Call them the "lakers". Some 10,000 of them. Parts of the Dal (land and water) belong to them. And when they feel the need to make a floating garden or land on the lake, they simply do it. Especially since the militancy problem in the Valley began, there has been no stopping them -- neither the government nor the weeds that get entangled in the oars. What they haven't realised is that their "age-old" practices are now killing the goose that lays the golden eggs
The lake colony
If you have been won over by these lines in the tourism brochure, Srinagar should top your list of places to visit. If you are in Srinagar, you will hire a shikara (boat) to take in the beauty of the lake and the majestic mountains surrounding it. The road on your right, called the Boulevard -- Srinagar's most exciting address -- supplies you with booming bhangra-rock from Marutis and sirens from ugly-looking Maruti Gypsy-turned-armoured cars. There are rows of houseboats on your left. Your shikara man wants to take you to Nehru Park, a government-created island in the lake. Resist him. Turn left, go between H B Michael Jackson and H B Layla Majnu (H B for houseboat). Enter the 'Lake Colony', and you will witness the stuff tourism brochures are not made up of.
The wide expanse of the Dal suddenly narrows into a dirty canal, flanked by a profusion of weeds and bushes. Even before the boat has proceeded 500 metres, you forget that the waterway is just a part of the once majestic Dal. From here begin the slums and ghettos that exist on the lake -- some 58 of them according to a 1986 survey conducted by the Urban Environment Engineering Department. At that time, the authorities had put the population figure at 50,000, mostly Shia Muslims. Rough estimates today, however, put the figure at around 100,000.
Lanes and bylanes consisting of water. Boats for transport. Quaint houses of wood, some of them concrete. The resemblance to Venice ends here. In the lake, the water is choked by weeds, called hill by the local populace, which also gives the water its dark green colour. The weeds float to the surface of the water, making it difficult to row at times. However, not all is floating vegetation on the lake. Garbage, too, finds its way to the Dal. Among the debris floating on the water you can identify plastics, rotting vegetables and a variety of refuse.
The land on either side of the canals is either used for cultivation or for houses and shops, many of which sell Kashmiri handicrafts. But the most prominently displayed billboard on this waterway is that of the Ali Ashgar Blood Bank. Another board is that of a doctor, presumably in great demand in the colony. As Nazir Ahmed, a resident of Moti Mohalla village on the lake, says: "My wife is suffering from jaundice because of the lake water." The government provides drinking water to the hamlets but, he says, a lot of people, especially women, suffer from a host of illnesses because their work (agriculture and housework) exposes them to the lake water. Most of the tourists who visit this part of the lake are foreigners, says Nazir Ahmed Kana, a guide and owner of Badami houseboat, which overlooks the Boulevard. When asked why foreigners are permitted a close-up of the seamier side of the Dal, "To show them how crazy we are," is Kana's instant response.
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.
The Dal waters may not be crystal clear -- a boatride along the lanes and bylanes of fetid water may make you want to take the shortcut to the mainland -- but if you are in the middle of lotus plantations, you will instantly forget this ugly side. Acres of lotuses in full bloom are unique to the Dal wetlands, not just because they present a perfect picture but because of their importance to the lake residents. Once a year, the lotus is harvested for its stems (called nadru) which are eaten all year round. "Foreigners love to come to these plantations on moonlit nights and spend long hours here," says Nazir Kana.
Another thing that strikes the visitor during a ride across the Dal lanes is the floating gardens, known as raad in the local dialect. The whole aspect of vegetable cultivation is of great importance to the lake dwellers. Nobody knows how this indigenous method of cultivation originated. All they can say is that the system has existed for generations. Nazir Hussain outlines the details of the laborious process which finally ends in the formation of a floating garden.
Once the site for a raad is identified, a weed called piyach (local name) is introduced into the area. The local people make sure that the raad is not more than 6 feet in width. There are, however, no constraints on its length. In 2-3 years, the stems of the weeds reach the lake bed, which is around five to six feet deep, and penetrate a further two to three feet into the lake bed. Then the operation to raise the floating garden begins. A raad liven, that looks like a gigantic pincer consisting of two planks -- each three feet in width -- is lowered by two people in two boats into the soft sediment of the lake bed. A two feet thick slab of soil, held together by the weeds, is manually severed from the bottom of the lake with the help of the planks which are fitted with steel edges. The planks then float to the surface bearing a portion of the lake bed with them. More soil is added to the surface of the raad. The weed decomposes to become a natural fertiliser for the vegetables to be grown. A floating garden is thus born (see diagram: The making of a floating garden).
Though lake residents have been practicing this ingenious form of cultivation for centuries, it has become a regular feature only since the militancy problem peaked in the valley. Most of the residents, who depend on tourism, have been forced to take up agriculture to meet their daily needs, says Mohammed Iqbal, who sells zafran
(saffron) in his spare time to supplement earnings for his five-member
family. And, today, cultivation on the lake -- vegetables or lotus farming -- is their only source of income. Even if given a choice of a home and job on the mainland, many of them will turn the offer down.
Says Nazir Hussain, "Instead of rehabilitating us, the government should make conditions on the lake better... may be construct roads and keep canals clean." While the government has labelled the floating gardens and land on the lake as "encroachments", it is difficult to guess the reasoning behind why lake residents have been provided with electricity, water and some with phone connections. "If the government prohibits cultivation on the lake, I will be forced to steal for a living," says Moiuddin Aslam, a resident of Sheikh Mohalla and father of six children.
There are numerous ways to get to the lake colony. But there is no way to avoid getting the weeds entangled with the oars. The weeds are something the people have learnt to live with, and have also found a couple of uses for them, such as fertilisers. They complain of ministers and authorities visiting the lake with cleanup plans, which were never followed up. Today, the government has employed a few people to remove the weeds manually, but it has not helped in solving the problem "because they do not remove the weeds from the root. Only those on the surface are cleared," says Nazir Kana.
To know what the weed problem actually is, take another route to the lake colony. From the Badami houseboat (opposite the Boulevard), take a right turn. Then the first left. Go straight ahead into the waterway. Filth and more filth confronts you. As you move along the canal, the Dal is but a cesspool of weeds and sewage-ridden stagnant water. Houses on the isles are dilapidated and damp and vegetable gardens bear an unattended look. This part of the Dal is unusually quiet even at noon.
The first landmark is a bridge which connects a road across the Dal. According to Nazir Kana, this bridge was blown up during the height of militant activity in the state. Down the road, there is a papier mache shop, which looks like it has been forsaken by its clients. Ghulam Ahmed is one of the five owners of the shop which was established in 1976. "Sales have plummeted because the army does not allow tourists to enter the interiors of the lake. We have to post agents in the Boulevard to get in some tourists," he says. And why would tourists wish to take a ride on the filthy waters to reach his shop? Has any attempt been made to clean the muck? "The area has always been like this. Ministers were approached but no one has done anything," he says. Residents of the lake liken the weed problem to militancy. Says Nazir Kana, "A strong political will is required to get rid of both." One can't help but wonder that if only the water was devoid of weeds and muck, even the lanes and bylanes of the lake would have earned substantial revenue for the state as well as the lake people.
Past the papier mache shop is the Abi Nau Pora fishing colony. At 53, Mohammed Jamal is one of the seniors of the colony inhabited by 20-odd families. Jamal blames the lack of rains this season for the stagnant waters. And the filth, he says, is because of the hotels that have sprung up inside and on the lake shores. "They throw all their sewage into the water," he says. It is not just Jamal who believes that the lake people are not responsible for the squalor. Most of the lake residents spoken to blamed hotels and houseboats owners (considered the affluent among people living on the lakes). Also, city sewage finds its way into the lake. As for people living inside the lake, a garbage collector collects their domestic waste everyday. The sewage, meanwhile, is emptied directly into the water or in agricultural lands where it is used as manure in due course, says Nazir Ahmed.
Mohammed Jamal's fish catch ranges between 4-10 kg per day. He says his fish catch has decreased over the years, "because there are more fisherfolk now than it was a decade or so ago, not due to pollution of the lake."
But, be it population pressure or pollution, the Dal is slowly dying. Gone are the days of moonlit evenings with the Dal nestling in the lap of the mountains. Politicians and bureaucrats seem to have woken up to the gradual destruction of the lake but their efforts are way below what is needed. They are yet to understand the enormity of the problem. The people, meanwhile, believe the Dal cannot be restored. "A lot of money for the cleanup has come over the years, but hardly anything has been spent to clean the lake," says Ghulam Ahmed. "People have made mistakes but the government should have acted at that time," says Nazir Kana. "Why are they calling it encroachments when they have provided the encroachers with electricty, phone lines, ration shops and other basic amenities?" he adds. The Dal is indeed "bezubaan" (mute). Tourism brochures continue to display all that can bring in tourists and the people living on the lake continue to live off it. Nazir Kana doesn't shy away from saying what he is doing to the lake: "The Dal is speechless, it can't speak. I can do what suits me." That is exactly what he and the fellow "lakers" are doing".
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