Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh was lazily spending an afternoon on the banks of Srinagar’s postcard lake which has been the base station for thousands of tourists arriving in the region.
Sheikh, 26, was cleaning his camera as he eagerly waited for tourists to arrive. He makes a living by clicking pictures of holidaymakers.
“Before 2019, I wouldn’t have the time to talk to you. There were so many clients to photograph,” he said.
Few tourists have come to Kashmir in the last three years leading to a collapse of the region’s tourism industry and leaving men, like Sheikh, in a perpetual wait.
Kashmir has remained under a series of lockdowns since August 2019; the first prompted by the abrogation of the region’s limited autonomy and the two others that were prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
With another summer here and the deadly wave of COVID-19 infections falling but still impacting lives, Sheikh is in doubt. “I don’t think business will get back to that level until a few years.”
The tourists have been flocking to Kashmir during different seasons, some to escape the scorching heat waves and some to spend their vacation, in the last decade as the insurgency in the region had ebbed and levels of violence had dropped. However, since 2019, Boulevard road – the most significant tourist base station in Srinagar – has worn a deserted look.
Shikaras outnumber tourists as the people relying on tourism wait endlessly. The streets are empty, shops shut and the clear absence of tourists in even small numbers for almost three years now has begun to take a heavy toll on local businesses.
The professional photographers of the Dal Lake also claimed to have failed to make it to the monetary relief granted by the government.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration in May this year had announced to have provided relief worth 5.6 crore rupees to people associated with the tourism sector but the photographers were not mentioned in the official brief.
“Rupees 5.6 crore provided for 28,000 Shikarawalas/Ponywalas/Dandiwalas /Palkiwalas /Tourist guides as two months’ relief,” Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha had tweeted in May.
Sheikh says that the photographers are registered with the Department of Tourism and have all the paperwork to show their eligibility for financial assistance.
“The people who row Shikaras have been provided help, though it has been very meagre, but we’ve been kept completely out of the equation,” he said.
He is constantly thinking about how to put food on the table for his family. He got married two weeks ago.
The tourism industry that has thrived around the exquisite Dal Lake has inspired around 260 people like Sheikh to take up photography as a profession.
Sheikh said that photographers of the lake would earn 5,000 rupees a day before the Article 370 was done away with. “Sometimes, our earnings would be even more than that,” he said.
Sheikh now takes up odd jobs at construction sites in and around Srinagar and barely gets by.
When Srinagar was closed for tourists in 2019 amid the revocation of Kashmir’s limited autonomy, thousands of Kashmiris who depended on tourism got into deep trouble.
The tourists were asked to evacuate Jammu and Kashmir a few days before the revocation. Covid-19 pandemic followed months later that brought travel to a halt and when the travel restrictions were eased, fewer tourists arrived.
Firoz Ahmad Shalla, the president of the lake photographers’ union, said that he has been trying hard for years to get a relief package from the government.
“We belong to the same tourism industry. We even have the same licenses. However, we’re treated much differently,” Shalla said.
The massive floods of 2014 that caused 160 casualties and left thousands of people stranded in Kashmir also impacted these photographers, many of whom lost their licenses and have so far failed to get them renewed.
Shalla said that he has written to the incumbent Lieutenant Governor of Jammu & Kashmir, Manoj Sinha, but still hasn’t got any response.
“A delegation of five people from the association has also gone to Jammu twice in the past but nothing has become of it. Around 60,000 rupees have been spent in the process,” he said.
The photographers now sit hopeless and have tried exploring other avenues for financial help.
Yaqoob, who was a part of the delegation to Jammu, says that alternate financial measures like a low interest loan would work too. “Our business is dead, it seems. There’s nothing we can do anymore.”