'Water palaces' in Kashmir shut as health hazard

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 March, 2009, 12:00am

The living room of Ramzan Mirza's houseboat, moored on Kashmir's famous Dal Lake, is a delight - the walnut writing bureau, embroidered rugs, papier mache lamps and chintz sofas embody the best of Kashmiri craftsmanship.

Personal butlers walk in with trays of kahwa, the aromatic local tea made with saffron. Outside, though, the smell is nasty - a result of the three en suite toilets spewing raw sewage straight into the lake.

Mr Mirza is not the sole culprit but one among the 1,400 owners of Kashmir's renowned houseboats - sometimes called palaces on water - that have hosted tourists since the days of the British Raj.

Now, in an attempt to curb Dal Lake's horrific pollution, the high court has ordered houseboat owners to shut shop until they have proper sewage systems in place. The owners complain that they are being unfairly singled out by the February 26 ruling.

'Everyone's sewage in this city goes into the lake - from the hotels, cafes, shops. If the authorities can't provide adequate sewage facilities for everyone, why should we alone be held responsible?' Mr Mirza asked.

After protests by environmentalists, the authorities set up two sewage-treatment plants recently. But untreated sewage continues to pour into the lake from the huge number of people who live and work nearby.

The lake is a jewel for all Indians. Located in the capital, Srinagar, it is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, meadows, cherry orchards and saffron fields.

But the favourite pastime - boating in the local gondola-style shikara boats - can be an ordeal in certain parts of Dal Lake because of the unbearable stench.

The court order is a response to the lake shrinking and dying because of pollution and Kashmiris reclaiming large parts of it for horticulture. Experts predict that the lake will eventually turn into marsh. It has shrunk from 24 sq km in the 1980s to 12 sq km.

The sewage pumped into it acts as a kind of turbocharged fertiliser, spawning thick, tightly entangled weeds. About 50,000 tonnes of weeds die each year, and their decomposition adds to the pollution.

Ghulam Butt, owner of one of Srinagar's most beautiful and famous fleets of houseboats, wants to clean up the lake. But he blames the violence of the 20-year-old militant separatist insurgency in the valley for damaging the tourist industry and his income. 'Tourists are so irregular and infrequent, we don't earn enough to install expensive systems on our own. The government will have to help us.'

But the government cannot even account for the vast sums of money that have been allocated over the years for cleaning up the lake. 'Millions of rupees have been sanctioned but most of it has been siphoned off by corrupt civil servants,' said local journalist Ishaaq ul-Hassan.

While everyone passes the buck, the health hazards of such a polluted water body are a growing concern.

'We're seeing rising cases of dysentery, hepatitis and other water-borne diseases,' said Bilkees Ara, a senior scientist with the Kashmir pollution control board.

If no agreement is reached between the government and the houseboat owners, some fear that the elegant wood-panelled living rooms, cosy bedrooms and decks - where tourists have sat to watch the play of sunlight and clouds on the mountains - could end up being visited as museums rather than being lived in.