, a widow of Fayaz Ahmad Dar, highlighted the challenges of supporting her family, saying, “My husband, the sole earner for the family, died due to Blood Cancer. He left me to sustain seven children at a time when my youngest daughter was still breastfeeding.” She recounted, “During his illness, I worked to meet the family’s needs while my elder daughter took on the responsibility of caring for him. To cover the medical expenses, I sold valuable assets, including land and cattle, but my husband succumbed to his illness.”
“After his death, being the sole provider for my seven children, I worked tirelessly extracting chestnuts to not only meet the basic needs of my children but also ensure they receive an education.”
Irshad Ahmad Dar, son of Gulshana Begum, stated, “At an age when we were able to work, my younger brother Firdous Ahmad Dar and I decided to enter the workforce instead of pursuing further education. We began extracting chestnuts from the lake to contribute to the family income. Now, our mother has shifted her focus to processing chestnuts at home.”
“The chestnut trade is our major source of income, so we are eagerly waiting for rain or snowfall, which will improve our harvest,” he said.
The extraction of chestnuts sustains nearly 65 per cent of Mukdamyari villagers, but the income is seasonal, lasting only four months. By March, when the chestnut crop thins out, the trade slows down. Mohammad Akbar, an experienced chestnut extractor, laments the waning interest of younger generations due to declining incomes and dry weather conditions.
Bashir Ahmad Dar, a local chestnut dealer who used to buy and supply Gaer, noted, “There is a huge decline in production this year due to dry weather.” He explained, “The dry conditions have affected the growth and yield of chestnut crops, leading to the decrease in availability.”
In a conversation with Ghulam Hassan Khan, Supervisor Singhara Wing, Revenue Department, he mentioned that they issue three types of licenses for Singhara extraction – Sabaz Singhara for August, Dry Singhara for October to November, and Aabi Singhara for November to February. The fees vary, with Sabaz Singhara costing 250, Dry Singhara 300, and Aabi Singhara 500. Khan also highlighted the challenges chestnut extractors face due to dry weather conditions, especially dealing with low water levels, making the extraction process difficult.