It is early morning. Kana manoeuvres his boat across the canal towards
what appears to be a traffic jam, half-a-kilometre ahead. Soon his boat, too, becomes a part of the incoming traffic. At the centre of the commotion is the Al Murtaza vegetable market -- a small patch of water where there are more boats than the market can accommodate. With no signals or police wielding AK-47s to direct the traffic, each one helps the other attend to prospective clients. This market opens at 5 am daily. The next three hours are set aside for transacting business and by 8 am the crowd disperses. There are no shops or vegetable carts here. All goods are loaded on to boats and every bit of business is conducted on board.
Ghulam Hussain Moti, 50, a resident of Moti Mohalla, has been selling vegetables in this market all his life. A normal day for him begins at 4 am in the morning. After market hours he goes home for his breakfast. Thereafter, he tends his 0.15 hectare (3 kanal) piece of land and 0.1 hectare (2 kanal) of floating gardens till noon. After lunch and an afternoon nap he goes back to his garden till dusk. Ownership of this part of the Dal goes back "seven generations" but he admits when he inherited it, the area was
mainly water. Moti reclaimed the area and turned it into cultivable land.
Explaining the process, he says: "We pile up layers of weeds and mud at the chosen site. It is a continuous process which takes three to four months. At the end of the period a patch of land is formed." Since the last two years the government has banned further encroachment, says Nazir Hussain, Ghulam Moti's son, "But people still do it on the sly. Such things are done in the wee hours of the morning." Nazir was right. It is not unusual to find boatman ferrying a load of mud in the early
morning hours. Mohiuddin Ghulam was among those engaged in transporting mud to the lake colony. The 60-year-old resident of Sheikh Mohalla says he has been in the business for more than 40 years. He earns between Rs 90 to Rs 110 per boat load but these clandestine 'shipments' are often restricted to a single trip. Asked what the mud was being used for, he says, "Not for making land. It is for floating gardens." In the same vein, he admits the lake had shrunk because "they have carved land out of it".
Though the lake has been inhabited for centuries, residents say the practice became common when militancy took root in the valley. "In the last 10 years alone, 40 hectares (800 kanals) of land has been created on the lake," says Nazir Hussain. "In my village, people made
4.5 hectares (90 kanals) of land," he says.
Among the youngsters in the market was Ghulam Hussain, an 18-year-old student, who had come to stand in for his father. He is part of a 12-member family. They buy vegetables from a zamindar (an agriculturist) at the lake colony and sell it at the market. His
family owns some land and water bought from the previous owners in Kar Pura village. "But it was mostly water then. Now we have land," he says.
He is accompanied by Zulfikar Ali Mohammad Bhutto, his elder by two years. This name, according to him, was given by his mother after the late Pakistani premier. Bhutto has been buying vegetables from the market and selling it in the Hazarat Bal area for more than five years. His family owns land and water in Kalli Mari hamlet on the lake. But before he could elaborate about his property on the lake, Mohammed Abbas interrupted him. Soon Abbas was calling upon fellow vendors to prevent him from speaking. "We do not make land or encroach on other water areas," he said, adding: "Whatever we have owned has been ours for generations." Abbas' obnoxious statement prevented us from touching upon the subject again in the presence of the others. "These people know too well what the government is up to now," said Nazir Kana as he rowed out of the market.
After the three-hour trading activity, some vendors stay back to share their breakfast (of bread and tea) with their counterparts. Meanwhile, butchers begin business and soon others join them. Loud music from plastic-covered speakers blare out their cacophony all over the colony. A pleasant sight is the uniformed children ferrying themselves to nearby schools. Most of them attend government-run schools located in every mohalla. All the three of thirty-five-year-old Mohammad Iqbal's
children also study in these schools. He says the school is a government one, on private land. "The school is a hopeless one, but I cannot afford a better one school on my earnings," he says. In Nazir Hussain's colony, there are two private schools. Two of his children study in one of them. However, the more-affluent lake residents send their children to private schools in the city.
For the residents of the lake, doctors, schools, chemists, shops selling electronic goods, bread and butter -- just about everything -- is just a boat-ride away. During the day, women busy themselves with gardening, mat-weaving or collecting fodder for their livestock, while men work in the vegetable gardens or are
out selling their garden produce. Meanwhile, members of the security forces, in bests and trousers, are seen beginning their day angling.