Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dal Lake and its Houseboats

Sajjad finds an intricate tie-in between the future of the Dal Lake and the houseboat industry. Without a paradign shift both are doomed

(Mr. Sajjad Bazaz, 45, was born in Srinagar. He attended the Khalsa high school and the Sri Pratap College in Srinagar. He received his bachelor's degree in Media and his master's degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir. Mr. Bazaz has over two decades of experience in journalism (both print & electronic), and he is author of the book "Bankwatch" which is about a financial scenario with particular reference to the J&K state. He is currently incharge of corporate communications department in a leaduing financial instution in J&K. Mr. Bazaz likes to spend leisure time watching movies and enjoying company of his friends.)

Realigning Houseboats

Environmental issues marring the natural beauty of Kashmir have always remained a concern mainly from tourism point of view. High on the agenda is to fight out the pollution in Dal Lake, which has endangered the life of the lake. When we talk of pollution in Dal Lake, we cannot ignore the presence of houseboats, which have primarily harmed the lake, and this 150-year-old tradition is facing extinction today.

The Dal Lake is burdened with over 60 hamlets with a population of almost 70,000, many floating vegetable gardens, several hotels, guesthouses and lodges besides houseboats. Despite years of disturbances in Kashmir, tourists have still flocked to Dal Lake to stay in houseboats. But while it may appear idyllic, the volume of waste generated by this tourist heaven has turned the lake into a latrine. Millions of litres of raw sewerage are pumped into the lake every day. Many scientific studies have found that the untreated sewerage and other chemicals in the water together act as a super-fertiliser promoting the growth of ferns, duckweed and green and red algae. This in turn is killing other aquatic life in the lake.

The expanding pollution of the Lake has put the existence of houseboats, the flag bearer of Kashmiri tourism, at stake. At the moment, the thunderclouds are hovering over the houseboats. The blame is on the primary stakeholders - houseboat owners - who have never taken care of the Lake, which nourished them. They threatened its existence by polluting it, as they never cared about the waste management. So, it’s their own future which is at stake.

If we analyse the situation of the houseboat industry, there is every reason to believe that the industry is dying with the passage of time. And the environmental issue confronting the existence of houseboats is just adding pace to its extinction phase. The gloomy faces of the current generation running this industry indicate that they have already lost interest in the trade. They see ‘no future’ in the trade, as their activity is not having an industry status.

Notably, while giving recommendations to aggressively reposition itself as a tourist destination riding on the back of the economic buoyancy around the world and in India, the Rangarajan Report in 2006 had recommended to accelerate renovation and new constructions of house boats, hotels and shikaras, as a additional sum of Rs.30 crore may be allocated for immediate disbursement as soft loans with an appropriate monitoring mechanism.

But, today, a houseboat owner cannot even think to renovate his houseboat, as the permission is not granted in a hassle free manner. Since there is no dockyard facility, the renovation has to be carried out in Chinar Bagh area. To reach there, the Dal gate crossing needs permission, which is hardly granted. Another factor is that the life span of houseboats too has drastically gone down. In fresh waters, its life span is about 60 years. But in the current polluted water body, the life span, as the experts have put it, is hardly 40 years. Most of the 1,200 houseboats floating on the waters of Dal and Nigeen Lakes have completed their shelf life and could be put out of action for want of repairs.

Construction of new houseboat is economically unviable and has been stopped long back because of the unavailability of the rare cedar wood and lack of expert carpenters. Its construction would cost over Rs.1.00 crore. It is not only the cost factor that deters boatmen, the special cedar trees, which grow only at altitudes of 7000 feet in the forests of northwestern Kashmir, are fast depleting because of massive deforestation. A look at the past reveals that in 1980s Kashmiris used to export 3000 logs of cedar without realizing that they were seriously depleting a treasure which wasn't being renewed.

In the current market scenario, for a simple houseboat, 300cft cedar wood is required, which means around Rs.15 lakhs of investment. The labour involved in its construction further requires around Rs.10 to 12 lakhs. In addition to this, interior fittings/decorations involve a cost of another Rs.10 lakhs and total financial involvement in construction of a houseboat comes to over a crore of rupees. In the uncertain tourist inflow, the investment of around Rs. one crore in a houseboat construction would be unwise decision.

Under the circumstances, the focus should be to protect the existing houseboats. The death of the houseboats would have a devastating effect on our tourism industry. The houseboats are the heart of this industry. If they stop operations, the tourist trade will die its own death.

Plans should be devised to allow entry of tourists in to the Dal Lake in an organized manner and their stay in houseboats should be brought under time limit. Exploring new tourist destinations in the State, particularly the Valley is ok, but there is also need to put a coordinated effort to preserve heritage sites and promote them as tourist destinations. We have a huge potential to promote heritage tourism. An amalgamation of Buddhist monasteries and paintings of Ladakh, palaces and temples of Jammu, mountains and Sufi shrines of Kashmir, with each one having a distinct architecture, the state is rich in this respect. Ironically, nothing much has happened on this front, as preservation of this heritage is at stake. Many studies have suggested to exploit the state’s rich cultural heritage along with modern allurements in the shape of shopping, food courts, multiplexes and music festivals at such places.

This will take some pressure off from the Dal Lake, as tourist would get engaged in exploring these destinations.

As far as preserving heritage sites and promoting them as tourist destinations is concerned, there is dire need to increase spending and also have a well integrated marketing effort to reach to the world and tourist populace. The promotional effort should entirely focus on intimating and alluring them about culture, beauty and riches of the state, particularly Kashmir through all seasons. Efforts should be to carve out means and ways so that tourists prolong their stay in the valley.

Meanwhile, to combat extensive pollution and encroachments and to improve aesthetic beauty and extend expanse of the framed water body, the realignment of houseboats in the Dal lake is a welcome move. Notably, in March 2009, J&K High Court while taking serious note of the deterioration of water bodies, including the Dal Lake had asked houseboat owners to suspend their operations until they make some alternative arrangement to their waste disposal. If seriously pursued, this proposed realignment of houseboats would, of course, increase water expanse of the Dal. However the scientific disposal of sewage in a cost effective manner holds the key in improving its aesthetic beauty.

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