Irshad Hussain & Mubashir Naik
Srinagar: On November 12, at around 3 am, Suhail Ahmed’s family was suddenly woken up by the sounds of cracks. Water from the Jhelum river was seeping into their houseboat.
“There were six tourists from various parts of India who were sleeping in the houseboat. I had to save them first, so I barged into their rooms and got them out of the houseboat,” he told The Wire.
By the time the immediate rescue work was over and Ahmed’s family could grasp what was happening, their houseboat had capsized.
“Our houseboat, the Prince, was the oldest and the longest houseboat on the Jhelum river. It had six bedrooms. That day we successfully saved the tourists but lost a houseboat which is over 50 years old. It was the source of our livelihood,” Ahmed said.
The next day, the river police retrieved the houseboat from the water. They claimed to have spent around Rs 3 lakh to take it out of the water, but their efforts were in vain.
“We have no other option but to dismantle the houseboat now. We didn’t receive any compensation from the government nor did any official approach us to know if we need any help. The only favour we received from the tourism department was two water pumps to remove water from the boat. This is the second of the houseboats we own that has sunk in the last two years,” he said, reiterating that this was his sole livelihood.
Ghulam Qadir Gasi, 45, spokesperson of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, told The Wire that there were once 250 houseboats signed with the association. Now, only 76 are left.
Houseboats are known to be an important part of Kashmiri culture and have been traditional sources of livelihood for the families running them.
However, they mean more than just livelihoods. The wooden carving on houseboats represents vignettes of Kashmiri life and culture, as well as the fine craftsmanship of artisans. They mostly feature Chinar trees, which are considered to be the symbol and soul of Kashmir.
But all this has not kept houseboats from what its owners say is a path of gradual extinction.
In 1988, the Farooq Abdullah-led administration had banned the building of new houseboats and repair and renovation of the existing ones in Kashmir due to pollution concerns.
The authorities wanted to reduce the number of houseboats in the Dal Lake, Nigeen Lake, and the Jhelum river. These three locations, along with Chinar Bagh, were home to thousands of houseboats.
In 2009, the ban was reimposed after the authorities told the Jammu and Kashmir high court that houseboats were the primary source of Srinagar’s water pollution.
This made repairs a daunting task for those who did have houseboats plying.
A houseboat owner, 31-year-old Mohammad Younis, told The Wire, “When all construction around the lake and other water bodies was prohibited, authorities were instructed not to renew houseboat licences. This made repairs impossible without special permission, which could only be obtained after a long-drawn-out legal procedure that is rarely successful.”
Gasi says there has been lack of attention from the administration in providing alternative livelihood opportunities too.
He told The Wire that the timber used to build and repair houseboats has become more expensive. Requests to the tourism department to issue timber on subsidised rates have not yielded results.
With no way of repairing them easily, houseboats are thus prone to sinking.
Younis Ahmed, another houseboat owner, told The Wire that due to the fact that houseboat bases are damaged, many of them sank in the Dal Lake and Jhelum river last year.
“Minor cracks in the bottom of the houseboats can be repaired but there is no boatyard in the Jhelum river. In the winter season, many tourists prefer to stay in these houseboats. If the tourists die in these houseboats, who will be responsible? A few months ago, the tourism department provided us with some timber. But where do we renovate our boats and how?” he said.
“Last year, we helplessly watched as our houseboats sank due to the lack of maintenance. Now we are on our toes to renovate our boat bases,” he added.
On May 22, 2021, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha announced a new policy to permit houseboats in Jammu and Kashmir to undergo renovation, which had given some hope to the houseboat owners. However, nothing has being done on the ground yet, houseboat owners pointed out.
Even if someone is allowed to renovate their houseboats, owners reiterate that the long and hectic paperwork involved in the process may take years.
While speaking with The Wire, director of the tourism department, Kashmir, Faz Lul Haseeb said that the department is expected to announce a rehabilitation policy on December 3. The divisional commissioner has called for a high-level meeting for the rehabilitation of the houseboat owners.
When asked about the ban order on the renovation of houseboats in 1988, he said that the high court has constituted a committee headed by the tourism secretary and the director of tourism, and their decision will be forwarded to the high court for approval.
The high court has declared that the lakes should be protected and there should be no construction and renovation near them.
“Timber has already been approved by the secretary of tourism, but the final allocation will only be decided if and when the high court approves it. I am trying to meet the Chief Justice to give us some sort of leniency; we don’t want to be in a position where we appear to be disobeying the court. The number of houseboats is decreasing because the decision to build new ones and repair the old ones are up to the court,” he said.
Irshad Hussain is an independent journalist, and tweets @Irshad55hussain. Mubashir Naik is also an independent journalist, and tweets @sule_khaak.