Imagine the Dal Lake without its houseboats. If that left you with a sense of emptiness,get used to it. The future of the 1,200-odd houseboats,which have been a part of the famous water body in the heart of Srinagar for more than a century now,is under threat. With the houseboat owners not exactly cooperating,a court order has made them inoperable till they find proper ways of sewage treatment.
This icon of Kashmir tourism may vanish from travel itineraries as the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA),the nodal agency responsible for controlling pollution in the Dal Lake,has directed all houseboat owners to stop operation or face closure.
The Dal Lake figures among the 93 sick lakes of the world. The pollution control boards report of 2003-2004 says that the Dal is dying slowly as pollutants are six to eight times more than the permissible limit (as prescribed by the central pollution control board). The report says factors like human settlements (60,000 people),hotels,houseboats,floating gardens,and even dhobi ghats are contributing to the lakes slow death. The lake has shrunk from 75 sq km to just 11.56 sq km.
The LAWDA is acting according to a February 26,2009 high court order banning business of houseboats/hotels and commercial units responsible for polluting the lake. For thousands of houseboat owners and people of the Valley,the measures,however,mean throwing away a piece of history.
Houseboats were made in Kashmir by the British in 1860,after the mutiny in the rest of the country. They were even facing resistance from the frontier areas now in Pakistan. So they wanted a safe place for their officers,mostly for vacations, says Mohd Azam Tuman,president of Houseboats and Shikara owners Association. Records books,however,say the first houseboat,named Victory,was designed in 1888 by M T Kenhard,a serving officer in British army.
But the houseboats that are now the signature of the Dal Lake were introduced almost accidentally.
Members of the Indian Civil Service serving in the plains often spent vacations in Kashmir. Since they were not permitted to build permanent homes in the city because of the then Maharajas suspicion of an attempted British presence in Srinagar,these officers chose to live in houseboats.
Occupying land in Kashmir was never easy. It is the same now, says Ghulam Mohd Butt,owner of the famous Claremount group of houseboats,which have hosted several film stars and even heads of states.
So,what is it that attracts tourists to these houseboats? Comfort and a true taste of everything Kashmiri. Made up of cedar wood,these boat hotels are complete with living quarters,drawing and dining rooms,carved wooden furniture,intricately embroidered Kashmiri carpets and rugs. You will get to see everything that is Kashmiri,right to the embroidered upholstery. A stay in the houseboat gives you a complete feeling of Kashmir, says Tuman.
The windows open to the serene views of the snow-covered peaks and the mesmerising Dal Lake.
Unlike a hotel,the silent and serene atmosphere and homely comforts of houseboats rejuvenate you, says Vinay Tiwari,a Delhi businessman on a holiday. Besides the snow in Gulmarg,houseboats were the other attraction.
Like hotels,houseboats vary in degree of luxury and have been accordingly graded by the Tourism Department. A luxury houseboat,like a luxury hotel has fine furniture,good carpets and modern bathroom fittings,while the D category (the lowest) houseboats,like low-budget hotels,is spartanly furnished.
All houseboats,regardless of category,have personalised service. There is always a houseboy for every boat,and of course the owner and his family are never far away. The room rates are anything between Rs 4,500 and Rs 1,500,depending on room occupancy and the category.
But the years of violence in Kashmir have taken a toll on the houseboats. Since 1990 we have hardly had 90 days of work. For 15 years there were hardly any tourists in the Valley. Winter months anyways mean no work. Things were improving since the past few years but again the Amarnath row hit us hard last year. So how much pollution do we cause when we hardly had any occupancy in the past two decades, says Tuman.
Besides the turmoil,the lake-protection measures have also hit the houseboat owners hard.
Under these laws,which were introduced in 1991,any houseboat which is in a bad shape is not allowed for reconstruction and the owner has to apply for dismantling and surrender his licence, says Ajaz Ahmand Kotroo,another houseboat owner. Though 1,200 houseboats are registered,only 550 are operable.
The houseboats need maintenance every year and the cost is quite high. The wood used to replace the corroded hulls costs about Rs 300 a cubic foot. The maintenance of the luxury wood fittings is also very high, says Tuman. As a result,the number of houseboats has come down 66 per cent from 3,500 in 1947.
The houseboat owners,however,have to take the onus of polluting the already polluted Dal Lake as they have refused for years to comply with the Pollution Control Board recommendations for proper waste disposal.
While the authorities are still experimenting with the treatment plans for the sewage,houseboat owners are reluctant to install even the plastic tanks for sewage collection. Their association claims many houseboat owners are poor and they cant afford the tanks.
We need some help from the Government. A treatment plan will cost us Rs 2 lakh and the temporary collection tank over Rs 40,000. We need the Government to bail us out, says Tuman.