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A lake endangered


The Hanjis are perhaps the most visible, yet invisible, face of Kashmir. Today their centuries-old culture is being threatened.

FACE OF THE STATE: A community fighting to preserve its identity. PHOTO: LUV PURI

"I WILL continue to live on water till I die," says Mohammad Altaf (65). Even as the authorities step up their efforts to rehabilitate the people living on the world-famous Dal Lake by giving them free plots of land, the elders of the Hanji community assert they will live only on the water. The community is fighting the most difficult battle of its history — to save its identity.

The Hanjis are one of the most important features of state's life — a section of people living in boats on and around the lakes, streams and rivers. They are also found on the Wular and Anchar Lakes and the Jhelum.

Maximum stake

The shrinking of the Dal Lake — from 20 miles to approximately 12 sq km — in the last half-century has been a cause of concern. While this has attracted much attention, not much has been heard about this unique community, which has the maximum stake in saving the lake. Many blamed the Hanjis for polluting the lake and also held it directly responsible for the shrinking lake area. The State Government worked out a rehabilitation plan, which is expected to help save the lake too. Of the 6,000 families living on the Dal, 1,200 have already been shifted and more are to follow though they want to continue with their business like renting houseboats or plying the shikara (tourist boats).

But, for the proud Hanji community, the displacement from their centuries-old habitat is only the beginning of their troubles. Haji Tantray, who owns two houseboats, says, "We have lived on the Dal for centuries. Our life revolves around water. Also do not forget it is we who have made the lake colourful by infusing life into it."

In the interiors of the Dal, a complete culture lives and thrives on the famous water body. There are large-sized houseboats for family functions. There is economic self-sufficiency. For instance, at Karpura, an interior pocket, there are floating vegetable gardens, which feed not only the entire Hanji community but also the cities since excess produce is sold. The people who grow vegetables, collect water-nuts, collect wood from water bodies are the much-noticed shikara owners. Many consumer goods can also be bought from the "floating bazaars". Thus, to a large extent, life on the Dal is self-sustaining.

However, the Hanjis are held to be responsible for the current state of the Lake as they are alleged to pollute the water body in the absence of a proper sewage system. They are also blamed for the shrinking lake area as they convert the water body into agriculture land or even construct dwellings along the banks by encroaching into the Lake area.

The community is quick to dispute these allegations. "We have lived on the lake for centuries and never faced this kind of situation before. Do not blame us for the messy situation. Catch the big sharks. We may move out but the problem will still remain as hard facts have to be faced," says Zahoor, a shikara owner, pointing to the posh hotels around the Dal on the famous Boulevard.

Post-1989, the houseboats have recorded lowest occupancy levels whereas the hotels around the Dal are full. the outbreak of turmoil in the state, most of the hotels were taken on rent by the Estates department to house government employees as the area was considered risk free.

The State Government's proposal for a proper sewage system by providing septic tanks to toilets of the houseboats failed, as there was no institutional back up from the authorities. The system was discontinued because of repeated leaks from the tanks. This increased pollution in the water body by raising the phosphoric content in the lake, thereby encouraging weed growth. In recent years, concrete structures to sell handicrafts or textiles have been built around the lake.

Declining tourism

Even though the community elders are least enthusiastic about moving out, the younger lot feel otherwise. The tourist industry has declined and the years of militancy dealt a deathblow to the Hanji community with falling tourist inflow even though the area within the Dal has been the most peaceful. In 2003, the State Government provided H the anji community loans to re-build their tourism-related infrastructure. The interest rate was fixed and amount was given according to the category of houseboats or shikaras owned by the Hanji community. For instance the owners of deluxe houseboat were given Rs. 5,00,000 where as Class A houseboats were given Rs. 3,00,000.

But the Hanjis point out that they may be caught in a debt trap, as the profits have still not started coming in. The much-hyped tourist inflow in the recent years has mainly been pilgrims from Vaishno Devi or Amarnath. Only a small proportion stay on the houseboats, says Prana, a houseboat owner.

The State Government levies a 15 per cent tax on the total amount earned from each tourist who stays for a night on the houseboat. This, according to houseboat owners, is too high considering the tough times in recent years. The expenditure on maintenance of houseboats has also increased given the high levels of water pollution.

Need for help

Ecological changes also have an impact on the community. Strong winds during the first fortnight of April damaged a number of houseboats. There was little support from the authorities though the tourist season was hardly a month away.

Community members also worry that they may be left behind in terms of social and human indicators. For instance literacy levels, especially among women, are abysmal (12 per cent).

At the moment when a centuries-old lifestyle is threatened due to unplanned urbanisation, there is a need for suitable policy intervention to sort out the problems of the community. Civil society also needs to help the community save their culture and also help it attain better human and social indicators.

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