As sixth houseboat recently got ruined in the covid-crippled year of 2020, tourism players held the ban on renovation responsible for alarming fall and gradual fading of Kashmir’s iconic floating houses.
WHEN a midnight creaking sound followed by a thud jolted Farooq Nagoo out of his sleep on December 3, 2020, he heard an alarming spurt of water.
His seven-member family, including his three daughters and two sons, woke up and wondered about the nocturnal wobbling in their houseboat on river Jhelum in Srinagar.
“We thought the earthquake hit us,” recalled Nagoo, 45-year-old owner of H.B Prince House.
After tremors, his houseboat tilted towards the left. It panicked his family.Next, Jhelum’s murky,cold water flooded his bedroom—a reminiscence of the deluged fall of 2014 when the brimmed river stormed living rooms and created a riot run for life.
“I couldn’t understand what to do,” the owner said while sitting ashore with his sodden home articles. “My daughters started crying. But somehow I managed to get my family out of the houseboat.”
From their sinking home, Nagoo’s shivering family walked into an open and frozen Bund. Their midnight shrieks awakened nearby neighbours, who came to their rescue, and took them home.
But Nagoo stayed put and watched in sheer disbelief, as his floating home sank in front of his eyes.
“It broke my heart,” he lamented. “I had nothing except it. The houseboat was built by my grandfather and we were living here for decades.”
The icy cold water made muck of his bedding, TV, refrigerator, furniture, and other items.
“There was a dire need of repairing my houseboat, but I couldn’t do it due to the government ban,” Nagoo, who sells tea for living, said.
Another Houseboat Gone
Nagoo’s H.B. Prince was the sixth houseboat to sink in the plagued year of 2020.
This dwelling demise is in addition to over seven houseboats gutted in different fire incidents in last 10 years, said Mohammad Yakub Dunoo, spokesperson Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association (KHBOA).
“Currently,” Dunoo said, “over 200 houseboats are in urgent need of repairs. But sadly, the Tourism Department’s dockyard for houseboat repairs has been long rendered defunct.”
Houseboats are a source of livelihood for thousands of people, including shikara-wallas, florists, fishermen, artisans, woodcarvers, photographers, and many others in the valley.
“We kept tourism alive even in uncertain situations,” Dunoo continued. “But the government doesn’t allow the industry to flourish. Since they’ve pushed us to the wall, we’ve decided to stage a protest in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in coming days.”
Long Legal Haul
Behind these sinking houses of Kashmir, said Abdul Hameed Wangnoo, Chairman KHBOA, is the high court ban on the reconstruction and repair of houseboats.
Notably, the court sees houseboats as a “major source of pollution” of water bodies.
“Earlier we used to get the permission from Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) and Tourism Department, but now the cases are being referred to the High Court for permission,” Wangnoo said.
Over ten houseboat owners have petitioned the High Court for permission to reconstruct their houseboats.
“But despite the court telling a high level committee that they can give permission for the same,nothing has been done till date,” KHBOA chairman said.
Earlier, in October 2018, the J&K High Court constituted a three-member ‘Committee of Experts’ (CoE) headed by E Sreedharan, former chief of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, for ascertaining measures required to restore and preserve the world-famous Dal Lake which is shrinking “due to illegal encroachment, untreated sewage from hotels and houseboats and uncontrolled growth of weeds”.
The CoE in its report recommended reduction of the number of houseboats and dongas.
Subsequently, the court directed all authorities concerned that the number of houseboats in Dal and Nigeen Lakes shall not be permitted to be increased.
However, Wangnoo said that a houseboat being a wooden and fragile structure, needs constant reconstruction and repair.
“But the government has made it difficult for the houseboat owners,” he said. “The new policy has also worsened things for us.”
On April 8, 2020, the government approved new policy guidelines for registration/renewal/operation of houseboats in Dal and Nigeen Lakes.
The decision, the government said,will help to regulate functioning and operation of houseboats in both the water bodies and to preserve the lake for future generations by adopting sustainable tourism, preventing pollution besides, providing conducive and pleasant atmosphere for tourists on one hand and ensuring sustainable source of living for the houseboat owners/shikarawallas on the other hand.
The government said it has taken this step while complying with the directions of the high court and suggestions made by the CoE on Dal and Nigeen Lake — the twin lakes which have already become graveyards for many houseboats since August 5, 2019, when the crippling lockdown broke the backbone of tourism in Kashmir.
According to the draft policy, the owners will require no objection certificate from Power Development Department, PHE Department, Fire and Emergency Services Department, Pollution Control Board, LAWDA, and any other registered authority.
But this new policy has already drawn flak for being an “anti-houseboat” in Kashmir.
“With no business, is it possible for us to follow such type of guidelines,” Wangnoo said.
“We’re unable to pay our electricity bills currently. Such is our condition right now.This new policy is only going to deliver the final blow to Kashmir’s iconic houseboat industry.”
Passing the buck, Nisar Ahmad, Director Tourism, Kashmir, said the department is only following the high court orders.
“The court directed our department to frame a policy to reconstruct, repair, transfer, registration and renewal of houseboats,” Nisar said.
“We comply with the orders and framed the same. However, it was unacceptable to houseboat owners as they maintained that they were not involved while framing the policy. Hence they challenged it.”
A new updated policy has now been submitted to the government for approval.
“Houseboat owners have to follow a proper procedure now,” Director Tourism said.
“In the name of repairing, we won’t allow illegal constructions. Over 910 houseboats are registered with Tourism Department and all are in good condition. We can’t overload our water bodies with houseboats. We need to keep the carrying capacity in mind.”
Lamenting Over Loss
Staring at his H.B. Prince at the ghats of Jhelum, Nagoo predicted a mass demise of houseboats amid a ban on repairs and the new policy.
“Our future is very dark,” the houseboat owner said. “I think it would be better if the government allotted me some piece of land now for my family’s peace of mind.”
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.