Houseboats have long been an essential component of Kashmir’s cultural legacy. Once a booming industry, the houseboat sector is currently in danger of being made extinct as a result of government indifference and lack of support. Many houseboat owners and talented artisans are left trying to make ends meet as a result of the industry’s downturn.

With forty-five years of expertise, houseboat owner Ajaz Ahmed bemoans the situation, saying, “It’s unfortunate that we are seeing the slow death of a tradition that has been around for centuries.”

Until September 29, houseboat owner Abdul Khaliq Guroo, 60, fed his family from his houseboat’s earnings. That day, however, Guru’s lifetime savings drowned within seconds in the river Jehlum. A family of six, including two children, miraculously managed to escape, as the houseboat overturned in the river close to the Convent School in Rajbagh, Srinagar.

Eyewitness told this reporter that the houseboat overturned as a result of the Jehlum’s increasing water level.

All six family members were saved by locals who rushed to the scene.

“It is property worth crores which is right now in the water, decaying second by second in front of my eyes. I can neither construct any boat because of the government’s ban, nor will my loss of crores be compensated by the government,” said Khaliq.

Ahead of the harshest winter, Khaliq has set up a temporary tent on the riverbank, where he has been awaiting public compensation for his loss for the last three months. “Several houseboats in Kashmir have drowned in the Jehlum in the last few years,” he said. “In coming years, Kashmir won’t see this tradition of houseboats.”

Manzoor Pakhtoon, president of the House Boat Owners Association, told this reporter that there were about 2,000 houseboats operating in the Dal and Nigeen lakes and the Jhelum river as recently as the 1980s, but there are only 750 houseboats in these water bodies today. He expressed grave alarm about the rapidly disappearing houseboats, formerly referred to as the “Crown of Kashmir.”

Houseboats are essential to Kashmiri tourism, said Pakhtoon, but “the High Court has imposed a complete ban on the building of houseboats.” The fact that there are currently relatively few master artisans remaining, all of them elderly, is another irony. Due to the government ban on building, the number of houseboats, a major tourist attraction in Kashmir, is rapidly declining.

Depending on the rooms and amenities, the cost of a houseboat might vary from Rs 1 to Rs 2 crore. “We don’t know how we will arrange for such an amount, but it will take Rs 2 to 3 lakh simply to repair the houseboat,” said Guroo’s wife, who now lives with him in a tent. She has made several appeals to the administration for compensation, but nothing was given to her.

The floating residences known as Kashmiri houseboats are moored across the shores of the Jhelum, Dal, and Nigeen. The houseboats that are now hotels and homestays were meticulously built years ago. The authorities have been keeping a close watch on houseboat construction over the years, particularly since it became illegal for them to be repaired or rebuilt near bodies of water. The cause mentioned was the risk of pollution to Kashmir’s water bodies. Yet thousands of people live in their houseboats and use them to earn a living.

The Jammu and Kashmir government banned the registration of new houseboats in 1982. There were up to 3,500 houseboats in Kashmir that year, according to sources. Currently, that figure is just 750.

The legal guardian of Dal Lake, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, outlawed all types of construction in the area around the lake in 2010, including the installation of new houseboats. It recommended that the authorities refrain from renewing houseboat licences without specific authorisation. Houseboat owners have found it nearly impossible to repair their houseboats as a result.

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha announced a new policy in May 2021 permitting houseboat owners to repair or renovate their vessels. The distressed houseboat owners saw some optimism returned with this statement, but they still have to wait for the policy to be implemented. “We have been going back and forth to various offices asking when we can renovate our houseboats again, but we are still not permitted to do so,” said a houseboat owner.

Houseboats in Kashmir have a storied history, dating back to the 13th century, when their primary purpose was domestic travel rather than tourism. Those who built boats to live on the lake did so on a daily basis. The erstwhile maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir forbade the British from purchasing land, hence only British officers of the East India Company were permitted to construct and occupy the houseboats. The over seven hundred houseboats in the Kashmir Valley today are used mostly for tourism.

If the government ban continues, however, all the remaining houseboats will soon vanish, said Pakhtoon.

Another houseboat owner, Farooq Ahmed Nagoo, 45, lost both his houseboats in separate sinking incidents within two years. “One of my houseboats was for tourism purposes. My livelihood was dependent on houseboats,” he said. “My family currently lives in a temporary shed.”

Nagoo already knew that his houseboats’ base was fully damaged, but wanted to repair them and save them from drowning. He couldn’t because of the renovation ban. “I saw them sinking with moist eyes. I spent decades in those houseboats, now my family lives in temporary accommodation,” he said.

The Dal and Nigeen Lakes in Srinagar have significantly decreased in size over the past few decades, and environmental experts claim that a large sewage influx and lake encroachment are to blame for this.

Houseboat owners claim that they only contribute 2% of the pollution in Dal Lake and that the other 98% is the fault of the people who live around the lake and the hotels whose drains dump into the lake.

“I have been advocating to the authorities that damaged houseboats be permitted to be rebuilt. A joint commission of the Lakes Conservation Management Authority and the Tourism Department should be established to evaluate the loss of the destroyed houseboats and approve their reconstruction,” said Pakhtoon.

At present, he said, the owner of a wrecked houseboat is compelled to go through multiple rounds of court hearings and is worn out by the end. He argued that as part of a “skill development initiative,” the government ought to teach young people how to build houseboats. Youngsters who were formerly employed in the business are now severely unemployed as a result of the ban on houseboat construction.