On a cold winter day in December, Mohammad Hussain, a Dal dweller would usually show tourists around in his Shikara, traditional boat, but instead he is doing a hectic job of plucking weed plants out from the lake.
Due to the increasing amount of pollutants present in the Lake, Srinagar’s Lakes and Waterways Development Authorities (LAWDA) has gone back to the traditional way of removing the weed from the lake. It currently employs around 1,300 boatman for the cleaning process.
For the first time 1,300 Shikarawalas have been hired to speed up the cleaning process.
The government says that it is a part of their policy to employ Dal dwellers as it will help in cleaning process and also provide employment to many.
Vice Chairman LAWDA, Dr. Abdul Hafiz Shah said, “Lilypads are spread to around 5 to 6 sq km, all top officials from High court to Chief Minister were concerned about the growing number of lily pads around the lake. It was a challenge for authorities and we came up with an idea to hire Dal dwellers to clean up the Lake.”
Initially, LAWDA employed around 200 boatmen, the numbers rose up to 600 later, and now there are 1,200-1,300 boatmen who are involved in cleaning Dal lake. It is the highest number so far.
The cleaning process usually takes place during the autumn season, as lily pads and weed does not grow past the autumn season. It grows back again in the month of March.
“It is also for the first time that we have extended the Dal cleaning process to winters,” added Hafiz.
“Among 6 sq km of polluted lake, 2 sq km has already been cleaned and if we go by the same pace, Dal will be pollution-free within six to eight months,” said Public relation officer, LAWDA, Malik Tariq.
Workers complain that LAWDA is not paying much attention to their safety, as recently, there was an incident in which a young labourer – Rafiq Ahmad Sheikh, 19 – the sole bread owner in his family, lone son of his widow mother, lost his life as he was electrocuted to death. He was a part of levelling project of LAWDA.
Vice Chairman of LAWDA said, “The workers are not in any formal contract with the department, hence we are not in a position to compensate them. However we are trying our best to ensure the safety of the workers.”
De-weeding of Dal in such cold conditions is a not an easy job. It requires four people to extract a part of weed or lily from the water. As one person extracts it from its roots using traditional tools, another person holds the heavy pile of waste, while the third person cuts it off, and then the pile of waste is loaded on the boat which is transported from there to the banks of Dal Lake.
The boat can hold weight, ranging from six quintal to 40 quintal depending upon the size of the boat.
“Working in such cold conditions is not an easy job as our hands suffer numbness due to the cold water; we aren’t even provided a basic safety gear. From boat to boots, everything that we use is of our own. I have lost four equipment that I used for cutting lily,” said Imitiyaz Ahmad, a local worker.
Workers request authorities to at least provide them with a waterproof uniform, a pair of gloves and long water-resistant boots so that they will have to change their clothes time and again during the day.
Delay In Payment
They also complain that they haven’t been paid wages from past two months or so. The workers are paid a sum of ₹350-450 per day. Those who extract lily are paid ₹450 a day while those who extract weed are paid only ₹350. Workers also complain that this amount is not sufficient for them, and they want a raise.
Bilal Ahmad, a local worker from Nishat said, “LAWDA promised that they will pay us within 15 days, initially they did but now it’s been two months since I last received my payment.”
These boatmen work together to extract weed and lily pads from the lake and collect it in their boats.
Earlier tenders were given to locals for manual de-weeding but the present Vice Chairman of LAWDA made sure that there is no middleman involved and has employed 1,300 boatmen to clean the lake.
“Previously there was a third part involved between the labourers and the department, we have eradicated the third party system and now the money will be directly paid to workers,” he added.
Known as Kashmir’s jewel, Dal lake’s trouble started largely in the 1990s as encroachments started taking place around the lake area. With increasing tourist arrival new constructions started to come up around the lake. The waste from these newly made up construction was disposed in the lake as there was no proper system of drainage that time.
Last year’s revelations by wikileaks included a cable in which an American Diplomat said, “Kashmir’s politics were as filthy as Dal Lake.”
“There are nearly 60,000 people residing in the patches of land in the lake. Apart from it, there are 700 houseboats which turn into hotels in the tourism period,” said an official from LAWDA.
Around 12 major drains from Srinagar open into the Lake and the sewage from these drains pollutes the Dal on daily basis. According to a report prepared by the University of Roorkee’s Alternate Hydro Energy Centre, the sewage brings with it nitrogen and phosphorus which has changed physical and chemical properties of Dal waters.
Large section of society criticizes LAWDAs efforts as not much has been done to regain Dal lost glory. For improving lake’s condition, government has spent 1,100 on it but unfortunately not much has been achieved till date.
“It seems apart from wasting money, authorities haven’t done anything concrete to restore the glory of Dal,” said Hussain
In order to tackle the waste flowing from drains, authorities build a Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) in 2006, but not much has been achieved as three out of five STPs have become defunct. As per figures from LAWDA, nearly 50 million litres of sewage flows into the Dal Lake daily, out of which 20 million litres is untreated.
In terms of pollution, sewage isn’t the only problem that Dal faces. Its algae, lily pads and weed which have covered a large area around the lake and is making life difficult for authorities. In order to clean up this jumble of dirt around the Lake, LAWDA brought several machines from Switzerland, Finland and United States in 2010. The machines were brought to speed up the Dal cleaning process. But very little was achieved by using a handful of de-weeding machines. Experts say that these machines have failed to restore the lost glory of Dal, instead of making Dal weed free it has aggravated the growth of weed as it does not extract weed by its roots and it has also given birth to Algae.
“Due to high amount of pollution present in the lake that it should not be called as Dal Lake but instead should be called as Dull Lake,” said Hussein.
Locals also reiterate the fact that these machines only trim the topmost part of lily or weed which ultimately grows back within weeks while we extract it right from its roots making sure that it will never grow again which makes our method of de-weeding more successful.
Mohammad Maqbool, another worker said that our method of cleaning is more successful because we use traditional tools such as Levann , Naaruch, Panjeree, boat paddle and axe to extract these pollutants from its roots. Moreover, only the lake dweller can perform this task because he identifies himself with the lake better than others.
Dal dwellers have converted-rehabilitation colony at Rakh-e- Arth in Bemina on the outskirts of the city as there is no approach road, no proper drainage and no drinking water while there are no traces of promised school and health centre. But, so far, only around 300 families have been shifted and they accused government for their apathy in this matter.