Houseboat owners struggle to stay afloat in Srinagar’s Dal Lake

For two years, the Dal Lake has laid silent, bereft of its tourists that graced its glistening waters

Houseboat - Dal Lake
One lockdown after another hit the tourism business severely, more so for its houseboat owners | Photo: By author

The iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar was a star attraction in the days of yore. But today, it silently decays under the deadweight of its crumbling houseboats and the declining tourism industry.

For two years, the Dal Lake has laid silent, bereft of its tourists that graced its glistening waters. Yellow-topped shikaras dotting the lake as the visitors took the perfunctory ride. But one lockdown after another hit the tourism business severely, more so for its houseboat owners, who struggle to stay afloat through these tumultuous times.

Silent waters

Hilal Ahmad Guroo, 40, is the fifth generation owner of his houseboat, Balmoral Castle, moored at Ghat Number 7 in the picturesque Dal Lake. He knows no other business than running his houseboat and has always managed to weather the storm that comes with Jammu & Kashmir’s volatility. But back-to-back lockdowns since August 5, 2019, when the Indian government revoked the erstwhile state’s special status, his life came to a standstill.

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Houseboat - Dal Lake
The high court ban on repair and construction on Dal Lake has made things even more complicated | Photo: By author

“Before they removed the Article (370), tourists were asked to leave Kashmir immediately citing security reasons. Since then, people are scared to come to Kashmir. The second lockdown for coronavirus doubled the impact and our business was completely down.”

When asked how he managed his expenses during this period, Hilal said, “I had no source of income so I borrowed ₹2.5 lakhs from friends. When the pandemic lockdown restrictions were slightly lifted, I started going to villages to sell Kashmiri shawls and bedsheets. But the sales were very low and people barely bought these items. I could only make ₹200-300 per day and the expense was at least ₹1,000 per day. It was not enough to run my house.”

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During this time, Hilal’s family struggled to make their ends meet. “In peak season, we were able to earn up to ₹4,000 a day. But now, I even accept bookings for as low as ₹700 a day,” he says.

The lockdown not only affected the family’s finances but also the education of their children who could barely attend online classes due to low-speed internet services. But when the schools reopened on March 15 after staying closed for more than 1.5 years, the joy of their parents was only short-lived.

Over the period of two years, more than ₹40,000 has accumulated in unpaid fees for each of their kids –  Md Muneeb Guroo, 9, Humera Hilal Guroo, 13, and Furqan Ahmed Guroo, 6 – that the family struggles to pay. Shehzada Guroo, 37, recalls how nine-year-old Muneeb was made to stand outside the classroom for 3 hours on the first day of school and eventually sent back home due to non-payment of fees.

“The administration of Woodlands House School, Srinagar, called his father, Hilal, to tell him not to send Muneeb to school until his fees are paid. But his father told them to keep the child in the classroom and not humiliate him. He said he will pay something in the next two-three days. We borrowed ₹6,000 and made a partial payment. But it (almost a lakh) is such a huge amount for all our kids. We are worried sick. We don’t know what to do,” reveals Shehzada.

“They didn’t even collect Muneeb’s exam papers that he took from home after the article (370) was removed. Even after I told them about our financial situation, they didn’t listen to me and refused. I begged, ‘do you want me to kill myself and my children?’ They said, ‘do whatever you want but clear the fees’.”

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Shareefa Arshid, academic supervisor at Woodlands House School – Boy’s Wing, has denied the allegation and claims that they have never made any student stand outside the classroom due to non-payment of fees.

According to school administrator Shaista Shawl, at least 60 per cent of the students have not paid their fees for the last one and half or two years. “We are not making anyone stand outside the class. We don’t do that. When we know the situation, why would we do something like that?”

Asked about the tuition fee, considering the schools were closed and the classes were not conducted for the time internet services were down, Shawl claims that they charged the fees for the duration and every school has done that. “We provided the concession to parents as per government guidelines. We have also offered payment facilities such as instalment options, RazorPay, online payment, to help them pay the fees because we know the situation here.”

Collapsing boats and tourism

Even with the collapsing tourism business and low tourist footfall, the financial turmoil is the least of the problems for houseboat owners. The other challenge is to keep their boats afloat, literally.

Houseboat - Dal Lake
The financial turmoil is the least of the problems for houseboat owners. The other challenge is to keep their boats afloat, literally | Photo: By author

Young Ambassador, a decaying houseboat is over 40 years old, and in need for serious repair. But with lack of tourism and loss of income, the houseboat’s owner Feroze Din Shangloo says he cannot afford to maintain it.

“The last we repaired it was more than two years ago. Since then, the situation in Kashmir has been such that we barely have any business. During the (tourist) season, we used to earn about ₹1,000-1,200 per day. But nowadays, I give rooms for less than ₹600 per day. Repairs can cost up to ₹50,000. Only when customers come can I make some money and pay for repairs.”

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He talks about the incident and thanks his luck that they saw the boat sinking before any harm was done.

“When we woke up for the morning prayers at 3 AM, we noticed that the boat was partially submerged in water. Since it is old, we often check twice or thrice during the night to ensure everything is fine. We immediately woke up the guests and brought them back to safety. They were moved to another houseboat.”

The family watched their single source of livelihood at least three feet under water, their fate hanging by the balance.

“My boat is small, not like the big ones that could fetch us a lot of money. But now, even that is gone,” says Shangloo, woefully.

Repair restrictions

Houseboat - Dal Lake
Owners need to procure an NOC from several government agencies before they can repair their houseboats | Photo: By author

The high court ban on repair and construction on Dal Lake has made things even more complicated for the already-struggling houseboat owners. The new guidelines updated on April 8, 2020 suggests that owners would have to procure a no objection certificate from several government agencies before they can repair their houseboats.

Tariq Ahmed Patloo, a campaigner for ‘Dal Lake Mission’ and a houseboat owner, explains that the houseboat industry has suffered immensely since the abrogation of Article 370 and the nationwide lockdown following the pandemic.

“This year, tourists started coming to Kashmir in January due to restrictions on traveling abroad. But there are fewer people staying on Dal Lake or the houseboats because they all want something luxurious or special. All big hotels are sold out. And the government does not allow us to upgrade or modify our houseboats, making them less desirable for tourists. I wish to make my boat better, more comfortable. But I don’t have permission to do it.”

According to Feroz Ahmed Mir, Executive Engineer, Lake Division First, LAWDA, “structures inside Dal Lake and within 200m of the lake’s periphery must take permission from the High Court for repair or reconstruction of houseboats. We are only following the orders. If they bring the permission, we have no problem in allowing repairs, but construction is not allowed.”

A ray of hope

Even though it may appear so, not all is lost for the lake and its inhabitants. The current surge in tourist footfall is the first ray of hope for an otherwise flailing hospitality industry. According to the J&K Tourism Department, Kashmir is receiving at least a 1,000 tourists everyday arriving by air. More than 22,000 tourists have already visited Kashmir in February alone.

The uptick in tourist arrivals shows a promising trend. From almost 200 visitors in July, the Valley saw 13,000 in December 2020. The trends also show that the tourists are not just spending on budget stays, but also on luxury properties.

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“JK Tourism has made steady efforts to draw tourists back into the valley. We conducted outreach programs in various parts of the country. We also conducted webinars with travel operators from Maharashtra and Gujarat to encourage tourism. In addition to that, several events, such as Mountaineering Day, World Tourism Day, and Pahalgam Festival, have also helped attract some attention,” shares Ahsan Chisti, Deputy Director, publicity wing of J&K Tourism.

“We are expecting a healthy footfall this year. The tourism department is exercising all COVID-related precautions as directed by the government to make the trip safe and enjoyable for tourists. We are also conducting a Tulip Festival on April 3 and 4, complete with cultural activities,” says Chisti.

The Tulip Gardens were thrown open to tourists on March 25 and is expected to be a major draw that will help these business owners recover from their losses.

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