Much has changed since Rahti Begum, a fisherwoman in Kashmir, now in her late 60s, first began wandering the streets with a bucketful of fish on her head. She was 17 when her father roped her into the business that became the source of her livelihood for the remainder of her life.
Living in a houseboat on Dal Lake, one of Kashmir’s famed water bodies, Rahti says catching fish and selling it to people has been the sole source of income of her family for centuries.“Even when I was a child, I knew I was going to sell fish. Every one in our family does that. The lake on which we live was been fulfilling all our needs,” she says.
Her family belong to a tribe in Kashmir called ‘Hanjis’ who live in houseboats and eke out a living from the lakes and rivers the region had in abundance. A majority of the members of the tribe are involved in tourism as they take tourists in the lavishly decorated boats called ‘Shikaras’ to explore the beauties of the rivers and lakes.
Others amongst the tribe catch fish and sell it directly to the public. Rahti belongs to the latter group. The men during the early hours of the morning cast nets into the lake, catch fish and pass on the stock to their women who sell it by roaming around in different areas.
“When my father asked me join him, I was reluctant to say yes but there wasn’t anything else through which we could have earned a living. Gradually, selling fish became an integral part of my life and hence the family legacy continued,” she tells IPS. However Rahti, now afflicted with ailments that come with old age, is confident that she is going to be the last woman in her tribe to sell fish.
“My death will end the legacy for ever. No one wants to do this business again as the lake has all of a sudden turned monstrous for us; it is becoming a cesspool and fishes underneath its belly are vanishing with each passing day,” Rahti explains. Fish production and agricultural activities in this Himalayan region contribute 23 percent of GDP and are the mainstay of the economy.
According to a study conducted by researchers Neha W Qureshi and M Krishnan, the total fish production in Dal Lake registered a negative compound growth rate (CGR) of -0.34 percent for the period 1980-1990. But for the period 2000-2010, fish production in Dal Lake showed a negative compound growth rate of -2.89 percent. Wullar Lake showed a negative compound growth rate of -8.78 percent from 2000-2011
The study blames the decline in numbers on the negative externalities of tourism, excessive fertilisation of vegetable crops on floating gardens that lead to algal blooms, and the spike in pollution due to the dumping of waste in both lakes.
These have all led to a consistent decline and destruction of the breeding grounds of the local fish species schizothorax. Furthermore, the consumption of fish has outnumbered actual fish production in the region.While the annual consumption is 25,000 tons of fish, production stands at 20,000 tons per year in both lakes combined. Of this, Dal Lake produces no more than 5,000 tons a year.
Rahti, who now struggles to earn enough for one full meal a day, says she vividly remembers the times when during her childhood, fish under the diamond-like transparency of the lake used to swim in shoals and flocks of ducks with emerald necks used to swim on the surface.“Those were the days when we used to earn a decent livelihood and the lake produced no less than 15 thousand tons of fish every year. It is now a thing of a past,” she rues.
Rahti, who has two daughters and a son, says the reason that her children wouldn’t go into the business of selling fish is the dreadful decline in fish production in the lake. Her daughters are homemakers and her son has a job at a local grocery store. Her earnings, Rahti says, have declined from 500 dollars a month to a mere 100 dollars a month at present.“There isn’t enough produce that I could sell and with merge income in hand, why would I push my children to the precipice of a disastrous living?” Rahti tells IPS.
Another fisherwoman, Jana Begum, has similar fears. In her 50s now, Jana says her only concern is how the family would survive if the situation were to remain the same.“Our sole income is selling fish. My husband, a fisherman catches fish and I sell it. We have been doing this for 30 years but it looks like the difficult times have begun to dominate poor people like us,” Jana tells IPS.
She says almost every day, her husband returns home with empty nets and a glum face as there aren’t any fish left to be caught in Wullar Lake — another famous water body located in the north of Kashmir.“Why would my daughters do this business? What is left for them to earn. With us, the profession shall end and we are already long dead,” says Jana.
According to a study by Imtiaz Ahmed, Zubair Ahmad and Ishtiyaq Ahmad, Department of Zoology, University of Kashmir, the main reasons for the depletion of fishery resources in these water bodies are over-fishing and encroachment.It suggested that the entry of domestic sewage, solid wastes and agricultural wastes into these water bodies needs to be controlled and properly managed.
“Also aquatic weeds present in these aquatic ecosystems must be cultivated and should be properly utilised because of its high nutritional values and economic values. A separate authority needs to be established to monitor the physico-chemical and biological characteristics of Dal Lake.”
The director of the Department of Fisheries, Ram Nath Pandita, gives similar reasons for the decline in fish production in Kashmir’s lakes and rivers, attributing it to increasing pollution and encroachment.He says because of the dumping of waste in water bodies, fish larvae do not grow into fry, resulting in the decline.
Pandita tells IPS that in order to address the decline in fish production, the government is supplying larvae to the water bodies and is continuously monitoring the process.“The government is keeping closer watch on the entire process of increasing the fish production in Kashmir’s lakes and besides increasing the supply of larvae, it is also ensuring that no illegal fishing is allowed,” Pandita says.
He added that due to the massive floods that occurred in Kashmir in 2014, a large quantity of silt and sewage accumulated in the lakes, affecting fish production directly. Pandita said awareness campaigns are being carried out about the importance of keeping the water bodies clean and not dumping household solid and liquid wastes in them.
“There are even seminars and road shows being conducted by the government in which people from cross sections of the society are educated that the fish can turn poisonous and will extinguish if water bodies aren’t protected through the unanimous efforts of the people and the government,” Pandita tells IPS.
The government in February banned any illegal fishing in Kashmir’s water bodies and claims that the law will help curb the decline in fish production and help secure the livelihood of people involved in the sector.Under the new law, only those permitted by the government can fish in the water bodies and any one found violating the norm shall be liable to three months of imprisonment and a fine of 500 Indian Rupees (about 90 dollars.)
The Department of Lakes and Water Ways development authority – a government department tasked with the protection of lakes in Kashmir – reports that various plans are underway to save Dal Lake and various species that live in it.The department is uprooting water lilies with traditional methods and is de-weeding the lake with the latest machinery so that the surface of the lake is freed from weeds and fish production will rebound.
However, according to a study by Humaira Qadri and A. R. Yousuf from the Department of Environmental Science, University of Kashmir, despite the government spending about USD170 million on the conservation of the lake so far, there is no visible improvement in its condition.“A lack of proper management and restoration plan and the incidence of engineered but ecologically unsound management practices have led to a failure in the conservation efforts,” says the study.
It concluded that the lake is moving towards its definite end and that conservation efforts have proved to be a total failure. It adds that official apathy and failure to take the problems seriously on the part of the managing authorities have deteriorated the overall condition of the lake.The study says a united effort is needed by the government as well as the people so that instead of turning the water bodies into waste dumping sites, they are saved for the greater common good of Kashmir.
But Pandita is optimistic that the lakes can be restored to their past glory. Though, he admitted, that due to the high level of pollution in the lakes, it is feared that they may turn into cesspools. However, he said the government was working to combat this through various methods, which included awareness campaigns and lake clean-up drives.
But among the uneducated communities living around the lakes, many do not understand the measures taken by the government. When IPS spoke to local community members, all they talked about were the lack of fish. They were unaware about whether the government’s efforts will bring about any change in the lake.
As IPS asked fisher-person Jum Dar whether the government’s measures were bringing any positive change, Dar said he has seen many government agencies taking water samples for research from the lake and but there hadn’t been any visible change. His livelihood, he says, continues to remain in danger.
As IPS spent an entire day with Dar, and he only caught two fish which weighed no more than half a kilogram.“See yourself the hard times we encounter everyday. How could we survive when such a catastrophe has engulfed our lives?”