Kashmir’s houseboats industry dying a silent death

Kashmir July 13: Houseboats which are part of Kashmir’s rich culture and often referred as the jewel of valley’s tourism are dying fast.
Houseboats made of wood are also called floating palaces on various water bodies of Kashmir including Dal Lake, Nigeen Lake and River Jehlum.
However, over the years, their number has reduced to 900 from 1600 in 2000 as their owners could not do their repairs in time. In the last nine months, more than 10 houseboats sank in waters of Dal Lake.
Mohammad Sharif, a houseboat owner, said there is a ban on repairing houseboats or building new ones. “Houseboats have been built more than 50 years ago and are decaying with each passing day. But we are not allowed to repair them resulting in their number having gone down to 900. If this continues, then you won’t find any houseboats after a decade as most houseboats are in bad shape and need immediate repair,” Sharif said.
In 2009, Jammu and Kashmir High Court banned repairs and renovation of houseboats after the government told the court that houseboats were the main source for pollutants of water bodies in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
Since then, more than 200 cases seeking permission for houseboat repair are pending with the Tourism Department Jammu and Kashmir.
Bashir Ahmad, another houseboat owner, said the government was blaming inhabitants of Dal Lake for its deteriorating conditions. “There are lakhs of people living around Dal Lake besides hundreds of hotels. All the sewage emanating from hotels and houses directly flows into the lake. They only blame houseboat owners who are just in a small number,” Ahmad said.
“Our houseboats need immediate repair otherwise they all will sink. We are losing our identity,” Ahmad said.
Many tourists are attracted to Srinagar because of the houseboat which provides the unique experience of living on the water in an elegant bedroom, with all the conveniences of a luxury hotel.
For tourists visiting Kashmir, staying in a houseboat for a few days and exploring Dal Lake in Shikara is the main part of their travel package. Houseboat interiors are designed with wood-carved walls, with Kashmiri woven carpets giving a cultural touch to the whole ambience. Rooms are upgraded with high-class furniture, with the latest facilities available for tourists.
The houseboats are of different sizes, some having up to four bedrooms apart from a living room and kitchen. Each room costs between Rs 2000 to Rs 8000 to tourists depending upon the facilities in the room. The value of a houseboat is between Rs 2 to Rs 3 crore.
An official of Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, a government agency entrusted with the job to clean Dal Lake, said more than Rs 1000 crore have been spent for preservation of Dal Lake in the last 15 years.
“Over the years, hundreds of crores of rupees have been utilised for preservation of the lake but showing no improvement in its condition,” the official said.
The official said the J & K government recently approved a policy for sustainable operation of houseboats in Dal and Nigeen Lakes.
According to the policy recently approved by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha-led administration, the houseboats are required to be registered online subject to the fulfilment of various conservation parameters; within 30 days from the date notification of the policy.
The policy includes provisions for undertaking repairs on damaged, dilapidated and abandoned houseboats.
“The houseboats and associated structures are required to be fitted with bio-digesters for scientific treatment of solid/liquid waste as per the approved design of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, besides ensuring availability of adequate fire safety equipment along with trained staff to be verified by Fire & Emergency Services Department,” the policy says.
Further, the policy lays down regulations for ancillary facilities like kitchen, lodging, furniture, first-aid, electricity, power back-up, sanitary fittings and shikara for navigation. (KINS)

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