Gulzar Ahmad Bhat is sitting quietly on a wooden bench at Ghat No. 15 of Dal Lake. Like other shikara rowers in Srinagar, he has seen barely any customers since August 2, when the Jammu and Kashmir government issued an advisory to tourists to leave Kashmir Valley immediately. “That made our future uncertain. In my 18 years here, I have never seen such bulk bookings [getting cancelled],” says 32-year-old Gulzar.
A few visitors have trickled in for shikara rides after the government lifted the advisory on October 10. Most of them were brought by travel agents and they drove hard bargains. “We ask for Rs. 600 [the officially-approved rate] for a one-hour shikara spin over the waters of the Dal Lake if the customer comes directly to us. For the same ride an agent gives us us only Rs. 250. In these times, we cannot even refuse,” says 42-year-old Mehraj-Ud-Din Paktoo, who was still waiting for visitors in mid-November, still hoping to be able to see his family through the cold winter.
The shikaras are rowed either by the canoe-owners or rented out to rowers for around Rs. 30,000 a season. A rower can expect to make Rs. 2 lakhs to Rs. 2.5 lakhs over the six-month tourism season. After rent and other costs, he is left with around Rs. 180,000. That income has to be spread across 12 months – and thins out to Rs. 15,000 a month. In off-season, the shikarawalas have no work, or they do odd jobs, and some try to catch a few fish in the lakes for sale or for their families.
The tourism season in the Valley is broadly May to October. By the first week of November and after early snowfall in Kashmir this year, the chances of more shikara-seeking visitors are even slimmer. Last year (2018), which itself was a low year for tourism, 8.5 lakh tourists – Indian and international – visited Kashmir Valley. The much-depleted numbers of this years are not yet clear.
But all the 4,800 shikaras gliding along the different water bodies of Kashmir, including Dal Lake, have suffered huge losses since August, says 60-year-old Wali Mohammad Bhat, president of the All J&K Taxi Shikara Owners Association and All J&K Shikara Workers Association. As have the 960 houseboat-owners on Dal Lake, Nigeen lake, Manasbal lake and the Jheulm river, says Abdul Rashid Kallu, general secretary of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association
“The losses for just the shikarawalas on Dal Lake [which has 37 ghats or small docks] are over Rs. 8 crores,” estimates Bhat. Some, he says, have taken loans from various sources to buy shikaras – a new one costs around Rs. 1.5 lakhs – and are now unable to pay the instalments. A few, Bhat adds, could not withstand the pressure of moneylenders and have sold off their shikaras to repay the loans. There is no government compensation scheme so far for families whose only means of survival is the shikara.
Muzamil Bhat is a Srinagar-based freelance photojournalist.
This photo essay first appeared on Rural India Online.