Despite the armed turmoil in Kashmir, the waters of the Dal Lake have always remained serene and undisturbed. But in contrast to its tranquil waters, there is a grim look on the faces of houseboat owners today. They are worried that the houseboats, the main attraction for tourists, are on the verge of extinction.
A ban on construction of new houseboats, the lack of skilled craftsmen, procedural problems on renovation and repairing of aged boats and non-availability of rare cedar wood (used to make houseboats) pose a grave threat to the very existence of the Dal’s houseboats which are famous for their luxurious accommodation.
The state government imposed a ban on construction of new houseboats in the Dal Lake in 1991 in what is said was aimed to “save the world famous water body from overcrowding and pollution”. It also directed houseboat owners to seek official permission for renovating or repairing their houseboats. The owners say they cannot even plug a small hole without official permission. “The construction work in the Dal Lake is looked after by the Srinagar Municipality’s Lakes and Waterways Development Authority and the Tourism Department. “We have to go from one office to another for months together to get permission for even minor repair work,” lamented Azeem Tooman, president of the Houseboat Owners Association.
For the past 150 years, since a British Army general designed the first houseboat, these floating vessels have been home away from home for tourists coming here. But most of the 1,200 houseboats floating on the waters of river Jhelum, Dal and Nigeen lakes have completed their shelf life, Tooman said. “If these are not renovated and repaired properly and in time, they can sink and cause havoc,” he added.
Houseboat owners say that around 100 houseboats have sunk for want of repair since 1991 when the government imposed the restrictions. “There is no dockyard where decaying houseboats can be kept and repaired,” Tooman said.
The state government in 2004 agreed to construct a dockyard and the then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed allotted Rs 1.2 crore for the project. But the dockyard is nowhere in sight.
Tourism Director Farooq Ahmad Shah said his department has released Rs 25 lakh to the lakes and waterways authority to start work on the dockyard. An official in the authority, responsible for construction of the dockyard, said that the area has been identified and tenders have been called for.
What worries houseboat owners more is the lack of skilled persons to make new houseboats. Building the boats is an art that requires hard work and patience. There was only one carpenter Abdul Gani Kawdari in the entire city, who could construct a houseboat. Kawdari passed away last year. Due to ban on construction of new houseboats, after making houseboats for seven generations, Kawdari's son has shifted to a new business in the handicrafts sector. His boatyard in Chinarbagh near Dal Lake has been taken over by a willow-processing unit that manufactures cricket bats.
The houseboat owners’ problems were compounded by last week’s directive of the state High Court, in response to a recent Pollution Control Board report, which said open houseboat lavatories were a problem. The High Court ordered that houseboats moored along the shores of the lake should be removed until the owners ensure that the water body isn’t being polluted.
The Dal Lake has shrunk drastically from 26 sq km to 11 sq km in the past 60 years. Experts say encroachments and the inflow of sewage as the main reasons for the shrinkage.
Houseboat owners say that they contribute to less than 3 per cent of the total litter and sewage drained into the lake daily. “The sewerage of the entire city falls into the Dal. The government is doing little to stop it, Tooman said.
He said the death of the houseboats would have a telling effect on Kashmir's tourism industry. "The houseboat is a craze among foreign tourists. They love its artistic qualities and feel proud to stay in them. The tourist trade will die a natural death with the vanishing of houseboats,” he said.