How the turbulent lives of Dal dwellers are a contrast to the lake’s tranquility

The farmers living on the water in Srinagar are a vilified community despite contributing to Kashmir’s food and tourism industry, writes Priti Salian

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On a freezing January morning in Srinagar, Gulam Rasool Akhoon is a bit worried about the inclement weather as he slowly sips his saffron-laced kahwa tea.

The chillai kalan, the coldest 40-day period of the winter in Jammu and Kashmir, has been particularly harsh this year, and he may have to halt his work for a while. With that thought, he pulls himself together, puts on layers of clothing, offers his morning prayers and steps out of his 19th-century home on Dal Lake.

The fierce winds and a temperature of minus 10°C do not deter him; at 62, he feels fit to brave the weather. When the sun begins to show up behind the mountains at 7.30am, Akhoon pulls his deodar wood shikara boat on to the freezing waters of Dal, Srinagar's biggest tourist attraction. Loaded with the previous day's produce of radishes, carrots, turnips, four types of saag and the Kashmiri delicacy nadru (lotus stem), Akhoon rows away to the floating vegetable market minutes from his Nandpura village residence.

The farmers and their families have been living on the houseboats on Dal Lake since the 19th century. Priti Salian for The National

Dal Lake's 225-year-old floating vegetable market comes alive with a burst of colour every morning, when shikaras loaded with fruit and vegetables come together to do business. Lake-dwelling farmers called demb Hanjis such as Akhoon cultivate produce on their privately owned floating vegetable gardens, known as raadhs, and sell it every morning to vendors who take it to markets across Srinagar and the rest of Kashmir.

In the summer, transactions within the market begin at 4.30am and within an hour or so, money has exchanged hands and the demb Hanjis row their empty shikaras home, seated precariously on one end. It is thought that Dal Lake farmers supply 40 per cent of fruits and vegetables to local and regional markets.

Their lives, however, are as turbulent as the lake is tranquil. Since the 1980s, when an environmental movement started to conserve the shrinking Dal Lake, its dwellers have been held responsible for its degradation and pollution.

According to the 2011 census, the lake and its periphery are home to about 135,000 Hanjis, a minority community. "The Hanji population has grown rapidly and there must be about 80,000 within the lake now," says MRD Kundangar, a hydrobiologist from Srinagar, and founder and former director of the research and development department of Jammu and Kashmir's Lakes and Waterways Development Authority. The organisation was created as an autonomous body by the state government in 1997 to manage and conserve the city's water bodies.

Hanjis live in 58 hamlets on the lake and are involved, apart from farming, in fishing and houseboat tourism. Some sources call them the original inhabitants of Kashmir, while others say they came from Sri Lanka. Akhoon, who is the general secretary of the Dal Dwellers Welfare Union, says that his extended family of now 132 members has been living on the lake for the past 316 years, and that his ancestral home, constructed 149 years ago, still survives.

The community is often blamed for polluting the waters with domestic chores and synthetic fertilizers to grow their produce. Priti Salian for The National

Agriculture being their primary profession, the family cultivates 19 types of vegetable and fruit on two acres of land. During the summer, Akhoon takes tourists trekking and kayaking and, until a few years ago, he also ran a handicrafts shop on the lake.

"The Hanji farmers are critical to Srinagar's economy," says Ajaz Rasool, an erstwhile hydraulic engineer and environmental activist in Srinagar. Not only do they cater to a large portion of the Valley's vegetable and fruit needs, but their produce is also available during Srinagar's innumerable curfews and closures, since the lake's waterways are always open and the farmers never stop servicing the market. The only exception, Akhoon says, was for a period of 21 months after the 2014 floods, which drowned Srinagar for three weeks.

“The prices of vegetables dropped drastically during the lockdown last year, but we were out in the market every day,” Akhoon says. This has also made farming sustainable for members of this community, who draw their livelihoods from the lake in several ways.

Surveys have found that some Hanjis have illegal dwellings on the lake, but most own portions of land on the lake formalised through the Land Settlement Act of the 1880s. For years, the land owned on the lake could be sold and purchased, until a moratorium was issued on such transactions. Since 1986, the state has made construction within the lake illegal. Even after the 2014 floods, the lake-dwellers were not permitted to carry out any reconstruction of their damaged property.

The shrinking of the lake's water expanse from 25 square kilometres to 12 square kilometres has been attributed to the Hanjis' encroachment and activities. They have been blamed for converting their raadhs into small islands. "They often do this by planting willow trees on the raadh's periphery and topping it up with lake sediment, thus extending the land mass of the lake," Rasool says.

The raadh is fed with aquatic weeds from the lake, which become the minerals and nutrients for the crops. Kundangar explains that the constant extraction of these weeds not only helps to maintain the lake's aesthetics, but has also reduced cases of fish getting entangled in them. Boating also becomes easier when the density of weeds plummets. But this contribution of the Hanjis to the lake is marred by the fact that some of them have begun using synthetic fertilisers, which leach into the water.

Over the years, along with the houseboat Hanjis, who have been condemned for polluting the lake with sewage, the demb Hanjis have been seen as one of the biggest disruptors to the lake's ecology and are in the eye of the storm. However, a study published in the International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research in 2017 reveals that Srinagar's 15 major drains that "empty into the lake bring along 18.2 tonnes of phosphorous and 25 tonnes of inorganic nitrogen nutrients", and are, in fact, the biggest polluters.

“The Hanjis residing in the hamlets and the 750 houseboat Hanjis stand second and third in their contribution to the lake’s pollution,” Rasool says.

Hundreds of such families have been relocated from the lake over the years, but they are not satisfied with the government’s compensation package and do not find the vocational schemes viable. One conspicuous initiative is the Rakh-e-Arth rehabilitation colony, built in Srinagar in 2007, which has been riddled with problems owing to poor planning.

Anthropologists Mona Bhan and Nishita Trisal in their 2016 essay in the journal Critique of Anthropology note that it is the Hanjis' caste, race and occupational inferiority that has framed a large part of the public discourse around their eviction. They are seen as distinct from other Kashmiris. Bhan and Trisal write how several environmentalists have called the Hanjis "less respectable, quarrelsome and even immoral", frame them "as the bearers of filth and disorder", and have blamed their "vile and scheming" character as the thing that has "ruined and contaminated the lake's pristine waters".

Experts agree that Hanjis are the backbone of the tourism industry in Srinagar, which is key to Jammu and Kashmir's economy, accounting for 7 per cent of the state's GDP.

However, "the lake's carrying capacity is limited", says Kundangar. Even though the Hanjis have a right to live on it, their rapidly increasing population has made their survival unsustainable. But with no alternative livelihoods within government schemes, the Hanjis – particularly those of an older generation with little education and skills limited to activities on the lake – find it difficult to fit into other jobs.

As with many other indigenous communities around the world, the Hanjis may have no choice but to adapt and fend for themselves in the months and years to come.