‘We are fed up… will quit this business’: Jhelum’s houseboat owners in dismay

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At around 5:30 am on 5 September, when the Shagoo family was in deep slumber in their houseboat, the sound of the cracks and water seeping in woke them up. Their houseboat had capsized. 

In the dark, Abdul Qayoom Shagoo saw the water level increasing inside. From the other end, the water seeped in the houseboat and it tilted to one side. In the hurry, he helped his father, Ali Mohammad Shagoo, 65, to reach the banks of the river Jhelum. 

There was chaos and the family screamed for help. The neighbors, in nearby houseboats, came to help them take the household stuff out of their houseboat, which included the carpets and the furniture. 

“I wasn’t worried about anything but my aged parents. Everything can be bought but I would have ended my life if anything had happened to my parents,” said Qayoom, visibly panicked. 

The houseboat that they were residing in – The King Suleiman –  was built forty years ago. Some parts of the houseboat were taken from their previous houseboat that was around 100 years old. 

With four rooms in the houseboat, the family would stay in one of the rooms and the other three rooms were reserved for the tourists. 

There was a pile of carpets and some furniture that included beds and a few tables, were laid on the bank of the river – to dry them under the sun. 

Inside the houseboat, the walls can be seen decorated with posters of Kashmir’s tourist spots. In one of the rooms, there is an old album with photographs of the tourists in the houseboat. 

After the 2014 floods, economic conditions of these middle class houseboat owners were sharply hit. The floods damaged the houseboats and it became difficult for many families to repair them due to low income. 

A few years later in August 2019, an unprecedented lockdown was enforced in Kashmir. After the abrogation of article 370 and 35A, the valley witnessed a strict lockdown for half a year which was followed by the COVID-19  pandemic that brought back the lockdown. It further crushed the already struggling economy of Jammu and Kashmir and left the houseboat owners with another financial crisis.

Qayoom said that for the past three years, there has been only loss in their business. “After the abrogation, every time we tried to get back on track, there was another disaster awaiting,” he added. These past few years have “broken their back”, he added.  

He said that the administration has not been of any help. A houseboat annually needs to be repaired that costs around 30-40 thousand rupees. Qayoom said that due to the recent loss, they are not able to repair their houseboats. 

For the past several decades, they have been in this business only, he said, adding that they haven’t known any other work. But now, “We don’t want to be associated with it. We are fed up,” he said.

They would earn a good amount of money. But now, meeting the daily needs is difficult for the Shagoo family.  

Now the latest incident has further added to their grievances. “We couldn’t afford to repair it and now we have another problem. We are depressed. What will we do now?,” he said. 

Earlier this year in May, Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Manoj Sinha announced a new policy that permitted houseboats to undergo renovations. But the locals are complaining that they have no resources to repair. 

Qayoom said that he is fed up with the business now and wants to leave it. Although he has been in the business for the last 30 years, the losses in the business have let him change his mind. 

“If the government rehabilitates us and gives us a source of livelihood, I will hands down quit this business,” he said. 

Ghulam Qadir Gasi, Head of the Houseboat Owners Association in Jhelum river, has been going from pillar to post to highlight the plight of the houseboat owners and question the government as it has not been able to help them.

He said that the tourism in river Jhelum has dried up and the houseboat owners are in dismay and many of whom have already left this business. He said that the authorities have failed to look after the houseboats of Jhelum river and that they are busy with the Dal and Nigeen lakes. 

“The condition of houseboat owners is so bad that many of them are not able to provide their children with basic education,” he said, adding that the only demand they have is that they should be rehabilitated and their livelihood should be looked upon.

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