At around 3 am on December 3, as Farooq Ahmad Nagoo and the five members of his family were fast asleep in their houseboat moored on the banks of the river Jehlum in Srinagar, they were awakened by water gushing up through the floorboards.

“It sank within minutes,” recalled Umar Farooq, Farooq Ahmad Nagoo’s son. “We could barely salvage any of our belongings.”

Crying for help in the dead of the cold night, the family was saved from drowning by people living on the banks of the river. Since then, Nagoo and his family have been living in a tent on the river banks. Nearby, a makeshift tarpaulin canopy serves as a kitchen.

The Nagoo family’s houseboat was the seventh in Srinagar to have sunk since July. “This has happened for the first time in the entire history of houseboats in Kashmir,” said Mohammad Yaqoob Dunno, the spokesperson of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association.

Essential part of the tourist list

For tourists to the Valley, staying a few nights on an intricately-carved wooden houseboat like the one owned by the Nagoo’s is part of the must-do list. Many houseboats are furnished with lush carpets, beautiful glass lamps and serve up elaborate Kashmiri meals.

The Kashmir Valley, in which tourism is a vital part of the economy, is home to approximately 950 houseboats. But since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government imposed a security lockdown in August 2019 as it abrogated the autonomy granted to Jammu and Kashmir in 1947, tourists have steered clear of the Valley.

In 2019, a total of 499,584 tourists visited Kashmir – only 43,059 of them after August. By contrast, the previous year, 841,202 tourists had visited the Valley.

This has severely hurt houseboat owners – and their pinewood boats. Each year, houseboat owners would set aside approximately Rs 50,000 to conduct essential maintenance on the bottoms of the boats. “The process is called caulking,” said Dunno, who owns three houseboats in Srinagar’s Nigeen lake. “It’s done to plug the space between two planks of the timber which forms the bottom surface of a houseboat. If it’s not done, the houseboat will sink.”

But with incomes plugging over the past 18 months, houseboat owners have not made enough money to allow them to repair their craft. It cost the Nagoo family dearly. “We didn’t earn enough to feed ourselves,” said 22-year-old Umar Nagoo, who worked as an attendant for guests staying on his houseboat during the tourist season. “How are we supposed to repair our houseboat?”

Umar Nagoo and a neighbour by his tent on the banks of the river. Credit: Safwat Zargar

In addition to the fall in tourist arrivals, houseboat owners blame the lack of support from the government for their predicament. In September, the government of Jammu and Kashmir announced a Rs 1,350-crore package to give an impetus to the Covid-19 lockdown-hit economy. However, the package was too small to compensate for the cumulative losses the sector had suffered over the months.

“Under the package, each houseboat owner was given Rs 1,000 per month for three months,” said Dunno. “That’s not enough to buy milk for ourselves.”

‘No tourists’

Kashmir’s tourism industry went into a freeze on August 2, 2019, when the government issued an emergency advisory asking tourists in the Valley and pilgrims doing the Amarnath Yatra to “return as soon as possible”. The advisory cited the “latest intelligence inputs of terror threats” and “the prevailing security situation in the Kashmir Valley”.

Three days later, the Union government decided to strip the state of Jammu and Kashmir of the special status it had been given under the Constitution when it joined India in 1947 and to downgrade it into two Union territories.

“Since then, no tourist has visited Kashmir,” said Dunno. “For the world, the Covid-19 lockdown began early this year but Kashmir has been under lockdown since August last year.”

These days, Umar Nagoo hardly leaves his makeshift home. The tent provided by the Srinagar district administration is not large enough to cover all the family’s belongings. A steel cupboard, filled with clothes, stands in the open, exposed to the elements.

“This is our home now,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen if there’s a snowfall tomorrow.”

Though the family owns another houseboat, there are no bookings for it. That has forced Farooq Ahmad Nagoo to open a tea-stall in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk to make ends meet.

The belongings of the Nagoo family are stored in the open. Credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Icon of Kashmir’

Houseboats owe their origin to the British officers and travelers visiting the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in the 19th century. Some people maintain that since state law did not allow outsiders to buy land in Kashmir, the visiting Britishers built these floating homes.

In his research, scholar Abrar Maqbool Shah notes that the design of today’s houseboats varies significantly from the ones developed in the 19th century. “Initially, it used to be in the form of a doonga (mini houseboat), much narrow and short in length than the present-day houseboats,” writes Shah in his paper “A Case Study of Houseboat Tourism Industry in Kashmir”. “The doongas were large wooden boats with a roofed room and a kitchen but without any toilet facilities.”

Over time, the shaky structures began to be transformed into sophisticated boarding facilities for travelers with all modern facilities. “Since the concept was creative and useful, it got an overwhelming response through a massive imitation thereby promoting a huge growth and finally evolving into an industry of today…” Shah notes.

Houseboats are moored in four river bodies in Srinagar city, said Abdul Hamid Wangnoo, the president of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association. “A houseboat is a first major attraction for a tourist in Kashmir,” he said. “It’s an icon of Kashmir.”

But over the decade, houseboats have struggled to stay viable. In 2010, Wangnoo said, there were around 1,500 houseboats in Kashmir. Now, the number has dwindled to three figures.

Ban on repairs

In 1982, Jammu and Kashmir government banned the registration of new houseboats in order to control their number. Damaged or old houseboats could be repaired only after following a procedure set by the government.

But in 2012, even the repairs and reconstruction work on damaged houseboats was banned by the Jammu and Kashmir government. “In 2009, Jammu and Kashmir High Court issued directions that no repair or reconstruction work of houseboats should be allowed,” said Dunno, the spokesperson of the association of houseboat owners.

Since then, at least 199 applications to allow dismantled or damaged houseboats to be reconstructed have been pending with the department of tourism

The government’s decision had come in the wake of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court’s monitoring of efforts to conserve various water-bodies in Kashmir. In March 2009, the court had castigated the government failing to prevent the deterioration of rivers and lakes in Kashmir. It took over custody of four lakes, including Dal Lake.

“The court was misinformed that that houseboats are the main source of pollution of Dal and Nigeen lake,” said Dunno. “There are around 55 hamlets settled in the interior of Dal Lake and all of their refuse and sewage goes in to Dal Lake. Why doesn’t government talk about that pollution? We are not denying that refuse of houseboat flows into Dal lake but it’s the government’s responsibility to come up with a mechanism.”

Houseboats, he claimed, contribute only 3% to the total pollution of Dal lake.

Houseboats on Dal lake. Credit: Madhumita Das, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In June 2019, a 13-member delegation from Jammu and Kashmir government’s department of tourism and houseboat owners visited Kerala to study the bio-digesters and waste segregation mechanisms installed in houseboats that ply on the southern state’s backwaters.

“After that, the bio-digesters were installed on six houseboats in Srinagar on pilot basis by the government. But nothing happened beyond that,” recalled Wangnoo, who was part of the delegation. “We are not against conserving the lake but the government has to help us. We can’t do it alone.”

‘Unacceptable policy’

But pollution and the ban on repairs are not the only sources of contention between houseboat owners and the government. In April 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued a houseboat policy for the first time.

“Under the guidelines, the houseboats owners will be able to register/renew their houseboats after fulfilling certain general conditions,” said an official statement issued by the government on April 8. While upholding the ban on new houseboats on Nigeen and Dal lakes, the policy stated that the “guidelines should conform to the overall framework of Dal conservation” framed by the Jammu and Kashmir government’s Lakes and Waterways Development Authority.

The policy was unacceptable to the houseboat owners. “The conditions were too harsh and they never consulted us – the main stakeholders of the policy – while framing the policy,” said Wangnoo.

Mohammad Yaqoob Dunno said that the policy seems arbitrary. “The clauses stated that until and unless we demolish the residential huts in the backyard of houseboat, our registration would not be renewed,” he said. “How does this condition make sense if I have to demolish my house to renew my houseboat’s registration?”

According to Dunno, the houseboat owners association raised these problems with the authorities which assured them that the policy would be revised. “They noted our suggestions and feedback but the revised policy hasn’t been issued,” he said. tried to contact Sarmad Hafeez, commissioner secretary, tourism department, to seek his views on the matter. But there was no response to the calls and text messages from this reporter.

‘More houseboats will sink’

On December 12, Srinagar city witnessed season’s first snowfall, draping the entire city in a blanket of snow. However, in picturesque Dal lake, the snowfall spelled a disaster. In that single night, three houseboats sank due to the moderate snowfall. One of them was of Fayaz Ahmad Badyari’s.

“My houseboat was in need of repairing but I couldn’t afford it,” said Badyari, a third-generation owner of a houseboat in Srinagar. “There’s no ban on caulking but at the time of caulking, some planks in the floorboard need to be replaced. Otherwise, there’s no point of caulking.”

Fayaz Ahmad Badyari’s sunken houseboat. Credit: Safwat Zargar

In Badyari’s case, the lack of finance was only a part of the problem. “Suppose, even if I had the money, the authorities wouldn’t have allowed me to replace the timber planks,” he said. “They would have seized my timber as well as punished me for it because there’s a ban on repairs. When we go to the Tourism department, they say they are following court’s orders and the repair work won’t be allowed.”

As of now, the wreckage of Badyari’s houseboat lies near his makeshift residential hut. He says he does not have enough money to salvage the remains of his prized houseboat. “It will cost me around Rs 30,000 to get this out of water,” he said. “I haven’t made any money since last year. How will I do it?”

Dunno, the association’s spokesperson, warned that Badyari’s houseboat will not be the last one to sink this winter. “There are around 200 houseboats that need repairs on an urgent basis but they don’t have any means to do it,” he said. “Let there be a heavy snowfall, you’ll see how many houseboats will collapse in the water.”

Meanwhile, a senior official from Jammu and Kashmir tourism department said that the department has no emergency relief funds for those whose livelihood or commercial ventures are destroyed in an accident or natural calamity. “It comes under the State Disaster Response Fund,” said the official, who did not want to be identified. “They have to take care of it. The department doesn’t have anything for such cases.”