The fifty-year-old Air Queen was drowning into the waters of Dal Lake last week when Imtiyaz Ahmad Punjabi had woken up to offer his dawn prayers. The water had been seeping in through the cracks in its base for hours before 45-year-old Mr. Punjabi could see his houseboat, worth 35,00,000 rupees, turning uninhabitable for guests.
Unable to repair his houseboat this year, Mr. Punjabi saw his livelihood turn into a pile of floating rubble. Houseboats in the Dal Lake require proper repairing every alternate year but for the last one year, many houseboat owners like Mr. Punjabi have not been able to get their houseboats repaired on time as it costs them around 2,00,000 rupees. “My houseboat is completely damaged now,” said Mr. Punjabi, sitting in his damaged houseboat.
With no other source of earning, Mr. Punjabi is left with no way of repairing his houseboat. He doesn’t remember the last time he had a guest staying at his houseboat. “Even those who come to my D category houseboat [lowest category among five] are not willing to pay more than 500 rupees compared to the usual rate of 1500 rupees,” said Mr. Punjabi.
A few days before 5 August 2019, when the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked, the government had ordered tourists to leave Kashmir valley immediately. Since then Kashmir has witnessed a decline in the arrival of tourists and brought Kashmir’s economy to a grinding halt, including that of residents of Dal Lake, who are mainly dependent on tourism.
A brief conversation with the lake’s residents reveals the catastrophic changes caused by a year of clampdown and lockdown due to the August 2019 decisions and the COVID-19 pandemic respectively. Both the incidents have gravely impacted these houseboat owners, shikara owners, photographers, fast food shops, Kashmiri handicrafts shops and florists in the lake.
“We are dying”
A houseboat owner, Bashir Ahmad Kuchay, 50, recalls the situation on 5 August 2019 when the government imposed the harshest curfew in Kashmir. As the television news channels screamed of a political catastrophe, Mr. Kuchay said, “the tourists were scared”.
“On that day, my four-roomed houseboat was full of customers,” said Mr. Kuchay. “Soon after the news started spreading, they wanted to run away from Kashmir.”
“We don’t know how we have been surviving. Government just doesn’t care. You can say that we are dying.”
In the past one year, some houseboat owners and their families have been helped by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) but others have been solely dependent on local tourists staying in their houseboats once or twice in a month.
The government did announce a financial package of 1000 rupees for shikara and houseboat owners for a period of three months but many of them didn’t accept. “What changes because of this money? They stopped tourism and now they think that this small amount will change something for us? We were shocked when we heard this,” said Mr. Kuchay.
As per Mr. Kuchay there are around 500 houseboats currently in Dal Lake and the houseboat owners would earn around 2,00,000 rupees per year but this year they earned a meagre amount. “If this situation continues, there will be no houseboats in the next ten years,” he added.
Making ends meet
Three months ago, after seeing weeks without earning anything, Mohammad Akbar, a shikara owner, parked his Shikara to start selling vegetables on the lake’s embankment.
In August 2019, Mr. Akbar’s life also changed when tourists started leaving. “After 5 August, I used to earn 100 rupees per day. How do you think that would help me?” asked Mr. Akbar, visibly tired and sweating.
A father of two daughters, Mr. Akbar, in his forties, had to borrow money several times to feed his family and to fulfill the educational needs of his children. “I had to do something, my Shikara was not helping me. I had borrowed around 35000 rupees. I could pay my children’s school fees only after I borrowed 15000 rupees from someone,” said Mr. Akbar.
Selling vegetables felt to be the only choice for him after his debts increased. Mr. Akbar does not want to resume the work of rowing his shikara anymore. Like many others, he believes that the tourism business has already ended for the people of Kashmir.
“A stone is thrown and our business stops completely. If I hadn’t started selling vegetables three months ago, my family and I would have starved,” said Mr. Akbar.
“Will never suggest tourism business”
Sailing in a shikara towards the interior of the lake, a floating market famous for handicrafts, clothes, leather, jewelry, and other items has been deserted since August 2019; the shops have not opened since.
Outside Kashmir Handicrafts Bazaar, which rarely opens waiting for customers, covered with cloth to protect them from dust, the mannequins wearing traditional Kashmiri Pheran (traditional gown) with thread embroidery, go unnoticed in absence of any customers.
Wais Imran, 40, owner of the shop joined his family business when he was in high school. Until last year, his shop would attract passersby and one had to wait for at least fifteen minutes before being able to buy something. But that seems like a long-gone dream for him now. “As soon as 5 August happened, everything was shut down. Then during December, we thought that things might get better again but the COVID-19 pandemic happened,” said Mr. Imran.
His shop once employed fifteen people but has only three left as there are no customers to attend. “Those who are related to the tourism industry, are at loss only. We would at least receive 200-300 customers in a day. Currently, we don’t receive a single customer. Honestly, I have an alternative to changing my business because I have shops at other places also but there are those who cannot change their business and cannot survive,” said Mr. Imran.
He believes that the situation may still have been better if it was only one season without work but two consecutive years have left the business community disheartened. “People outside Kashmir have been suffering for the last six months only, authorities need to think about us. It has been more than one year now,” said Mr. Imran, adding that if the pandemic ends, the tourism industry will flourish again. “But I will never suggest my loved ones opt for the tourism business.”
Waiting for return
Another place grabbing the attention of tourists has been Veg Fast Food, a small green colored shop in the middle of the lake selling a variety of vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian food for the last ten years.
Adil Ahmed along with his four partners used to earn a minimum of 15000 rupees each day but now there are no customers left. “For the last one year, we have hardly been receiving any customers. These days sometimes locals come for fishing so we earn 300-400 in a day. This time the entire world got to know what a lockdown is, we have been witnessing it for so long now,” said Mr. Adil.
Similarly, 29-year-old Tawseef Ahmed is among around 250 photographers who have been thriving by working in Dal Lake. “I used to earn around 5000 rupees per day and it would even go up to 20000 rupees when there would be a huge rush of tourists. Now I don’t earn anything,” said Mr. Tawseef Ahmed.
Even after the vanishing of all the tourists from Dal, Mr. Tawseef Ahmed continues to go there every day because of being hopeful. “They say, ‘hope is what keeps the world alive.’ This is what keeps me going even now,” said Mr. Tawseef Ahmed. “Dal Lake was completely dependent on tourists, they are gone. And we don’t know if they will return or not.”
The chairman of Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, Hamid Wangnoo, says that since 5 August 2019, the tourism department has been suffering because of the advisory by the government. “Pandemic only added to the already existing situation. Tourists and yatris were sent back. Hotels were emptied. All the sectors got affected but the houseboat owners are the worst hit because they do not have any other sources of income. They are completely dependent on tourism,” he said.
Mr. Wangnoo adds that there has been zero income for houseboats, which need maintenance, repair, renovation and reconstruction. “Many of them have sunken already,” he said. “We met the home minister, finance minister, advisors but nothing has been done so far. The houseboat is the first major attraction for tourists. It is the heritage of Kashmir. If it doesn’t survive, there will be a major setback to the tourism of Kashmir.”
The story originally appeared in our 14-20 September 2020 print edition.