At a time when Srinagar Administration is asking people to maintain kitchen gardens, many Kashmiri women are toiling hard in lockdown to maintain traditional vegetable supplies in the city. Braving the vagaries of the weather and harsh life, these women during pandemic have literally become Salvador of Srinagar.
SHE first picked up her daily routine at the age of 5, when she followed her mother’s footsteps. That was half a century ago. And now, at fifty-five, Haleema continues to carry her ‘labour of love’, with an untiring spirit.
Her religious devotion has helped the conflict-battered community to survive some tough times, especially when Srinagar, as poet Agha Shahid Ali described it, would hunch “like a wild cat: lonely sentries, wretched in bunkers at the city’s bridges, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to . . .”
Haleema sets off at daybreak, rowing her boat on backwaters of Dal Lake, to reach her floating garden. Her early morning shift coincides with the start of the iconic lake show.
Over 50 Shikaras, laden with fruits and vegetables, throng the famous floating vegetable market every day. A major tourist attraction, this dawn bazaar of Dal Lake has reportedly an annual turnover of about Rs. 35 crores.
This “vegetable bowl” of Srinagar shot to fame in 1960s, when a Japanese photographer featured it in a tourist guide.
Shortly after their shift at the all-weather floating market, these boatmen return home, only to take vegetables to the street market. This tradition, over the period of the time, has sustained Srinagar’s food chain.
And to maintain this routine, Kashmiri women play a significant role.
“For many inhabitants of Dal Lake, cultivating fruits and vegetables is the major source of income,” Haleema says. “While mostly men take them to market, women spend most of their time in nurturing the crops.”
Amid pandemic lockdown, these vegetable gardens are ensuring ‘uninterrupted’ supplies to Srinagar. And the women workforce behind this crisis-mitigating activity has already become sheroes for the society held hostage by the fair-weather Srinagar-Jammu Highway.
“These lake gardens produce enough for all seasons for the consumption of the city,” says Hajira, a 43-year-old vegetable grower in Dal Lake. “Especially, during winters, when the highway mostly remains closed due to bad weather, these gardens come to the rescue of the entire community.”
But for the strife-ridden society, which often finds itself in the clutches of curbs and curfews, these women often play the role of crisis managers.
Be it 2008 land agitation, 2010 street protests, 2014 floods, 2016 unrest, or 2019 abrogation clampdown, they kept the food supplies active in the city.
Even today, when the world is dealing with the COVID curbs, these women are maintaining the 100-year floating market as well as ensuring the uninterrupted vegetable supply in Srinagar.
According to a study by Srinagar’s historic SP College, total 31 vegetables, including cucumber, tomatoes, spinach, radish, carrots, onion, brinjal, cauliflower, cabbage and pumpkin, are grown in Dal Lake by Hanji community, Dal dwellers.
With time, Hajira continues, women farmers have also started coming out with their own vegetable-laden Shikaras.
The growing dominance of these women farmers has also made them “empowered” in their own right.
But before growing vegetables, these women toil hard to prepare the turf.
Using weeds like Pech (Typha augustata), Nargasa (Phragmites communis), and hydrophytes like Trapaspp and Eurale ferox, they make floating gardens.
These gardens are of two types, Radh and Semb.
Radh is a mobile floating garden, made of long strips of lake reeds having a breadth of about 2 meters. A static garden, Demb is formed along the sides or on shallow waters in the middle of the lake.
Women like Haleema and Hajira mostly use organic manure like hydrilla muck to cultivate vegetables and fruits on these floating gardens.
“These organic vegetables are quite popular among elites,” says Haleema. “They prefer them for their health benefits, and good taste value.”
Legend has it, that watermelons of Dal Lake’s floating gardens were once so popular that Mughal emperors used to import them from Kashmir.
However, with time, as the lake got choked politically to an extent of amassing mess and muck, thousands of lake farmers were relocated and sent to city suburbs “to fend for themselves”.
“We’re being portrayed as the lake villains and encroachers,” Haleema rues.
“But the fact is, ever since they relocated our community members, the lake is only witnessing rising pollution and slow death. What machines worth crores of rupees couldn’t achieve, we used to do that with our bare hands and paddles.”
However, as pollution and politics continue to drive and dominate the Dal discourse, the future of more than 6,000 families dependent on the floating garden hangs in the balance.
“It’s not only our demise,” Haleema says, “but the demise of the buffer system which would help sustain Srinagar during its trying times.”
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