For many a tourist for many a decade, staying in a houseboat has been the highlight of a visit to Kashmir. Floating on the serene waters of the Dal and Nagin lakes in the Valley, with picturesque mountains forming the backdrop, houseboats have been hosting visitors, mostly from the West, since colonial times. But suddenly, this idyllic tradition has been threatened, and simply because nothing was done when there was time.
On the surface, the reasoning sounds right-headed. On 8 March, based on a decree by the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, the state government ordered the approximately 1200 houseboat owners on these lakes to suspend business. In all likelihood, the court’s decision was prompted by a recent report by the state’s Pollution Control Board (PCB), which warned that the open lavatories and refuse from the houseboats’ kitchens were a major source of pollution in the lakes. As it stands, when tourists and service staff use the toilets, the excreta is dumped directly into the lake, with no system in place to store and transport the waste to treatment centres or outside the lake. According to the PCB’s estimates, the influx of pollutants into Dal Lake exceeds the permissible limit by six to eight times. At present, houseboat owners are being told to take immediate measures to handle solid and liquid wastes as per the regulations of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA), a department responsible for controlling pollution in the lakes. Those not complying will no longer be allowed to house guests.
The directive has come as a shock for the tourism industry as a whole, and tour operators, hoteliers, houseboat owners and travel agents are in a quandary. “We have taken advance bookings, and were anticipating a good tourist year,” said Yasir Ahmad, a tour operator. “Now I have to keep my phone switched off – I have no answers for my clients.” The ban is coming just prior to the peak tourist season of summer, and the hope was for a good season in a region buffeted by decades of unrest. Many in the tourism industry had been quite optimistic for the upcoming year, following a dismal season last year in the aftermath of the clashes over the Amarnath land-transfer issue.
Introduced by the British sometime in the early 1900s, houseboats in Srinagar remain synonymous with style and luxury. Made of cedar wood, they often have highly decorated ceilings of khatamband, a traditional form of woodworking. A wooden staircase generally leads to the boat’s deck, from where the expanse of water and the surrounding snowbound hills and mountains can be seen. Even the smallest houseboats are outfitted with spacious drawing rooms, a dining room and two bedrooms, each with a dressing room – and attached bathroom. It is the throwback approach to how these latter function that the court is now saying is no longer acceptable.
While the long history of houseboats in Kashmir, and their proven ability to pull visitors to the Valley, is undeniable, equally clear is the dire state into which the Dal and Nagin lakes have fallen. Both have shrunk in size considerably. A millennia ago, Dal Lake spread over an area of 75 square km; today, it covers less than 12 square km. The lake’s average depth has decreased from 17 feet to nine feet in just the course of the past decade, mostly from intensive agriculture on (via floating vegetable gardens) and around the waters, in addition to encroachment. Similar statistics are available for Nagin.
Meanwhile, what remains of the water in both has become incredibly foul. Any glance beyond the scenic sparkling waters and rowing shikaras will see that the Dal has become, literally, a cesspool. Not only is garbage and excreta dumped here from the boats, the city’s sewers also empty directly into the lake without treatment. LAWDA has set up three treatment plants, with two more on the way, but raw sewage still streams into the lake, as does other poisonous waste.
As such, as the conversation over water-borne pollution heats up, many are now noting that there is much more to discuss than merely the houseboats. As one moves beyond the boats, the charm of the lake gives way to manmade islands – dingy, stinky habitations spread over what were once the Dal’s waters. Today, these encroached settlements survive on the sluggish waters of the dying Dal, supporting some 70,000 inhabitants in about 58 hamlets, in addition to several hotels and lodges. While the government has long promised to shift these communities away from the lake, there is next to no sign of this happening anytime soon.
Environmentalists have for decades pointed to the lakes’ ongoing deterioration, but their calls have long fallen on deaf ears. Although funds have been set aside for the conservation of Dal Lake since back in 1978, the state of the water body today raises significant questions over how exactly those monies were used. It is widely believed that a major portion of the funds has gone into the pockets of corrupt officials, bureaucrats and politicians. Finally, in 2002, enraged by the pollution and government inaction, a law student named Syed Iqbal Tahir Jeelani filed a public interest litigation in the High Court, seeking preservation of the lake. It is this case that the court has been mulling ever since.
Environmentalists have been heartened by the High Court’s move, viewing it as a crucial step towards the preservation of the lakes. But the narrow focus on houseboats as the sole culprit, and the neglect of the larger systemic issues, has exasperated many. For their part, the houseboat owners have vowed to fight the suspension order, with the Houseboats Owners Association already having challenged the ban in court. According to Muhammad Azim Tuman, chairman of the Association, previous studies have found houseboats to be responsible for only three percent of the pollution in Dal Lake.
Alternatives have been suggested, but Tuman says these are impossible in the short term. Small-scale sewage-treatment options cost some USD 5000-10,000 a piece, an outlay that would take years to recoup even if tourism numbers rebounded dramatically. And in any case, according to LAWDA scientist Sabah-u-Solim, the effectiveness of such mini-systems could only be ascertained after a full tourist season.
For now, many are hoping that something can be done quickly, in order to take advantage of the upcoming summer. Waiting outside the courtroom for “good news” from his lawyer, Tuman says, “There is some misunderstanding, and we hope we can get some respite from the court before long.” There is no guarantee of such reprieve, however. Until such news comes in, or the houseboats find affordable alternative disposal systems, the usually bustling lakes of the Kashmir Valley look set to become significantly quieter this summer.