The glass chandeliers hanging from the ornately carved wooden ceiling chime with the early spring breeze. The huge windows with embroidered curtains open to the vast expanses of calm waters, framing the lofty Zabarwan mountains in the backdrop. A lone shikara is rowing at a faraway distance. This is a view from one of the houseboats, famously called Floating Palaces in the valley. Sitting on the shores of Dal Lake are hundreds of such houseboats – shorn of guests - at a time when the tourists have started pouring into the valley.
Around 1200 houseboats moored around the Dal and Nagin Lakes in the valley have been made non-operational by the J-K Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, an agency working for the conservation of water bodies in the valley after the J-K High Court order barred hotels and houseboats from working. The reason – pollution of the lake.
Seated on a red-coloured couch inside his dreamlike houseboat with a small engraved walnut table in front is a man fighting on behalf of the houseboat owners – the President of Houseboat Owners Association – Muhammad Azeem Tuman. The captivating silence is broken by the clank of the crockery. “Tourists to Kashmir would say that Kashmir is a heaven and Houseboats were famously called Floating Palaces by them,” he says holding a cup in his hand. “By putting a stop on the operations of houseboats, we are facing a lot of problems. Bookings are being cancelled,” he says.
The breaking of glassy waters with the oars can be heard outside. He falls silent and then speaks, “On a single tourist, about 250 persons are dependent,” he informs. “Stopping the operations of houseboats will directly impact the livelihood of these people.”
The operations of houseboats were stopped as it was found that they dump the sewage directly into the Dal Lake. Those houseboats using proper sewage disposal methods had been exempted.
Three houseboats have been installed with mini-sewage treatment units on a trial basis. “The trial period ends in May and by that time, the peak tourist season would already be over,” Tuman says looking into faraway waters. A blue coloured bird perches itself comfortably on a metallic rope mooring this houseboat.
Tuman flips through some papers in his file. “Houseboats are not the major sources of pollution as they allege. It is the sewage flowing from the city drains that are a major source of pollution of this Lake,” he says. At least fifteen major sewage drains open into the Dal and Nagin Lakes. “Drains from Gupkar Road which houses many Minister’s and bureaucrat’s houses too throw their waste into the Dal. This is the attitude of the government, how can they put the blame on us” Tuman explains. “The population of Srinagar is 14 lakh, and the waste of this population ultimately comes into the Dal. We are just 1200 houseboats and that too the occupancy is for a few months only. It is common sense as to what is wrong and what is not.” He blames the State Pollution Control Board (PCB). “It is strange that PCB did not support the closure of drains but closure of houseboats.”
The Roorkee University Report for the Conservation and Management of Dal-Nagin Lakes had put the contribution of houseboats at just 3 percent. The lake has been slowly dying due to the illegal encroachments, hamlets inside the lake and the inflow of sewage from the drains into the lake.
The line of houseboats sits silently on the placid waters of the Dal and Nagin Lakes. The governments plan to get them to install mini-sewage units is looked at with cynicism. “Many of the houseboat owners are not that rich to install the units, they are too costly for them.” One unit costs 2.5 lakh rupees. “Why can’t the government help us, after all we form a small economy engine of the State.”
Outside the paddling of oars continues. And at a distance huge weed-cleaning machines float on the water.