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Kashmir: Owners Gasp for Support as Houseboats Drown Slowly

Anees Zargar |
Manzoor Pakhtoon, the chairman of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, says that despite being one of the key players in the rise of the tourism sector for decades, the houseboats face disturbing neglect from the authorities.
jhelum J&K

Srinagar: Scores of families living in houseboats on Dal Lake and river Jhelum are living on the edge as many of the houseboats have drowned in the past few years, leaving families in a lurch.

Earlier this week, the family of Ghulam Qadir Gassi found themselves in the middle of a storm as their houseboat began to wobble due to gusty winds. Gassi’s houseboat was anchored to the Bund on Jhelum near Abi Guzar, but as the winds blew, he knew that his luck had run out.

He hurried his children out of the boat to safety as he realised his home was shattering. Gassi told NewsClick that at about 6 pm on Monday, the water had finally breached the boat, and then the family witnessed their home gradually submerging.

It was very difficult to witness it. We struggled hard, and the first thing I did was to save my children,” Gassi said.

The owner was, however, able to save some of his belongings with the help of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the River Police, who rushed to the spot and helped in the family evacuation.

jhelum J&K

It has been some time since the boat owner began to develop concerns about his family’s safety. He says he had already submitted an application to the administration about the situation.

I wrote that my boat is not strong enough and can drown anytime, and that is what happened,” he added.

Gassi is not the first to have lost his boat, but in the past few years, the locals say that nearly a dozen such incidents have occurred in the region. Last year in June, two families and seven tourists were rescued from a houseboat after it began to drown in Dal Lake. The families claimed that the boats could have been saved, and the danger could have been avoided if they were allowed to repair or reconstruct them on time.

Most of these houseboats are located in Srinagar around Dal and Nigeen lakes, Chinar Bagh and Jhelum river. The houseboats, first introduced in Kashmir in the late 19th century, have since emerged as one of the tourism symbols in the region, with houseboats frequented by British imperial officers and other European travellers during summertime as tourism gradually began to pick up.

The Maharaja, who ruled Kashmir, had a strict regulation policy even back then. In 1934, the boat owners formed the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association (KHBOA). But, decades later, even as tourism continues to boom, the houseboats continue to sink.

I needed to repair the base of the houseboat, and it can be repaired only in the boatyard, but we are not allowed to move from this particular spot, and the boatyard is in Dal Lake,” a houseboat owner from Jhelum says. The owners say no houseboats from river Jhelum or Chinar Bagh can enter Dal Lake.

Manzoor Pakhtoon, the chairman of KHBOA, says that despite being one of the key players in the rise of the tourism sector for decades, the houseboats face disturbing neglect from the authorities.

It seems that there is a policy to let the houseboats die slowly. We have had two families in two months become homeless, and it could have been avoided,” Pakhtoon says.

The KHBOA chairman says that the numbers have declined drastically in the last three decades from around 2000 houseboats in the 1980s to about 750 now. About 140 families are living in houseboats along the banks of Jhelum, of which a majority face immediate risk. Pakhtoon says many have given up tourism-related work due to the risks.

These families are aware that they cannot risk the lives of the tourists as it will affect everyone and the industry itself. There must be a comprehensive policy in this regard, and it should be implemented for the sake of people’s livelihood and the benefit of tourism,” he argued.

Vice Chairman of the Lake Conservation Management Authority, Dr Bashir Ahmad Bhat, said there is a detailed policy in place for houseboats, and whenever there is a requirement for repair in the Dal Lake, there is a committee meant to overlook it.

As far as the Dal Lake is concerned, we are trying to iron out the issues. We are also working on connecting all the sewer pipes from the houseboats to a sewerage network,” he said.

The authorities claimed that much of the pollution in the water bodies comes from the houseboats and hence have put a cap on their numbers and have barred any further construction. A policy was announced in 2021 for the repair and renovation of these boats, which was welcomed by the houseboat owners, but it has hardly saved any, they claim.

In the meantime, the Gassi family has been provided with two tents and blankets by the district administration. He has pitched the tent close to his boat, waiting for aid.

I have been rendered homeless. I request the LG administration to rehabilitate me somewhere my family can live properly,” he says.

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