“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Sajjad brings a reality check to unpleasant side of houseboat business

(Mr. Sajjad Bazaz, 45, was born in Srinagar. He attended the Khalsa high school and the Sri Pratap College in Srinagar. He received his bachelor’s degree in Media and his master’s degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir. Mr. Bazaz has over two decades of experience in journalism (both print & electronic), and he is author of the book “Bankwatch” which is about a financial scenario with particular reference to the J&K state. He is currently incharge of corporate communications department in a leaduing financial instution in J&K. Mr. Bazaz likes to spend leisure time watching movies and enjoying company of his friends.)

Houseboat owners cannot raise their economy at the cost of environment

J&K High Court while taking serious note of the state government’s failure to stop deterioration of water bodies has taken over the custody of four lakes, including Dal Lake. Earlier this month the court, in order to combat pollution in the Dal Lake, asked houseboat owners to suspend their operations until they make some alternate arrangement to their waste disposal. Following the court order, the government has asked houseboat owners to install sewage treatment units on their houseboats within 90 days – or face closure.

As the conflict seems to be ebbing for the time being, environmental issues marring the natural beauty of Kashmir have become main focus. High on the agenda is to fight out the pollution in Dal Lake, which has endangered the life of the lake. When we talk of pollution in Dal Lake, we cannot ignore the presence of houseboats, which have primarily harmed the lake, and this 150-year-old tradition is facing extinction today.

The Dal Lake is burdened with almost 60 hamlets with a population of around 70,000, many floating vegetable gardens, several hotels, guesthouses and lodges besides houseboats. We have seen that despite years of disturbances in Kashmir, tourists have still flocked to Dal Lake to stay in houseboats. But while it may appear idyllic, the volume of waste generated by this tourist heaven has turned the lake into a latrine. Millions of litres of raw sewerage are pumped into the lake everyday. The untreated sewerage and other chemicals in the water combinely act as a super-fertiliser and promotes the growth of ferns, duckweed and green and red algae. This in turn is killing other aquatic life in the lake.

In an attempt to save Dal from extinction, existence of houseboats is facing a serious challenge now. At the moment, it appears that houseboat being the flag bearer of Kashmiri tourism, is going to vanish. The blame is on houseboat owners who have never taken care of the Lake, which nourished them. They threatened its existence by pollution and now their own future is at stake. They never cared about waste management.

To put the things straight, the houseboat industry is dying with the passage of time. The environmental issue confronting the existence of houseboats is just adding pace to its extinction phase. Otherwise, the current generation running this industry has already lost interest in the trade. They see no future in the trade, as their activity is not having an industry status. Notably, while giving recommendations to aggressively reposition itself as a tourist destination riding on the back of the economic buoyancy around the world and in India, the Rangarajan Report had recommended to accelerate renovation and new constructions of house boats, hotels and shikaras, as a additional sum of Rs.30 crore may be allocated for immediate disbursement as soft loans with an appropriate monitoring mechanism.

But, today, a houseboat owner cannot even think to renovate his houseboat, as the permission is not granted in a hassle free manner. Since there is no dockyard facility, the renovation has to be carried out in Chinar Bagh area. To reach there, the Dal gate crossing needs permission, which is hardly granted. Another factor is that the life span of houseboats too has drastically gone down. In fresh waters, its life span is about 60 years. But in polluted water body, which is current situation here, the life span is hardly 40 years. Most of the 1,200 houseboats floating on the waters of Dal and Nigeen Lakes have completed their shelf life and could be put out of action for want of repairs.

Construction of new houseboat is economically unviable and has been stopped long back because of the unavailability of the rare cedar wood and lack of expert carpenters. Its construction would cost around Rs.1.00 crore. It is not only the cost factor that deters boatmen, the special cedar trees, which grow only at altitudes of 7000 feet in the forests of northwestern Kashmir, are fast depleting because of massive deforestation. A look at the past reveals that in 1980s Kashmiris used to export 3000 logs of cedar without realizing that they were seriously depleting a treasure which wasn’t being renewed.

In the current market scenario, for a simple houseboat, 3000cft cedar wood is required, which means around Rs.10 lakhs of investment. The labour involved in its construction further requires around Rs.10 lakhs. In addition to this, interior fittings/decorations involve a cost of another Rs.10 lakhs and total financial involvement in construction of a houseboat comes Rs.1.00 crore approximately. The uncertain tourist inflow means that the investment of around Rs.1 crore in a houseboat construction would be unwise decision.

So, the focus should be to protect the existing houseboats. Plans should be devised to allow entry of tourists in to the Dal Lake in an organized manner and their stay in houseboats should be brought under time limit. On promotional front, the government should promote heritage tourism. An amalgamation of Buddhist monasteries and paintings of Ladakh, palaces and temples of Jammu, mountains and Sufi shrines of Kashmir, with each one having a distinct architecture, the state is rich and varies in this respect. Ironically, nothing much has happened on this front.

We have been exploring new tourist destinations as the State; particularly the Valley is full of scenic spots. But before this is being done, there is need to put a coordinated effort to preserve heritage site and promote them as tourist destinations. This will put some pressure off from the Dal Lake, as tourist would get engaged in exploring other destinations.

Meanwhile, the intervention of court was unavoidable and this is precisely a good move and houseboats have to adhere to the court ruling. They have to desist from discharging their effluents directly into the lake. They can’t raise their economy at the cost of environment. However, government too has a responsibility. They should guide the houseboat owners to find alternatives to dumping discharge into the lake. Sewage treatment plants (STPs) should be encouraged in a very cost-effective manner.

Let us remember, the death of the houseboats would have a devastating effect on our tourism industry, which has been struggling for its revival. The houseboats are the heart of this industry. If they stop operations, the tourist trade will die its own death.