Srinagar’s iconic houseboats face a harsh winter and a bleak future

Shops may have opened in some areas and more vehicles may well be on the streets. But in almost unseen ways, political apathy is sounding the death knell of a certain way of life

Srinagar’s iconic houseboats face a harsh winter and a bleak future

Bula Devi

While New Delhi continues to claim, in the Supreme Court and in Parliament, complete normalcy in Kashmir, transition from a state to a Union Territory is taking a toll.

Delayed decision-making, uncertainty over who are now authorised to do what and administrative paralysis have dealt a blow to the iconic houseboats on the Dal Lake. Some of them have already sunk under the weight of snow since they did not receive the necessary permission and finances to repair them in time.

Permission from the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority never arrived, laments Bashir Ahmed Gosani, whose small, two bedroom houseboat, Young Flowers Garden, sank before his eyes, unable to bear the weight of the snow

He had submitted his application in July, days before the status of Jammu & Kashmir was dramatically altered on August 5. But there was no response. In 2008, when he last sought a similar permission, things were better organised and he was allowed to dismantle his houseboat and re-build a new one in its place.

“Now, however, no file moves, everything is at a standstill. There is no business, no way to earn a livelihood. Over a hundred days are over since the lockdown began and we don’t know how we are going to manage!”

Thirty-year-old Rukaiya’s family has sold one of their houseboats. “We don’t have enough money. We can use only Deodar wood in houseboats and it costs over ₹4,000 per square feet. It was a 55-feet houseboat, which we sold it for a paltry ₹1.25 lakh whereas in good old days we could have sold it for at least ₹17 lakh,” she informs.

Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association’s General Secretary Abdul Rashid says that in normal times there is 70-80 per cent occupancy between May to July and a reasonably high occupancy between August and October. “However, this time we found only 15 rooms had been booked,” he said.

Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association general secretary Abdul Rashid
Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association general secretary Abdul Rashid

On October 23 this year, the association wrote a letter to the expert committee demanding Deodar timber at a subsidised rate like earlier times so that those who wish to remain in this industry could continue to maintain their houseboats. The association also suggested creation of tourist villages. But files are gathering dust.

Houseboar owners, he informs, were already pushed into a corner by new and modern hotels. And the thousand odd families which depended on houseboats had pinned their hope on the PDP-BJP government in the state. But now they have lost all hope.

Adds Rukaiya, “We can see nothing improving here; everything is on the decline. Even if we had two-three months of good tourism, the future would still be bleak. Now it is all over.”

“Everything around us decaying. Our father has nothing to do; he is just sitting around, doing nothing which is affecting his physical and mental health,” she adds grimly.

Her sister Ishrat (21) is in her final year of graduation. Exams have been getting postponed often. If exams are held in time this semester, Ishrat will finally be completing her graduation in five years instead of three.”

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