Of shikaras and slums

  • 14/09/1999

The people of Kashmir have only the Dal to offer to tourists. Brochures are full of life on the Dal lake. Pictures of houseboats used to attract hordes of tourists to the Dal year after year. The Dal was virtually the economic lifeline of Kashmir. One of the large lakes of India, today it supports 50,000-odd people whose lives are inextricably linked with the lake. If the lake lives, so do they. If the lake dies, which it will in 20 to 30 years, so will they. Unfortunately, they are killing the lake. It is being choked by weeds, floating farms and bled dry to feed a hungry populace.

The lake colony is the only slum on water in Srinagar. Unlike other cities in India, there are no slums on land. Also, unlike other cities, where people encroach on land, here they encroach on water. The dwellings on the lake and on the periphery are labelled "encroachments'. But this does not deter the government from giving the people phones, electricity and water connections. Even government schools and security forces bunkers are seen on the lake.

Ten years ago, the Dal lake was caught in the crossfire of the proxy war Pakistan is waging against India by aiding and abetting terrorism in Kashmir. Militancy has kept the tourists away and has brought in its wake a host of accompanying problems. As a result the lake is shrinking. According to ancient manuscripts, the lake area was 75 square kilometres in 1200 AD. This had been reduced to 10.56 sq km in 1983. The National Lake Conservation Plan, drawn up by the ministry of environment and forests, includes 21 lake systems all over India. It was during Saifuddin Soz's tenure as environment minister that the plan was drawn up. There were allegations that most of the money were pumped into the Dal lake. But it has made no visible impact.

There are several reasons for this. The people living on the Dal were dependent on tourism for their livelihood till 1989. When the problem of militancy began in the Valley, incomes from tourism declined drastically and people were forced to look for other avenues of employment. Many houseboat owners