SRINAGAR: In hope-versus-despair, the journey down the road for small houseboat owners and vendors in Kashmir seems a never-ending struggle for survival. And it all happened so abruptly post August 5 last year — when the Centre removed the special status to J&K under Article 370 – that many people now think their economic deprivation is beyond redemption.
There is no tourism — which once accounted for about 7% of the state’s GDP — and transport has come to a grinding halt due to lockdowns post Covid-19. Kashmir House Boat Owners Association general secretary Abdul Rashid says more than a dozen owners have sold their houseboats since August 5 last year because they simply can’t afford to keep their business afloat.
All Kashmir Transporters Welfare Association Shabir Ahmad Matt said about 75,000 passenger vehicles plied in the Valley and all are now grounded since Aug 5 last year. He said around 1.50 lakh families depended on the transport sector. “Most drivers and conductors are now jobless and without money.”
Fayaz Ahmad Sheikh, now reduced to a menial labourer, would tell you how the once owner of ‘Noah’s Ark’ houseboat has been driven to penury. “I earned around Rs 4,000 per day during the tourism season,” recalls Sheikh. His ‘Noah’s Ark’ had two master-size bedrooms, master-size dining and a living room.
Then August 5 happened. His customers were reduced to a trickle and within weeks, he stopped getting anyone of them. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, his hopes of seeing tourists return remained an empty dream. Then came lockdown, and all his savings were gone. “I spent Rs 70,000 on repairing the ‘Noah’s Ark’,” said Sheikh. “Things were becoming unmanageable…I had to support my sister, a younger brother and mother.” Another tragedy lay in wait even as he worked as a labourer: the small houseboat in which the family lived collapsed due to snow. “I had to spend Rs 50,000 to bring it out of water.
“Finally, I sold my houseboat in mid-March, twice as much cheaper,” he said. His next recourse was joining a travel agency which paid him Rs 10,000 per month.Then came lockdown. “I lost my job as the owner closed the agency.” Sheikh now does menial works and banks on the generosity of neighbours.
Take another instance: Mehraj Ahmad Bhat, from Barbarshah area of uptown Srinagar, was once a passenger bus driver. He is now a roadside tea vendor.
First the buses went off the road following Aug 5 events last year and then as things looked normal, the lockdown did him in. “A few months back, I started a roadside tea stall to earn some money. But I had to shut it as people are hesitant to purchase eatables from outside owing to Covid-19,” said Bhat.
“I have no money to pay the school fee of my two kids.” He is being helped by his neighbours. “If they don’t help us, we will starve to death.”