Floating palaces could sink into history

Ornate houseboats on the banks of Dal Lake in Kashmir are in jeopardy as guests are barred because of concerns over pollution.

The head waiter Tahmeed tends to the drawing room aboard Katharine.
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Srinagar, India // The ornate wooden houseboats of Dal Lake, icons of Kashmir's once thriving tourism industry, may soon exist only on postcards. Almost all of the 1,200 houseboats, originally built during the British Raj as summer residences for its officials, sit empty on the lake's placid, jade-hued waters, amid the lotus fields and floating gardens, as their owners have been barred by the Lake and Waterways Development Authority (Lawda) from entertaining guests.

Lawda, the government agency responsible for controlling pollution in Kashmir's Dal and Nagin lakes, ordered all houseboat owners to stop operation or face forced closings after the High Court, on Feb 26, barred people from operating houseboats and hotels on the lake. The court order came after a pollution control board report, which found that sewage from the boats is a major source of pollution.

The campaign is part of the region's concerted effort to revitalise Kashmir after 19 years of violence. However, the order comes at the worst possible time for Kashmir's ailing tourism industry, as spring is traditionally the time of year when holiday makers from across India and the world visit the state. Muhammad Azim Tuman, the chairman of the Houseboat Owners Association, said the High Court has, ironically, hampered efforts to revitalise the region by shutting down the famous houseboats.

"Most tourists visiting the valley succumb to the temptation of these floating palaces, but as the word has gone out about the court asking for their closure, bookings are being cancelled," he said. "We're getting disturbing reports particularly from Mumbai that even after the local tour operators have publicised 30 to 35 per cent cuts in the tariff, they hardly find any takers." But the rampant pollution of Dal Lake, like that of others in the valley, had already begun to kill the romance of the resplendent houseboats.

Mr Tuman said the official studies carried out in the past have found that houseboats are responsible only for three per cent of pollution in Dal Lake. Environmentalists have also said that it is the refuse dumped by the city over the past few decades that is killing the lake. Also, both Dal and Nagin lakes face encroachment, in the form of floating gardens sprouting from islands inside the lake.

Mr Tuman said it did not make sense to blame the houseboats for the lake's demise, as other lakes in Anchar, Wullar and Manasbal were also suffering from pollution but did not host any houseboats. "We'll fight this court order," he said. The court hearing the case on April 4 may allow the houseboat owners a three-month grace period to operate and come up with a way to counter the effects of the pollution.

The court order exempts those who find alternatives to dumping refuse into the lake. Lawda has, on an experimental basis, said it will install a few mini-sewage treatment units on boats. The move might be too little too late, however. Four models of mini-sewage treatment units have been shortlisted for the trial after a two-year search, but "it will take them at least 90 days to decide which one is really useful", Mr Tuman said, adding that by that time, the peak tourist season will already be over.

He also pointed out that the houseboat owners who have been in the red ever since the breakout of violence in Kashmir may find the recommended units expensive. Lawda has also issued notices to hotels and guesthouses asking them to stop operations until they are able to show that they have established properly working sewage treatment units. Mr Tuman plans to travel to New Delhi to seek help from the leader of India's ruling United Progressive Alliance, Sonia Gandhi. "I've been told that the state government may not be helpful as it is known to be going through a financial crunch and that it is Mrs Gandhi who can save us from further impairment."