Lake of frozen hopes: tourism collapse ruins Dal families

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New Simla, a decaying 48-year-old houseboat, had suddenly started to tilt on the absolutely still waters of Dal lake. It was snowing heavily and the lake was quiet.

The wooden boathouse, a part of which served as a hotel for tourists, New Simla was also Handoo’s family home. On 6 January, it was sinking.

Sami Handoo, 35, along with her family was sleeping inside New Simla when their home started to fall apart. It was a burden they could no longer live with; the family’s life had already become impossible as tourists had stopped visiting the Kashmir region for the last two years.

In the immediate run-up and the aftermath of the abrogation of the limited-autonomy status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019, the tourists had simply vanished and the tourism industry was facing a collapse. Dal, a vast lake in the heart of Srinagar city which served as the base station for thousands of tourists, has become desolate.

For nearly two years, the Handoo family was trying to deal with the economic fallout of the tourism sector’s shutdown; now another trouble had arrived for them and the two were linked. New Simla required repairs to keep it afloat and the shrinking economic prospects meant it couldn’t be done.

Sami had woken up hearing the shouts and screams of the neighbours who had accidentally seen her houseboat making the slow tilt. 

The family struggled to save their belongings, their essentials, and themselves. As they moved out of their sinking houseboat, water oozed rapidly from the holes that Sami had been trying to fix temporarily for many months. 

Within a few minutes,  New Simla sank into the abyss of the lake, leaving the family shattered. The Handoo family now plans to surrender the license of their houseboat, like many other families in the lake who are tired of struggling to keep their houseboats afloat and whose hope of earning a livelihood through tourism is quickly dying.

A gloomy lake

Sitting on a wooden step that once led to her home, Sami chokes as she speaks. “Everything has ended,” said Sami.

“This wouldn’t have happened. This happened to us because of our financial crisis,” she said.

When tourists used to visit the valley, said Sami, they would earn at least 10,000 rupees per month and that was enough for them. “Now, we have lost everything. Everything got washed away.”

In the absence of tourists and source of income, Sami’s husband Aashiq Ahmad Handoo borrowed an auto-rickshaw from his relative which earns him 100-150 rupees a day. It is enough to keep them alive but not enough to sustain the education of their children, who had to drop out.

Since the momentous events of 5 August, during which the picturesque region was made off-bounds to tourists, the Handoo family and other residents of the lake have faced a continuum of hardships. 

Some boathouses require repairs, some have sunk and the families are finding it difficult to earn even a single meal a day. 

“If we had money that we used to earn from tourists, we could have repaired our houseboat annually and stopped the incident,” said Sami. “This wouldn’t have happened.”

Abdul Hameed Wangnoo, the chairman of Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, said maintenance of houseboats costs 50000-150000 rupees per year to stop them from leaking and save them from sinking.

Wangnoo said the owners are unable to pay for the yearly maintenance as they neither have a source of income nor any funds.

The houseboats, like the sunken New Simla, have a homely atmosphere and have hosted tourists for decades during their stay in Srinagar.

“It is a heritage of Kashmir. But now it seems like the government doesn’t want this industry anymore,” said Wangnoo.

As per Wangnoo, there are 200 owners who are tired of the struggles and want to surrender their houseboats along with the registration. They are urging the government to provide them basic accommodation for a normal life. “Most of the houseboat owners want to give up their business,” he said.

Staggering wooden steps

Raja Begum owns an eighty-year-old houseboat, Thailand, that is moored in the middle of the lake. She lives with her son’s family in a tin shed constructed next to the houseboat.

“Everybody faced a loss in their business be it a fruit seller, a shopkeeper, or a houseboat owner,” said Begum, referring to back to back lockdowns in the region that had ravaged the economy in the last 18 months. “We have been doing nothing and sitting idle since the lockdown.”

In August 2020, the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the tourism department said that following the abrogation of Article 370 and the outbreak of COVID 19 pandemic, the loss of revenue on account of the non-functional tourism industry in Kashmir was approximately 1166.81 crore rupees. 

Wagnoo claimed that the houseboat owners suffered a loss of almost 1.5 crore rupees during the months of the Article 370 lockdown in the summer and autumn of 2019. “Then came the pandemic, it worsened the already worst situation. No income has been generated ever since,” he said.

The fallout of lockdowns on the families, who were dependent on tourism, is devastating to them. Begum has multiple health issues but has no money to buy medicine. It has been three months since she ran out of medicine. 

“We need money for living and death. We don’t have it,” she said.

Ever since the tourists stopped coming and renting her houseboat, Begum’s son has become the lone earner of the family and does labor work. “Sometimes, he earns 100 rupees a day and many times, nothing at all,” she said. 

Begum recalls the times when they had to skip a meal and sleep empty stomach. “Should we fill our stomachs or cover the rest of the expenses?” she asked.

Narrating the tales of the scenic beauty of Dal and her houseboat, she halted at a point and took a brief pause. “It has changed now. Neither our hearts are happy, nor the Dal”.

Thailand would have at least five tourists per day, unlike, since the last 18 months, when none have come. Begum said that she hasn’t seen the face of tourists for more than a year now. 

Even if the tourists come, these families do not have enough money to accommodate them and provide them basic facilities – not even a meal.

“I appeal to the government to accommodate us somewhere else and I believe that is far better than where we are living right now,” said Begum. “Everything has ended! How will I say what this Lake was before?” she said.

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