At the crack of dawn, around 50 boats gather at a point in the interior of Srinagar’s Dal Lake, creating ripples in the turquoise water.
Within two hours, they will be gone — when the sky’s faint blue will give way to clear sunlight.
The boats are loaded with vegetables, waiting to be traded.
In the ongoing turmoil in the Valley, the Dal Lake’s floating vegetable market — which is a popular destination on tourist itineraries and has been functional for over 100 years now — has become one of the most important source of vegetables, since curfew has not been imposed on the lake and the market functions every morning uninhibitedly.
Kashmir has been under curfew for the last 48 days, since Hizbul Mujahedeen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces in south Kashmir on July 8. Although in many areas of Srinagar, people are buying the produce of kitchen gardens and small farms, most vegetable, fruit and grocery shops have remained shut in Srinagar, except for the time slot during which the separatist leadership announced a ‘relaxation’ in the shutdown.
Moreover, the import of vegetables from Jammu or parts of Kashmir into Srinagar has remained considerably constrained.
“This market has not shut because of the curfew. Vegetable vendors from across the city come here, buy stuff and then they go and sell it. We mostly sell what we cultivate,” says Abdul Rehman, a vegetable vendor selling tomato and brinjal, as he rows his boat.
The rich ecosystem of the Dal wetland produces numerous varieties of vegetables: tomatoes, brinjals, kohlrabi, cucumbers, water chestnuts and lotus stem (popularly called nadroo in Kashmiri), among many others.
Vendor Aashiq Hussain, who sells nadroo, explains the dynamics of the floating market. “The sellers here are all Dal dwellers. They also trade amongst themselves, apart from selling the items to shop owners coming from outside Dal. We do not use fertilisers in our vegetables, and that’s why it’s fresh and tasty.”
The vegetable market is an important source of income for Dal dwellers for whom tourism and farming are major livelihoods. Nazir Butt had come to the market in the morning with an empty boat.
Two hours later, it’s filled with capsicum, cauliflower, kohlrabi and beans — worth around Rs 3,500. In these times of unrest in the Valley, Butt is not setting a stall anywhere on the ground but his boat – ‘kisti’ – is his shop.
The profit for the vendors, Butt explains, vary according to the season and the rates of vegetables. During a favourable season, transaction amounting to a few lakhs are conducted in the morning market.
“I will go home now and have a cup of chaai. After that, I will row through the waterways of the Dal and sell the vegetables,” says Butt as he leaves the market on his boat. Butt explains that the Dal Lake floating market is a wholesale market, where many vendors bring imported vegetables from other ‘mandis’ — especially potatoes and onions, because it’s not grown on the lakeside.
Old residents of Srinagar say the floating mandi is over a 100 years old. The cultivation of vegetables on the Dal, and consequently the market, were completely destroyed due to the massive 2014 floods. It resumed only a year later when the lakeside was cultivable again.