Houseboats have been in the crosshairs of the authorities, especially since a ban was on their repair and reconstruction on water bodies
When 30-year-old Nazia Bano suddenly heard the gushing sound of water, she was alarmed. She rushed towards her bedroom to save her two-year-old daughter and her nine-year-old son.
Bano realised her residential houseboat was slowly sinking into the Jhelum river at Srinagar’s Abi Guzar. All she could do was to cry for help.
“Thankfully, I managed to get hold of my daughter and save her,” Bano said.
On 20 October, the nearly 40-year-old residential houseboat of Bano’s husband Muzzafar Gassi sank into the Jhelum. The rest of the family had a narrow escape, being saved in the nick of time by the police and CRPF. But they were left homeless.
The bottom of the houseboat was left in ruins, as were their possessions.
The bottom base of houseboats, always on the water, needs regular servicing and renovations to ensure it can withstand damage.
For the past three days, Gassi’s family has been living at his neighbour’s place. Both Gassi and Bano are worried about how the family will face the harsh winter.
“It will take Rs 2 lakh to repair the houseboat, but we don’t know how we will arrange for such an amount,” Bano said. She added that the family has been told by the administration that there is no scheme under which they can apply for help or recompense.
The world famous Kashmiri houseboats are floating homes anchored along the banks of Dal Lake, Jhelum Lake, and Nigeen Lake. The houseboats used as hotels and homestays have been crafted years ago with the greatest of care.
But over the years, houseboats have been in the crosshairs of the authorities, especially since a ban was on their repair and reconstruction on water bodies. Pollution of water bodies in Kashmir was cited as the reason.
But houseboats in Kashmir are also home to thousands of the indigenous Hanji population, whose also depend on them for their lives and livelihoods.
In the past few years, 17 houseboats have sunk due to decay. In recent years, floods and various other incidents have resulted in a decline in the number of house boats.
Since the Article 370 abrogation and the pandemic, families who would earn income by renting out rooms on houseboats have suffered.
“We get one room booked in a week,” said 23-year-old Mohammad Anees, a relative of Gassi. Anees said that the very survival of his people – who don’t have any land or shops – is at stake. “If the situation stays the same, houseboats will soon vanish,” Anees added.
In 1982, Jammu and Kashmir government banned the registration of new houseboats. Till that year, as per sources, Kashmir was home to approximately 3,500 houseboats. Now, that number is just 910. “The 910 houseboats are on Dal lake, Nigeen lake, China Bath and River Jhelum,” Anees said.
In 2010, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, the legal custodian of Dal Lake, banned all kinds of construction in the vicinity of the Dal, including the building of new houseboats. It advised the authorities not to renew the licenses of the houseboats without special permission. Because of this, owners found it almost impossible to maintain their houseboats.
The cost for maintenance is huge and varies from Rs 50,000 to a few lakhs. The government later banned the renovation and renewal of houseboats.
The Ministry of Tourism in 2018 sent a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) team to Kashmir for details for houseboat waste management and installation of biodigesters.
A biodigester is a mechanised toilet system which decomposes human waste in a digester tank with specific high-graded bacteria.
According to houseboat association spokesperson Yaqoob Doonu “the administration later said there is a new revival package for the houseboat owners, wherein it stated that 80 percent of the charges for installation of biodigesters will be borne by the government and rest 20 percent by the owner itself, which we accepted.”
“But the process for installation of biodigesters came to a halt for unknown reasons,” he added. Only six houseboats got biodigesters.
In March 2021, the government introduced a new policy that permits houseboats in Jammu and Kashmir to undergo renovation, which became a ray of hope for affected families. Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha, had announced a new policy aimed to preserve the houseboats. The new policy allowed repair on damaged, dilapidated and abandoned houseboats, and revival of cruise boats and donga cruises.
As per Doonu, this policy has not been implemented on the ground thus far.
After 5 August and the pandemic, due to sharp decline of tourism in the Valley, reports suggest that 134 houseboat owners were willing to surrender their boats and licences in case government didn’t come to their rescue.
A government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Under the guidelines, the houseboat owners will be able to renew/register their houseboats after fulfilling certain general conditions.”
“We have been demanding that this issue be given due consideration. We have no other place to live. If houseboats will start sinking, we will all be left homeless,” Doonu added.
Ghulam Qadir, 54, spokesperson, houseboat owners River Jhelum, said that all their life they have helped tourism in Kashmir to grow, but over the years their heritage is vanishing.
Since 2014, he said “almost 12 houseboats have sunk in Jhelum.”
“We have not received any compensation. People affected haven’t been rehabilitated. They are living with neighbours or in rented rooms,” Qadir said. There are almost 76 registered houseboats in Jhelum River.
As per Doonu “the time isn’t so far when houseboats may no longer be seen in the Valley.”
Doonu said the decline in business and the struggle has discouraged their children so much that they don’t see any future in preserving houseboats. “We keep requesting the government that if they have to save tourism, they need to save our houseboats. Tourists come here to live in these houseboats. Our very survival is at risk,” he said.
He added if nothing changes, their grandchildren may not even know what houseboats look like. “We might have to show them a picture instead of a real houseboat,” he finished.
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