Relocation of houseboats: A dull premise

Relocation of houseboats:  A dull premise

By Rafique A. Khan

The Dal lake, once a sparkling fresh water body, is severely polluted, to say the least. As part of its programme to ‘Save the Dal’, the government’s proposal is to remove the houseboats moored along the lake from Dalgate to Gagribal and relocate them to Doldemb. Doldemb is on the lake bank opposite to Nishat garden. The Doldemb project, estimated to cost Rs 30 crore, will have a sewage treatment plant and mooring facilities to accommodate 300 houseboats. According to a spokesperson for the project, removing the houseboats from Dalgate “will facilitate water movement and increase sunshine, good for the water.”1 But the removal of houseboats from their present location at Dalgate is not an effective measure to stop pollution of the Dal. 

A false premise

The waste from houseboats is not a major contributor to the lake’s pollution. This is documented in the following studies: (A) Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) is the government custodian agency for the Dal. The following quote is from a recent study (2017) sponsored by LAWDA: “The general public discourse about…the houseboats and dwellers living in hamlets perceived to cause pollution (is) a misrepresentation of the truth”.2

As described in the LAWDA study, contrary to public perception about Dal having been a weed free, crystal clear water body, the lake is a cluster of distinct shallow water basins.  These basins — Gagribal, Bud Dal, Lokut Dal, Dal Kotwal, Sunderbal and Suderakan (Nigeen) — are interconnected with channels and marshes and markedly separated by land mass, marshes and floating gardens. As per the LAWDA study, the water area of the lake and its surrounding land from which the lake catches its water is part of a natural ecological system. The lake water area, about 24 square kms, and its catchment area, about 337 square kms, are interlinked and interdependent.3

The major contributor for Dal pollution is the water run-off from the catchment area that carries sediments from perennial high altitude glacial melt.

De-weeding machines remove unwanted plants from the Dal lake
Photo: Faisal Khan

(B) The 2017 LAWDA study restates the findings of numerous studies undertaken some 40 years ago. For example, a 1977 report prepared by Enex, a New Zealand-based Consultant Company, estimated 5.5 tons of phosphates and 89 tons of nitrogen annually accumulating in the lake. The report recommended measures to control the use of land within the Dal catchments area, with the goal to reduce the nutrients entering the lake from catchments. Enex study also recommended to divert sewage in the immediate Dal Lake vicinity. In addition, it proposed to separate and seal off polluted water inflow to the lake from the floating garden areas.4

(C) Another recent study by the Department of Earth Sciences, Kashmir University, confirms that the major  pollution problem of Dal originates from 337 square km catchment area of the lake.5 The KU study uses two scientific terms to describe reasons for the deteriorating condition of the lake: increasing eutrophication and depleting cryosphere. Meaning excessive soil nutrients and depletion of stream flow from the catchment, which causes dense vegetation growth.

As per the KU study, the area in the immediate vicinity of the lake covering 110 square kms has lost 60% of the forest cover during the last 52 years and the built up areas in the vicinity of the lake have increased three fold from 1962 to 2013. The study also points out that the degradation of the lake is not uniform. As per the study findings, chemical concentration in the lake water has significantly increased in three decades, from 1977 to 2014. And the severe degradation zones are located mostly towards northern and south western parts of the lake. Nigeen and Gagribal show highest nitrate nitrogen pollution as they have concentration of settlements in the vicinity. The point to note here is that houseboats slated for relocation from Gagribal basin are at the tail end of the multi basin lake. And the number of houseboats in Dal is on the decrease.

In 1947, there were just three hotels on the Boulevard, while there were about 3,500 houseboats. In 2017, the number of hotels along the Boulevard stood at 2,500, while the number of houseboats has come down to 900. The state government provides subsidy for hotel building. But construction of houseboats has been banned since 1991. Even repair of existing boats is restricted.

(D) The KU study findings are corroborated by a 2008 KU publication. In this study, tests of water sample from 15 sites within the Dal taken over a 23-year period (1977-2000) show a dramatic increase in nitrate and phosphorus attributed to untreated sewage from 15 major drains that feed into the Dal. Most of the drains are outside the Gagribal basin.6

(E) In a presentation to the High Court, a Dal resident, Tariq A Patloo, quoting from information submitted to the court by LAWDA, noted that sewage flow from houseboats was 80,000 litres per day. The combined sewage from houseboats and residents within the lake was 5,800,000 litres per day while the sewage flow from the lake’s peripheral areas was 44,200,000 litres per day. Patloo quoted information from another LAWDA study which points out that 57 streams around the Dal that carry water from springs to the lake end up as polluted drains before reaching the Dal.7

Reasons for relocation

As noted above, the daily sewage flow from the area surrounding the Dal is 44,200,000 litres per day. The sewage flow from houseboats within the Dal is 80,000 litres per day. It means that sewage flowing into the lake from its surrounding area is more than 500 times than sewage flow from the houseboats. Why is then government focussing on the 300 houseboats located at the tail end of Dal and not on the 15 major drains flowing into the Dal?

India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru enjoys a shikara ride in the Dal in 1940

The answer to this question lies in an anthropology research paper which shows how the Dal dweller community is racialised and seen as inferior.8 This study points out that the lake has been inhabited for centuries. The Dal dwellers came to live in the lake to seek refuge and escape persecution. The water span of the Dal served as a natural buffer for Kashmiris escaping persecution by the Mughal and Pathan rulers. The Dal dwellers, known as Hanjis, have diverse occupations including farming. The Hanji community was the backbone of water transport in Kashmir until motor transport took over. Hanjis have been on the forefront of tourism industry of Kashmir as well. They served as tour guides. Hanjis also own and operate houseboats, the unique feature of tourist accommodation in Kashmir.

With the advent of improved means of mass transport, Kashmir opened up to mass tourism. Disregarding the complex ecology of the lake and livelihood and centuries of residential histories of its dwellers, Dal was projected as a “pure water body”; and a tourist attraction beginning in the 1970s. As noted in the anthropology study, Dal lake was refashioned “…as aesthetic space devoid of cluttering hutments and poverty.”

Impetus to this official narrative was provided by a Public Interest Litigation(PIL) filed by a KU law student in 2000. The PIL in the High Court sought mobilising the state’s legal and juridical apparatus to curb extensive pollution and unchecked human encroachment in the Dal. The PIL’s focus was the pollution caused by Dal dwellers. Thus, the Hanji community within the Dal has become the whipping boy and was blamed for all ills plaguing the lake. Backed by court decrees, the Hanjis are the primary targets of government interventions.  As noted in the study: “The remaking of Dal as a prime tourist destination and that of Hanjis as predators or encroachers transformed the lake into an intensely policed zone, one where force or violence could be deployed in the name of public interest and where the violation of Hanji political and human rights continued unabated.”

While the government intervention remains focussed on the Dal dwellers and houseboats, in the surrounding area hoteliers and wealthy businessmen continue to enjoy impunity. Government funds are primarily allocated for land acquisitions or for projects that include building buildings or dredging and de-weeding the lake to increase its water expanse.

Around the lake catchment area, massive private housing and tourist infrastructure continues to expand.  Inside the lake, the Dal dwellers are not permitted to build or even repair property. The Dal dwellers are being uprooted from a place where they had lived for generations and moved to dry land which is foreign to their way of life.9

In any case, focusing on the Hanji community diverts public attention from dismal administrative performance of government authorities including the state judiciary. It is one more attempt to scapegoat the Hanji community for deterioration of the Dal.10

Why Doldemb project is wrong

Houseboat owners, including the present and past presidents of the House Boat Owners Association (HBOA), oppose the Doldemb project. The opposition is based on the following points:

One, Doldemb is not a suitable location for mooring houseboats. At this location the Dal lake expanse is wide and therefore prone to severe winds.  The houseboats are flat bottom boats and will not be able to withstand the high winds.

Two, Doldemb is a remote location, and approach to it is circuitous.

Three, it is far away from existing service facilities. Getting to Doldemb would be hard for the service populations.11

The sewage flow from houseboats within the Dal is 80,000 litres per day. It means that sewage flowing into the lake from its surrounding area is more than 500 times than sewage flow from the houseboats. Why is then government focussing on the 300 houseboats located at the tail end of Dal and not on the 15 major drains flowing into the Dal?

As opposed to Doldemb, the present location of houseboats is at the entrance to the lake. The narrow water expanse from Dalgate-Gagribal and the adjacent hill provide a shield from high winds. The location is easily accessible to facilities for the tourists and for the population that provide services for the houseboats. The Boulevard area is close to the city centre, thus transport distances both on land and on water are shorter. Besides, houseboats lined along the Boulevard are near the lake outflow, thus its impact on the lake pollution is minimal.
However, the houseboats empty their waste, including raw sewage, directly into the lake.  Although minimal, this is unacceptable. Responding to this challenge the HBOA has come up with its own plan for waste disposal from houseboats. The plan rearranges the present houseboat alignment. Boats and service units of houseboats are lined along a berth dock. The sewer pipes from houseboats feed into a trunk sewer on the berth dock. This proposal with some modification would be similar to the Enex recommendation.12

How to treat sewage of houseboats

Last year, at a meeting of the HBOA, Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu pointed that the houseboats are part of Kashmiri heritage that must be promoted and preserved. He said: “The houseboats remain important to local economic growth not only in terms of tourism but promoting culture, architecture, heritage and hospitality.”13

But the state government’s policy and administrative interventions negate Drabu’s remarks. In 1947, there were just three hotels on the Boulevard, while there were about 3,500 houseboats. In 2017, the number of hotels along the Boulevard stood at 2,500, while the number of houseboats has come down to 900. The state government provides subsidy for hotel building. But construction of houseboats has been banned since 1991. Even repair of existing boats is restricted.14

The Boulevard road from Dalgate to Gagribal, with houseboats lined along it, presents a picturesque vista and the houseboats are hospitality accommodations unique to Kashmir only. Indeed, the houseboat area from Dalgate to Gagribal deserves to be named a heritage district.

A houseboat interior

The sewage disposal of houseboats can be done, easily and economically, by using a modified version of the sewage collection arrangement that was prevalent when the houseboats were first introduced in Kashmir.15

An experimental model for a modified version of the traditional Kashmir sewage collection is sponsored by a US-based non-profit organisation Kashmir Foundation of America (KashmirFOA). The model is developed by Qua-Vac Company, which is headquartered in Holland. Qua-Vac is designer, manufacturer and marketer of environmentally-friendly vacuum waste water collection and sewage treatment systems.16

Foreigners were prohibited from owning landed property in Kashmir. Houseboats were introduced at the turn of the 18th Century. The first houseboat was built in 1888 by an Englishman named M. T. Kennard by modifying the Kashmiri doonga boat.

The traditional Kashmiri sewage collection had houseboat bathrooms with commodes: chairs fitted with a removable chamber pot container in the seat.  The bathroom waste was collected manually from the pot. The night soil was used on land as manure for growing vegetables. The Qua-Vac model has four parts. Part one is waste water storage tanks for collection of bathroom and kitchen waste water. The tanks are to be installed in the houseboat hull and adjacent to service kitchens. Second part is a service boat, improvised Kashmiri koch boat, equipped with a Qua-Vac vacuum pump and waste water storage tank. The boat equipment is designed to transfer the waste water from the houseboat tanks to the service boat. Third part of the arrangement is a facility on the lake shore staging area with equipment to transfer the waste from the service boats to tanker trucks.  The trucks would haul the waste to part four of the arrangement. Part four is proposed as a remote area facility for long term storage of the waste and converting the sewage waste into fertiliser.

KashmirFOA has allocated funding for providing two waste collection boats with the pump and storage tanks. A staging area to house the Qua-Vac equipment during the experiment stage has been identified. A trial run of the model, for a limited number of houseboats, is under consideration.  The experimental model can be applied to houseboats in Dalgate-Gagribal area and other locations, without moving the houseboats from present locations.

Rafique A. Khan is a Kashmiri-American City Planner from Los Angeles

NOTE: KashmirFOA ( is soliciting participation from houseboat owners and other parties interested to work or participate in the experimental project.



Comment by Kashmir High Court appointed Amicus Curiae.

Dal Lake The Myth, Perception and the Realities. LAWDA website (, Er. Basharat J. Kawoosa.

The runoff sediments carry nutrient for aquatic vegetation in the shallow lake. As noted in the LAWDA study, “the quantum of vegetation required in balance is essentially required to be present for sustenance of the ecosystem.” And as per the study the ecosystem of Dal lake has lost its balance. The main cause of the imbalance is the ecosystem of the lake—pollution—is the increased sediment runoff. The increased sediment is in turn due to deforestation and urbanisation within the catchment area.

Enex study finding was that the rise in chemical accumulation in the lake water was due to runoff from soil erosion because of reduction of plant covers on the surrounding hills. Added to this was the increase in agricultural activity in the catchment areas and within Dal itself which added even more nutrients to run-off, contributing about 70% of the pollution. Direct discharge of sewage from houseboats and latrines contributed about one third of the nutrients.

Linking Human-Biophysical Interaction with the Tropical Status of Dal Lake, Kashmir Himalaya. Irfan Rashid, Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, Muzamil Amin, Shabir A Khanday, and PrakashChauhan. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Kashmir, Srinagar. Corresponding author: [email protected]

Dal Lake Ecosystem: Conservation Strategies and Problems. Humaira Qadri and A.R. Yousuf, PG Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Kashmir, Srinagar. Published Proceedings of Taal 2007: The 12th World Lake Conference. The paper attributes the major cause(s) for the plight of the Dal to: “… ecologically unsound management practices, inshore dredging, skimming the free floating macrophytes and unplanned mechanical de-weeding during the past several years.”

University of Roorkee Research Project on conservation and management of the Dal ecosystem.

Fluid Landscapes, sovereign nature: Conservation and counterinsurgency in India-controlled Kashmir. Mona Bhan (DePauw University, USA) Nishita Trisal (University of Michigan,USA).

The Dal residents are being relocated to Rakh-e-Aarat, a wetland about 15 miles from the Dal which has been filled for the purpose. Does this filling up of one water body to relocate inhabitants from another water body so close to each othermake sense for the overall ecology of the Kashmir Valley? The Dal relocatees are 5000 families of vegetable growers. Vegetable growing land within the Dal as floating gardens is the most productive land in Kashmir, about ten times more productive than the paddy land. The relocatee families, according to Dal authorities, are to be relocated in order to remove a source of pollution. One could question the wisdom of focusing on 5,000 families and uprooting them from their ancestral abode while new developments around the lake, some 300,000 families and growing remain untouched. The KU study recommendation is to make one or more settlements within the lake denser and install waste water treatment there and along the lake periphery area. “…lake dwellers, whose livelihood is linked to services and products by the lake, the long term efforts need to focus on densifying one or more human settlements within the lake by moving there people from less dense hutments…”

By its own admission the record of LAWDA accomplishments has been dismal. See LAWDA website ( Selected excerpts from the website: a) Reforestation: “It has been recommended that massive reforestation needs to be done below the vegetation line…in major catchments, that is, Telbal-Dachigham and Hillside, no substantial recommendation as mentioned herein above were implemented, resulting in the ingress of silt and nutrients to the lake. b) Sewage Treatment Plants: “Major sewage sources to the lake were identified as 1. Hotel Grand Palace, 2. Convention centre and 3.Srinagar city and villages and rural communities. Although a STP was constructed to treat sewages of some parts of Srinagar city, many a drains continued to flow into the outer backwaters of the lake, which as a matter of fact used to flow out of the lake via two outlets i.e. Dalgate exit and Nallah Amir Khan. No pit latrines have been provided to the villagers and rural population.

Conversation with President, HBOA, October 2017.

The sewage disposal of houseboats, and of the larger area within the Dal, can ideally be done, as recommended in the Enex study, by separating the most polluted area from the clear water area. Enex proposed to separate and seal off polluted water inflow to the lake from the floating garden areas. The study recommended building an earthen embankment within the lake from Dalgate to Hazratbal, similar to the existing bund from Nishat to Rainawari. The embankment would thus separate the vegetable cultivation area within the lake – most pollution prone portion within the lake – from the clear water. The houseboats would be moored along the clear water side of the embankment. The boats would be connected to a lateral sewer line in the embankment.

Greater Kashmir, 25 March 2017.

Source: HBOA

Foreigners were prohibited from owning landed property in Kashmir. Houseboats were introduced at the turn of the 18th Century. The first houseboat was built in 1888 by an Englishman named M. T. Kennard by modifying the Kashmiri doonga boat. The houseboats here occupied by Europeans, and some lived in them year round for years together, but most here rented out for the summers. Writings of the British describe houseboats as convenient and luxurious mode of stay and travel. A houseboat area is 1,000 to 1,500 area, varying in size from 12 feet by 60 feet to 22 feet by 150 feet. A houseboat has sitting rooms, some with fire places, several bedrooms with bathrooms, lounging decks and viewing verandas. The houseboats used to have cook boat attached for cooking and servants. “…the traveller lunches forth complete, and either drifts lazily down the river to the many attractive spots along its banks, and the Wular lake, or else is towed upwards to Islamabad.  The houseboat likewise forms a very convenient base from which short expeditions into the mountains can be made. Kashmir by Sir Francis Younghusband, 1908,  page 45 ). Also see: Houseboat days in the vale of Kashmir by Florence H. Morden, National Geographic Magazine, October 1929].

Qua-Vac has 50 years of experience in vacuum sewage technology. It is a globally orientated company that manufactures, designs and markets environmental-friendly vacuum waste water collection and treatment systems for buildings, rural sewage and marine industries.

The piece appeared in February issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy, contact [email protected] for details

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