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Kashmir house boats under threat

Houseboats in Srinagar
The houseboats - renowned for their craftsmanship - are surrounded by the beauty of the mountains

By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar

The high court in Indian-administered Kashmir recently ordered that the famous house boats on Dal and Nagin lakes should be closed because they are causing too much pollution.

The boats are a unique feature and a major attraction for tourists.

But now their owners - whose families have been providing hospitality in them since colonial times - say that the court ruling threatens to force them out of business. They have warned that the boats could become unused relics that are permanently confined to their moorings.

Both Dal and Nagin lakes are well suited to providing hospitality. Both are freshwater and situated in the heart of the Kashmiri summer capital, Srinagar.

Mountains tower above them, providing a stunning backdrop in snow, cloud or sunlight. The boats themselves are noted for their beauty and craftsmanship.

'Heritage'

The president of the house boat owners' association, Azim Tuman, calls them "palaces on water". They are made of seasoned cedar wood and often have exquisite motifs carved onto them.

Houseboat in Srinagar
The houseboats cannot be used until they stop polluting

Mr Tuman says building a typical house boat would cost around $700,000.

An average house boat has a huge drawing room, a dining room and three spacious bedrooms. Each bedroom has a dressing room and a bathroom en suite.

A flight of steps takes you to the deck where tourists sit late into moonlit nights and have breakfast in the morning.

Apart from being such an obvious tourist attraction, the boats are "part of our heritage", says houseboat owner Monzoor Ahmed.

But now a large question mark hangs over their future.

The state's Pollution Control Board (PCB) has warned in a report submitted to the high court that they are polluting the lakes.

The PCB says that raw sewage from the boats is being directly discharged into the water.

The court has responded by directing the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (Lawda) to stop the vessels - and hotels inside the area of the lakes - from operating until they can show that they have established properly-working sewage treatment units.

Raw sewage

There is a widespread concern in the Kashmir valley that Dal lake is fast dying due to pollution.

It's now decades since the state government stopped registering new houseboats on Dal or Nagin lakes.

Today there are about 1,200 boats on the two lakes. The vessels are far outnumbered by residential houses built by people living on the lake itself - known as Dal dwellers.

Tourists haggle with boat-owners in Srinagar (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
Dal Lake is the most popular tourist resort in the region

The superintending engineer of Lawda, AK Kaul, says the population of Dal dwellers is now around 60,000 people. He says that many of them also discharge raw sewage into the lakes, as do other settlements on the shores.

Lawda has set up three sewage treatment plants to address the problem and two more are being built. But raw sewage continues flowing into the lake in many places.

In one area, Jogi Lanker, the water has become so dirty that you need to hold your nose and shut your eyes before you go anywhere near it.

The government has proposed to shift Dal dwellers to a huge housing colony which it says is being built exclusively for them - but the project is decades behind schedule and there is no sign of it even beginning to be implemented.

The houseboat owners agree that saving Dal lake is a priority requiring urgent measures. But they say their businesses must not be allowed to disappear in the process.

Micro-tunnelling

The president of the Kashmir Chambers of Industry and Commerce, Mubin Shah, agrees with them.

Houseboats in Srinagar
Its argued that Srinagar's two main lakes are being poisoned

He argues that houseboat owners have already been hit hard by the failure of tourism over the last two decades because of Kashmir's insurgency and they cannot afford to install sewage treatment units which can cost anything between $5,000 to $10,000.

The responsibility for installing sewage treatment for the lakes and for the rest of Srinagar should belong to the government, he argues.

Twenty years ago, the British Overseas Development Agency launched an ambitious project - involving micro-tunnelling - to ease pollution in Dal lake and the rest of Srinagar.

But at exactly the same time, the armed uprising began in Kashmir and the British engineers fled.

The project could not be revived after that and the current state government lacks the resources.

It is widely believed today in Kashmir that a sizeable portion of the money that poured in for the Save Dal project over the years has gone into the pockets of corrupt officials, engineers and, of course, politicians.

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