New Houseboat Draft Policy: KCCI Writes To Govt

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SRINAGAR: The Kashmir Chamber Of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) has written to Director Tourism Kashmir, to defer draft policy for houseboats till the situation becomes conducive for holding free deliberations.

Following is the full text of the letter:

To

KCC&I/HBP/2020-713                                                   Dated: 13th of July, 2020

The Director (Tourism),

Government of Jammu and Kashmir,

Srinagar

Sub: Preliminary Views & Comments in response to Draft Policy of Houseboats

Ref: Your Circular No. Reg/1382/1545/DTK dated 27.06.2020

& Extension Notice No. Reg/1382/1565/DTK dated 06.07.2020

Dear Sir,

On behalf of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, we would like to inform you as under:

  1. That the tourism sector including the Houseboat sub-sector has been under tremendous stress since the disruptions which have occurred post the constitutional changes in August, 2019. You would recall that in the month of August, 2019 the Government of Jammu and Kashmir had issued a advisory vide Order No. Home-881 of 2019 dated the 2nd of August, 2019 asking yatri’s and tourists to curtail their stay in the Valley. The advisory and the subsequent lockdown completely crippled the tourism sector.
  2. That this disruption was followed up by the COVID-19 Pandemic which has brought the global economies to a grinding halt. The lockdown has now entered it’s fourth month with the situation getting grimmer with each passing day and unprecedented steps are being taken to bring the situation under control. The Government of Jammu and Kashmir has, for the first time in history, been forced to delay the shifting of offices to the summer capital. The functioning of the Hon’ble High Court has been severely impaired with only listing of emergency matters allowed for the first three months. Now when the Hon’ble High Court announced a mild relaxation after post shifting to Srinagar on the 6th of July, 2020 the Court had to be closed down completely for two days in view of the reported infection within the premises. Similarly, the District Courts were also closed on the 11th of July, 2020.
  3. That in view of the rapid deterioration of the situation and sharp spike in the number of COVID positive cases, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir has again imposed a strict lockdown in various districts of Kashmir Valley including Srinagar District.
  4. That the situation over the past few years has also been a cause of concern. The tourism industry has borne the brunt of disturbances of 2008, 2010, 2104, 2016 and the disruptions caused by demonetization and GST implementation which has left this fragile industry in tatters.
  5. That during the current period of disruption, the Hon’ble High Court had desired the comprehensive and specific guidelines regarding the registration of houseboats be framed by the Government.
  6. That the Department of Tourism has framed the guidelines without consultations or taking inputs from the most critical stakeholders whose livelihood depends on the houseboats only. Over a period of seven months, the draft policy has been shared with the Committee of Experts constituted by the Hon’ble High Court, Housing & Urban Development Department and the J&K LAWDA. As per the circular dated 27th of June, 2020 of the Tourism Department their consent has already been obtained and the legal framework for it’s implementation is finalized with only the approval of the Administrative Council remaining.The Draft Policy has been placed in public domain soliciting the views and comments of stakeholders which have to be consistent with the directions of the Hon’ble High Court and the ecological requirements of the Lake.
  7. The various directions of the Hon’ble High Court in this regard and the ecological requirements of the Lakes have not been provided to the public. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry has attempted to apply for certified copies of the various Court Directions but have not been able to do so because of unavailability of specific details of directions including dates which are to be mentioned on the application and recent disruptions in the functioning of the Hon’ble High Court. The reported number of directions in the matter passed by the Hon’ble High Court over a period of eighteen years run into hundreds.
  8. That the stakeholders and the public are required to procure voluminous Court Directions and study the ecological requirements, consult experts regarding the highly technical aspects of the issue in the middle of world’s worse pandemic and then submit their views and comments with 2 weeks is – to put it mildly – unreasonable.The lakes have survived so far and with no tourists expected till at least the next season beginning March 2021 thought experts have predicted a longer tourism recession, it is not understood what ecological damage the houseboats could possibly do during this period?
  9. That the aims and objectives of the Draft Policy claims, among other things, to provide a sustainable source of living for the houseboat owners/shikara wallas, whereas a plain reading of the document reveals otherwise.
  10. That a perusal of the draft policy/guidelines reveals that the burden of action is wholly and solely put on the houseboat owners which has been linked to the grant of registrations and renewal of operating licences. Some of the actions required to be taken by the Houseboat owners include that the houseboat shall be functional and in operational condition, should be fitted with bio-digester, installed with Fire Safety Equipment duly verified by the Fire & Emergency Services Department, Kitchens to be operated from a portable dwelling unit to be constructed as per approved specifications, the houseboat owner shall pull down and remove illegal structure within 3 months, obtain no objection certificates from Power Development Department, Fire & Emergency Services Department, Pollution Control Board, LAWDA and any other Authority/Department the registering authority deems proper, dining area width is to be at least 14 feet, the cooking area, utensils, crockery, cutlery, glasswareetc should be made of stainless steel/bone china, containers/water purifiers, a shikara duly registered with the Tourism Department is to be kept available exclusively for the tourists, first-aid box, alternate arrangement of electricity like invertor with battery, generator complying with noise and exhaust norms, air conditioners/fans/heaters availability, new specifications for kitchen design, kitchen to be constructed of fire-resistant materials with at least two fire extinguishers, separate fuel storage, uniforms for cooks and service boys, at least one refrigerator or ice box, providing guests with a menu of their choice, arrangements for segregation of recyclable and non-recyclable waste, kitchens to be connected to bio-digesters, sufficient number of life jackets to be kept available in the Houseboat and shikara boat, emergency alarm button/system to be set up, electric kettle alongwith tea/coffee bags, sugar bags, milk powder and bone china cups, bath tubs, LED Televisions, etc.
  11. That the draft policy/guidelines proposes fines in the range of Rs 5000-10,000 for a wide range of defaults. For example, P33 of the Draft Policy states that any person carrying on the business of a houseboat without a proper registration in violation of any of the provisions of this policy shall be punishable with a fine which may extend to Rs 10,000/- and if the breach is continuing one with a fine of Rs 1,000/- per day. This fine shall be recoverable with seizure of the movable property. Again, the penalty for making a false statement or suppressing a material fact is punishable with a fine ranging between Rs 10,000-25,000. P34 proposes that for refusing to show registration certificate or any document the punishment is a fine ranging between Rs 5,000 – 10,000. P35 proposes the fine for offering any resistance shall be again punishable with a fine ranging between Rs 5,000-10,000.
  12. The architects of the draft policy seem oblivious to the present financial conditions of the houseboat owners and to the general economic situation prevailing in Kashmir. We wish their magnanimous disposition was utilized while formulating the recently announced financial support by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir for houseboat owners. In recognition of the stress of the houseboat owners financial support to the tune of Rs 1,000/- per month for a total period of three months was announced.
  13. That the Clause 3(E) P9 of the Draft Policy which states that “the houseboat owner shall pull down and remove illegal structure if any, constructed by him within 03 months of issuance of these guidelines failing which registration of the Houseboat shall not be renewed” has far reaching consequences. Firstly, who is to define what is legal and illegal. As per the houseboat owners, there is no illegal structure but only unregularized upgradations and capacity enhancements undertaken. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry has experienced first hand the problems caused by such technical terminology in the case of buildings which were declared to be unauthorized. The Government had to bring in a special ordinance in which it admitted that most of the buildings were declared illegal due to the delays in finalization of the Master Plans and revising of the building laws. But, by the time the issue was settled, much economic damage had already been caused with many major multinational companies and offices shifting to Jammu and other places. The KCC&I would suggest that a fresh evaluation of houseboats be carried out to regularize structures that may be only simple upgradation and capacity enhancements which otherwise are in the danger of being termed as “illegal”by the authorities.
  14. That it needs to be put on record that in the pursuit of putting food on the family table, the houseboat owners have extended all possible cooperation and assistance in the implementation of various directions of the Hon’ble High Court and the Government. In their interactions with the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, they have shown keen interest and openness for guidelines relating to fire safety, pollution, safety of guests, environmental and ecological measures, compliance with existing rules and regulations and other steps taken in this regard. But when conditions such as providing of kitchen area made out of stainless steel/bone china, glassware made of again stainless steel/bone china or even providing guests with a menu of their choice are stipulated, it would understandably push them against the wall. The KCC&I is not aware of any star hotel or restaurant providing a free choice of menu, nor any facility run by the Tourism Department offering such facilities. Such conditions imply the engagement of a master chef who would charge nothing less than 4 to 5 lakhs per month to operate from the portable kitchen dwelling specified by the authorities. Very unlikely that such an expert chef would come to Kashmir under the present circumstances to work for a houseboat owner who is himself being provided with relief of Rs 1,000/- per month by the Government, not to mention that every houseboat would be requiring one. The operation of houseboats has a very limited season and most of the employee’s have to be – in view of the nature of the business – adhoc, not to mention other situational disruptions. No houseboat owner can afford to employ high salaried staff round the year and no professional would prefer adhoc employment.The houseboat owners ask whether their registration would be canceled if they are unable to provide Mexican or Japanese or Russian food on demand?
  15. That the compliance of the stipulated conditions of the Draft Policy entails incurring expenses which are beyond the present capacity of the houseboat owners. It is simply beyond them and if implemented would result in deregistration of an overwhelming majority of them and heavy penalties.
  16. That the Draft Policy/Guidelines containing only inputs from the Committee of Experts and other Government Departments like LAWDA, Tourism, Housing & Urban Development Department and Legal Experts seems to be loaded against the interests of the basic stakeholders it aims to provide sustainable livelihood to and is grossly lopsided. The conditions stipulated are harsh and linking their compliance with grant of registration and operating licences would be akin to holding a gun to their heads. With the absence of any local expert or stakeholder in it, the functioning of the Committee of Experts seems to be confined to introducing stipulations which would prevent a majority of the houseboats from getting registered. Sadly, the Government departments too seem to have lost sight of the humanitarian and economic aspect of the issue. The participation of the stakeholders in the formulation of any policy or guidelines should not have been a mere eyewash but a necessary requirement from the start. The houseboat owners need the support of the Government for regularization of their establishments. The Government needs to be careful that the efforts towards the preservation of water bodies does not result in harassment of the stakeholders and unwarranted interference in their rights to earn their livelihood and be seen as institutional overreach.
  17. That the Government has ample time to work with the houseboat owners for their regularization and find ways and means to ensure state of art upgradations with regard to safety requirements, quality of services and ecological concerns are provided by them. But rather than wielding of the stick, there has to be a pragmatic consideration of providing sources of finance required for compliance. In the absence of any business this year, and keeping in view the past stress, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry suggests that the Government may provide interest free loans to the stakeholders for upgradations and modernization of the houseboats.
  18. That the Para 12 and Para 14 give absolute powers to the authorities regarding the placement and shifting of the Houseboat from one place to another, “if the Government/Tourism Department so desires”. These conditions deprive the houseboat owners of having any say in a matter critical to their business and goodwill. It needs to be underlined that the Government has so far, despite specific directions from the Hon’ble High Court, not been able to provide the promised infrastructure at sites where some of the houseboats have to be shifted. The above clauses seem to be aimed at dumping the houseboats at undeveloped sites which is not acceptable. Should the houseboat owners be punished for resisting such a move.
  19. That having regard to the ecological and environmental aspect, tonnes of Phosphorous and inorganic nitrogen nutrients 18.2 Tonnes of Phosphorous and 25 Tonnes of inorganic nitrogen nutrients to be exact – are emptied into the Lakes through drains. The installed STP’s do not possess the capacity to treat a major portion of the sewage, as a result of which around 73% of the 201 million litres of untreated sewage is flushed into the water bodies as reportedly stated by the Pollution Control Board.
  20. That the above facts indicate that the putting of the Draft Policy in public domain appears to be a purely cosmetic and non-serious exercise aimed to show that the stakeholders have been provided an opportunity to participate, which in view of the facts stated above they have not. While claiming to be aiming at providing of sustainable source of living for the houseboat owners, it may very well end up depriving them of their livelihood.
  21. That having regard to the above stated views and comments, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry would urge as under:
  22. In view of the prevailing situation and the need to study various directions of the Hon’ble High Court as well as the ecological concerns of the water bodies, the finalization of the Policy/Guidelines be deferred till the situation is conducive for holding of free deliberations.
  23. The Government recommend reconstitution of the Committee of Experts to include local experts and stakeholders.
  24. The Department of Tourism may provide all related Court directions, updated ecological requirements, guidelines for clearance from the PDD, LAWDA, Pollution Control Board, Fire & Emergency Services Department, and specific actions the Government wants the houseboat owners to take.
  25. The Department of Tourism may also work out the financial burden to be undertaken by the Houseboat Owners and recommend adequate interest free financial support from the Government to carry out upgradations in accordance with the directions of the Hon’ble High Court and the ecological requirements of the lakes.
  26. As in the case of other economic sectors like hotels and industries, extensive subsidies and incentives need to be provided for installation of modern eco-friendly equipment including Generators/Invertors, Air Conditioners, Waste Disposal Systems, Emergency Alarm Systems and other specified equipment.
  27. No shifting of any houseboat should be considered till infrastructural development of the identified sites is complete in all respects and conditions livable.
  28. The Department of Tourism and LAWDA need to distinguish between illegal and unregularized structures. Most of the changes undertaken are in the nature of minor upgradations and can be regularized. An exercise in this regard needs to be undertaken beforehand.

For: The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry

( Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad)

President

Copy for information and necessary action to:

  1. The Advisor (BK) to Hon’ble Lt Governor, J&K.
  2. The Chief Secretary, J&K Government.
  3. The Secretary (Tourism), J&K Government.
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