Pollution Threatens Kashmir's Tourist Houseboats

17 March 2009
The Guardian

New Delhi: Kashmir's tourist houseboats, first built in the 19th century for British Raj officials seeking refuge from the heat and the turmoil of the Indian plains, are under threat of closure as a result of renewed efforts by the authorities to protect the idyllic Dal Lake in the summer capital Srinagar. The Dal is serene and beautiful - but heavily polluted, mainly by untreated sewage. Following a court order, the provincial government has asked houseboat owners to install expensive sewage treatment units on their intricately-carved two- or three-bedroom wooden boats within 90 days - or face closure. 'Our boats may look like Mughal palaces on water, but we've been living under the poverty line ever since the anti-government insurgency broke out in Kashmir two decades ago,' said Mohammed Azam Tuman, president of the Houseboats and Shikara Owners Association. 'The government should pay for the sewage treatment units, or it should put all the 850 houseboats together and blow them up with one big bomb,' he added. 'Our business is coming to an end.' Though Tuman maintains that houseboats were first built after the Indian Mutiny when his ancestors went to the British army's Rawalpindi garrison in 1860 and sold the idea of Kashmir as a safe haven from hostile Indians and Afghans, the first recorded houseboat, Victory, is said to date from 1888, when colonial civilian officers also began visiting but were prevented from buying land by a suspicious maharajah. By the time the Beatle George Harrison came in 1966, the lavishly-appointed cedar-wood houseboats on the Dal had become an iconic image of Kashmir's tourist industry. According to Tuman, the authorities have just installed sewage treatment units on a 3-bedroom boat at a cost of more than 4,000. 'They want all of us to do the same, but where will we find the money?' he asked. 'We're already in debt, and no bank agrees to give us loans.' Tuman will fly to New Delhi today to ask the tourism minister, Ambika Soni, to save the houseboats. 'The tourism ministry's Incredible India! website says Kashmir is famous for its houseboats,' he said. 'Soon it may have to say this in the past tense. A 150-year-old tradition is facing extinction.'