The water chestnut harvest has begun in the Wular lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia. It is a common sight these days to see thousands of villagers living on the Wular banks row their boats into the lake to harvest water chestnuts, which are then supplied to markets in and outside the state,

The villagers have to extract the water chestnuts by hand and then supply them to the other towns. Located barely 10 kilometres from Bandipora town in north Kashmir, the sleepy villages of Ashtanga and Laharwalpora are the principal suppliers of water chestnuts, locally known as gaer, to markets across the Kashmir valley.

These days, Wular Lake bears a festive look with a large number of boatmen harvesting water chestnuts from it. These boatmen leave their homes in the early hours of the morning, row their boats deep into the lake and return in the evening loaded with chestnuts.

"In some cases, volunteers from neighbouring villages form a group who then board a single boat, venture into the deeper parts of the lake, spend days there, and come back with a large harvest," said Yaseen Dar, a young boatman.

Bandipora district is the main supplier of water chestnuts to the Kashmir valley. Many families living in Lankreshipora, Kanbathi, Kulhama, Gurora, Saderkot, Baniyar, Bakhchibal, Larapora, Kanlibagh, Kema, Ashtangoo, and Zurmanz which lie on the periphery of Bandipora have licences to harvest water chestnuts from the lake, but Lankreshipora remains the principal supplier.

Speaking to The Citizenm a of the residents of Laharwalpora G Mohammed said that the harvest of water chestnuts was on the decline. Uneven rains, and the muddied waters of the lake hit the local economy hard.

According to locals of Bandipora, each boatman spends around seven hours a day harvesting the water chestnut, but can barely earn Rs 200 to 300 a day.

Water chestnuts usually ripen between July and September. It is a much sought after superfood said to have multiple medicinal benefits.

However, harvesting the water chestnuts from the Wular lake is a "painful exercise," said locals. At the Lankreshipora village, piles of raw water chestnuts are seen lying on the porches of houses during season. Women make groups and then begin the process of removing the kernels from the pod and pack them to be then sold to traders.

The villagers said that nearly 80 percent of the total population was involved in harvesting water chestnuts. "Water chestnuts are the main source of income for the majority of people living here," said Ghulam Ahmad Reshi, who lives in Lankreshipora. Reshi, who injured his leg a few months ago in an accident, has now left the trade and his wife and five children are now involved in the process.

Adjacent to the Reshi family in Lankreshipora lives an elderly woman, Mukta. With no male member in the family, her granddaughter, Rifat, is involved in harvesting water chestnuts. Since it is the peak of water chestnut season, Rifat visits Wular Lake daily on her boat to harvest.

Like Rifat, Adil Reshi, a Class 9 student from the same village, also shoulders his family's responsibility. After attending school every day, he makes sure to spend at least two hours removing kernels from raw chestnuts. "During holidays, I spend more than half of the day before going out to play football with friends," said Adil even as he continued to remove the kernels.

A single day's sale of the nuts fetches a seller Rs 250 to Rs 300. Since a large number of people are involved in the cultivation of water chestnuts, the collective income touches Rs 3.5 lakh per day.

But the income from water chestnut harvest is seasonal. The harvest lasts only four months. By the time March approaches, the thinning crop brings the trade to a gradual halt.

"At the end of the season, only green chestnut buds remain in the lake which needs breathing time to grow again. Most cultivators don't pluck these buds," said a boatman, Ghulam Mohammad Dar.

Dar has been involved in extracting chestnuts for the last 30 years, "the water chestnut industry runs in crores due to the mass participation of people in this town. If the given parameters are taken into account, the gross revenue of Lankreshipora village touches Rs 4 crore at the end of a season," he said.

"It is a free trade practice which runs in crores of rupees. Since it is not registered, therefore the exact figures can't be predicted," said Abdul Hamid Punjabi, the current president of Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry. "It is mainly the downtrodden section of society which deals with this trade. That is why the government has not registered it. In case it is registered, the people involved will have to pay taxes, which will become a burden for the community."