Introduced by British Raj officials, Kashmir houseboats - long promoted as the picture of an ideal Kashmir holiday - are facing an uncertain future. The High Court of Kashmir has ordered the closure of houseboats discharging sewage into the deteriorating Dal Lake.
It is a calm day at a houseboat in Kashmir's Dal Lake, a major tourist attraction in summer capital, Srinagar.
Houseboat owner Muhammad Yaqoob speaks proudly about the famous people his houseboats have hosted.
"So far, we have accommodated [hosted] Mr. Zubin Mehta [Musician], late [Indian] Tourism Minister Madhavroa Scindia, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, and Mrs. Indira Gandhi," he said.
Hoping, praying for good tourist season
Yaqoob has been hoping and praying for a good tourist season. The conflict in the region has always put question marks on tourist seasons. Often, good seasons have turned topsy-turvy in a week.
Yaqoob says they had just one good tourist month, last year, before a land disagreement stirred unrest in the region, ending the promising season prematurely.
Bathroom and kitchen waste killing lake
This year, the houseboat owners seem to have already lost. The Jammu and Kashmir High Court halted their operation after the State Pollution Control Board told the court that the bathroom and kitchen wastes from the houseboats were killing the lake.
"I have switched off my mobile because many travel agents which are in Mumbai and Gujrat have been calling me," explained Yaqoob. "I have no answers."
Environmentalists say unchecked pollution is ruining Dal Lake. For decades refuse from the city has been emptied into the lake. It also faces encroachment, in the form of floating gardens sprouting from islands inside the lake. Even the government acknowledges the lake has accumulated excessive levels of toxic metals, because of sewage. The court order comes as environmentalists say the government has failed to stop the scenic lake from deteriorating.
Houseboat owners vow to fight court order
But Yaqoob is pinning hopes on the next court hearing, as houseboat owners vow to fight the order.
Houseboat Owners Association Chairman Muhammad Azim Tuman says previous studies have found houseboats to be responsible only for three percent of pollution in Dal Lake.
"If houseboats are responsible for Dal Lake, who is responsible for Anchar Lake? Who is responsible for Wular [Lake]? Who is responsible for Manasbal [Lake]. Who is responsible for Gilsar? There are no houseboats there," Tuman noted.
Tuman says the court order will create a livelihood problem, not just for the houseboat owners, but also for thousands of people depending directly or indirectly on tourists they host.
Mini treatment systems could stem pollution
The court order exempts houseboats that find alternatives to dumping discharge into the lake. The state's Lakes and Waterways Development Authority is exploring the possibilities of installing mini-sewage treatment plants on the boats. Four models of mini-STPs have been short-listed for trial.
"The problem is very complex," said Sabah-u-Solim, a scientist with the development authority. "There are around 1,200 houseboats. We want to have a system that will be in place and function in a very cost-effective manner for these houseboats."
Solim says they have short-listed the mini-sewage treatment plants for trial after a two-year search and now need a full tourist season to test them. Even then, many houseboats may find the recommended STP's expensive.
However, Tuman says houseboat operators will try to buy time from the court, until they are in a position to install the appropriate system.