Life in Srinagar—Part I: Pathos and Pollution of Dal Lake

Despite its indigenous Hanji community fighting the protracted battle to protect and preserve their centuries-old identity, over 40 percent of houseboats vanished in last three decades from Dal Lake. These heritage showpieces—“the jewel of Kashmir tourism”—are fading amid the hotel boom and a new water transport trial.

An old man wearing a white skullcap lighted his cigarette on the sunny deck of a houseboat. Beneath him, a heart-shaped oar cuts into the water creating a soothing splash on the serene Dal Lake. As he puffed the smoky drag, a dead whitefish flowed between the rims of the shikara and the houseboat. The fish disappeared when he exhaled the smoke.

Beyond the Boulevard optics, the life inside the lake is a lament on the lost glory, the decaying heritage, the rampant pollution and the casteist slurs thrown to denigrate and denounce the water natives. There’s an anguish as well as agony over the othering being normalized to an extent that now creates an existential crisis for the community.

“Most of the people think that we bask under the British glory when houseboats were always part of Kashmir’s heritage legacy maintained by the Hanji community,” said Tariq Ahmad Patloo, a houseboat owner.

“Originally, our floating homes were called ‘behaz’ [a cargo boats with an open attic] and ‘dongas’. The British only modified those structures into bigger compartments that are known as houseboats today.”

Houseboat has several areas — the lobby called ‘Matheab’, the kitchen called ‘Bushkhan’, the corridor called ‘Dorak’, the drawing-room called ‘Khot’ and the deck called ‘Naem’.

“Over the past many years now,” Patloo continued, “a notion has been propagated that it’s the Hanji community who has polluted the Dal Lake when the reality is something else.”

Facing the Zabarwan mountain range on the deck of his houseboat called Hollywood, Patloo said people who live on Dal Lake peripheries and other water bodies connected to it are producing more sewage into the lake than its dwellers.

“But sadly, it’s our community which is seen as the villain of the lake tragedy,” he said. “And this perception is problematic and is slowly devouring our heritage houses.”

The Dal problem, Patloo said, is essentially a drainage problem. “And once you address it, everything else will be sorted out.”

But at a time when hotels in the name of tourism were approved—some even in eco-fragile zones and green belts—the stakeholders of the houseboat tourism largely felt neglected until the government in March 2021 approved a policy for sustainable operation of houseboats.

As per this new policy, the tourism department has capped the number of houseboats in Dal and Nigeen lakes at 910.

The new policy allows repairs on damaged, dilapidated and abandoned houseboats, and revival of cruise boats and dongas. Besides online registration, the houseboats and associated structures are required to be fitted with bio-digesters for scientific treatment of waste.

But as Patloo explained, applying Dos and Don’ts on the lake community won’t alone help until the issue of sewerage is not fixed.

“Like I said, Dal is essentially a drainage problem, that’s why we see Hazratbal and Nishat ghat area more polluted than Ghat No. 1 to Nehru Park where houseboats are prevalent,” he said. “Moreover, there’s no official data on how much sewage of the Srinagar city goes into the Dal and Nigeen lakes every day.”

The socioeconomic survey conducted by Urban Engineering Environment Division (UEED) in 1986 and a detailed project report submitted by NIT Roorkee in 2000 revealed that the houseboats produce 0.8 million litres of sewage per day while the local population of Dal Lake generates 5 million litres and the peripheral areas make up to 44.2 million litres of sewage daily.

“Despite so many policies on the paper, there’s hardly any respite on the ground,” Patloo said. “Today, out of 1500 houseboats, only 775 have survived in the Dal and 115 in Nigeen and Jhelum. Even the number of Dongas has come down to 28 from 328 in year 2000.”

But before being crippled by poor policies and lockdowns, the picture wasn’t always pathetic. The rot now consuming the lake along with its floating houses started when the internal dynamics were altered.

Only 30 years ago, Dal Lake was two feet higher than the Chinar Bagh tributary, also called Chuntkol — one of the primary outflows of Dal Lake maintaining its constant circulation. It looked like a small waterfall and four people wearing white turbans used to work on the two lock gates of Dal Lake, Patloo recounts.

“Those two wooden navigational gates build by a British hydro engineer, Lord Avery, used to flush out the waste of Dal Lake into the Chuntkol filtering azolla and other weed on its surface,” Patloo recalls. “When the authorities replaced wooden gates with iron shutters, the water levels equalized and proved a disaster for its natural cleansing process. Eventually, Chuntkol tributary turned into a drain.”

As these ‘mindless moves’ started putrefying the lake and its life, Patloo said, the Hanji community and their houseboats became “soft targets”.

“Hanjis are the well-wishers of the water bodies because it’s their home,” the houseboat owner said. “People who live on water understand its problems and solutions more than the non-dwellers. A hanji would clean ‘khor’ [small aquatic weed] and ‘boum’ [large aquatic weed] as a matter of lifestyle. But now, just check areas where from the Hanjis were displaced. The place has turned into a forest.”

In the garb of conservation, many Hanjis residing in the hamlets of Dal Lake were dislocated and dumped into the wetlands of Rakh-Arth in Bemina area of Srinagar years ago. Some families among them are homeless today as their houses have collapsed on the marshy land.

But while the natives were uprooted, their houseboats eventually decayed.

“As per the 2009 judicial order, Dal Lake is under the legal custody of the court, so all the big decisions would be appraised by the court itself,” Alyaz Naisroo, Secretary Lakes and Water Development Authority (LAWDA) told Free Press Kashmir.

“But a committee was formed in 2010 for the renovation of houseboats. It’s taking a bit time but changes in the implementation of new renovation policies will happen soon.”

On the lake’s pollution problem, Naisroo said LAWDA has built over 5 Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) across Dal Lake. “But yes, there’re many uncovered areas where untreated sewage goes directly into the Dal and within its tributaries but we’re working to fix the leaks,” he said. “We’re now building the biggest sewage treatment plant of 30MLD [Megaliters Per Day] which will cater the leftover areas.”

As of now, LAWDA selectively deweeds the concentration of the nitrate and phosphorus nutrients in the lake.

“But fixing drainage is the LAWDA’s priority and we’ve already submitted a project synopsis to government,” Bashir Ahmad Bhat, Vice Chairman LAWDA, told FPK.

“We’re currently working on the ecological assessment of the Foreshore Road and evidences reveal that the periphery and uncovered areas are affecting Dal Lake more.”

From Hazratbal to Rainawari, all the untreated sewage directly goes into Dal Lake and that’s why those areas are more polluted, said Dr. Shakeel Romshoo, an Earth Scientist of Kashmir University.

“Due to the continuous flow of untreated sewage and pollution, the water quality of the lake can degrade but the Dal Lake will never die,” Dr. Romshoo said.

“The water springs inside the Dal and Nigeen lakes ooze freshwater compared to its sources and they help restore the natural health of these lakes.”

Currently, Dr. Romshoo said, the Dal Lake is spread over 24.31 square kilometers which is 50000 kanals of land and it has natural circulations, groundwater sources, surface water sources, inflow and outflow tributaries and abundant springs.

“Other than groundwater which comes from the Zabarwan ranges, Dal Lake’s major surface water source is glaciers from the upper belt of the Dachigam which is around 337 square kilometers and flows through the Dachigam nallah into Harwan, and then to Telbal nallah and finally into the settling basin on the Foreshore Road.”

Maintaining the health of the water body is a necessity because at the end of the day, drinking water comes from Dal Lake itself, Dr. Romshoo said. “It’s treated and then supplied to the Srinagarites.”

To be continued…

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