Srinagar: Throughout the last many weeks, Farooq Ahmad, a houseboat owner in his mid-50s living on the shores of Jhelum in Srinagar, has been anxious.
His boat stationed on the river meandering through Kashmir does not let him sleep peacefully.
For over a year now, Farooq hasn’t earned a penny as no tourists have turned up at his houseboat since the government of India abrogated Kashmir’s special status in August last year, triggering a wave of lockdown and instability that has almost capsized not just his boat but the entire valley.
All his savings are depleted leaving him with no option but to loan some money from his kin to keep feeding his family.
During this torrid time, Farooq’s boat required the necessary upkeep for which he had a lot of time but not enough resources.
For instance, Farooq wasn’t able to keep up with the mandatory coring process, which requires periodic plugging of the gaps between the wooden planks of the houseboat’s floor with a special, dried grass to keep the boat watertight.
Coring costs around Rs 60,000 to Rs 80,000 depending upon the size and the state of the boat.
As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, the damage started to show up.
Every morning and evening, Farooq has to check the floor-boards and flush out the water seeping in.
On an average daily, he pours out 50 to 70 buckets of water that enters the boat through the cracks that are slowly but surely widening.
His options are: fix it, dismantle it, or let his long-cherished boat sink.
He has no money to choose option 1 and hence Farooq has made up his mind to go ahead with option 2 lest the inevitable option 3 happens on its own.
A part of Kashmir’s culture for centuries, houseboats in Jhelum may soon be gone forever.
Drastic slump in tourism, especially during the last one year, has pushed the owners (Shikarawallas) of these boats to the brink of starvation, forcing many to dismantle the boats themselves and sell the leftover timber for meagre sums that no way can be compared to the cost required to build one.
A rich representation of Kashmir’s culture and history, houseboats are equally dear to build as the cost of wood has shot up.
For instance, the houseboat of an average size will require at least Rs 50 lakh to construct. The floor bed of a boat is all made up of deodar, a costly wood type that has greater lifespan in water.
If cored on time, these boats typically have a lifespan of around 80 to 100 years. But with zero tourist arrival, the situation has changed.
None of the owners have been able to keep up with the mandatory coring process.
“We haven’t been able to repeat the coring process for over two years now as we have no money to do that,” said Mujeeb Pakhtoon, a young houseboat owner, who is at odds and compelled to dismantle his boat before it sinks.
At present, there are around 75 boats, including registered and unregistered ones, left in the river.
The owners of at least 50 of them have already given in writing to the government that they will destroy them in lieu of some rehabilitation plan.
Besides the 75, at least 25 houseboats have already been dismantled by the owners, who are yet to receive any compensation for it.
There is ‘Mount Everest’, ‘Happy Sunflower’, ‘King Sulaiman’, among those houseboats that stand on the verge of extinction while ‘Japan’, ‘Jubilee’, ‘Snow White’, and ‘Cherry Flower’ among 25 others have already been dismantled.
“Last year, we were promised by the government that they will help us keep the boats afloat. The Srinagar district administration promised us that they will help us in coring the boats but the help never came,” said Mujeeb.
The shikarawallas under the banner ‘Houseboat Owners, River Jhelum’ went from pillar to post in order to get some help from the administration.
However, all they were able to manage from the government was getting their boats painted.
“They painted them and left them to sink,” said another houseboat owner, who has to pump out water using a motor as the leaks in his boat are beyond buckets now.
Coming winter, these boatmen fear the worst as the danger of their boat crashing or sinking will be greater.
“The more these boats are left without the necessary upkeep, especially the coring process, the more susceptible they are to sinking. We don’t think most will survive this winter,” said the boatman.
Already reeling, the houseboat owners are also concerned that the government has delivered a final blow to the industry by shaping up a controversial houseboat policy.
The draft of the policy, which was put in the public domain for deliberation with stakeholders earlier this year, received flak from several quarters.
The document outlines norms and guidelines for registration, renewal, and operation of houseboats. However, the owners label the policy as draconian and harsh because it expects them to shape up or shut shop within a three-month deadline to refurbish as per renewed regulations.
The biggest concern for houseboat owners is that regulatory reforms and ease of doing business cannot go hand in hand with the new policy which demands a NOC from more than five departments, not necessarily connected to the Tourism Department.
According to the draft policy, the owners will require NOC from Power Development Department, PHE Department, Fire and Emergency Services Department, Pollution Control Board, LAWDA, and any other authority/departments the registering authority deems proper. This sounds like a death knell for the already floundering industry which has been an intrinsic part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage for over 150 years.