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'The Dal is Our Life': In Srinagar, a Fishing Community's Struggle for Survival

The J&K government came up with relocation plans for those living in and around the Dal, leading to mass relocation.

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(This article builds upon our previous one on the Hanjis of Kashmir. It delves into the multifaceted challenges faced by the community around the Dal Lake, caused by rampant urbanisation, leading to direct economic and psychological harm.)  

The Dal Lake is home to thousands of indigenous people known as the Haenz in common parlance. The Haenz or the Hanjis have been living in and around the lake for thousands of years. These people regard the lake as their home and it holds sentimental value for them.  

As explained earlier, the Hanjis are not a monolithic group but a community of many subgroups. One of the subgroups is the Ga’ed Haenz or the fishing community. Also called the Maahigeer, they live around the Dal Lake. They can be seen selling the fish along the banks of the Dal.

But today, amidst environmental degradation and rampant urbanisation to attract tourists, the Hanji people are confronted with significant obstacles that threaten their way of life.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir, to protect the Dal from encroachments and pollution, came up with relocation plans for the people living in and around the Dal, aimed at relocating more than 10,000 people to different parts of Srinagar city. Most of the people who had to be relocated belonged to the Hanji community.  

The people were relocated to three major areas, the Boatmen Colony in Bemina, the Rakh e Arth Colony in Bemina, and the Fishermen Colony in Habbak Shanpora.

As part of the Visual Storyboards initiative of the Centre for New Economics Studies, our team did extensive fieldwork with the Maahigeer community who were relocated to Fishermen Colony in Habbak.

The J&K government came up with relocation plans for those living in and around the Dal, leading to mass relocation.

Fishermen Colony, Habbak. 

(Photo: Hamreen Khan)

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The relocation process is aimed at conserving the fragile ecosystem of the lake. The Hanjis have always been considered the main culprit for the degradation of the lake. They were accused of polluting the ecosystem of the lake.

However, a Right to Information filed by Tariq Ahmed (a houseboat owner) in 2017 said, “44 litres (11 million gallons) of sewage was released into the lake from the city each day. In addition, about 1 million litres (260,000 gallons) of sewage came from houseboats”.  

Almost all of our respondents said that they were reluctant to shift. “The Dal was our home, how could we leave it on our own will, we were forced to relocate to an alien area”, one of them said. On being asked why did they not protest, one of the female respondents said, “There were a lot of problems. The children were arrested. That is the reason we did not take part in the protests. Many people were arrested”.

With relocation, the government provided five marlas of land per family. They were also given some money in lieu of the previous structures they lived in.

The J&K government came up with relocation plans for those living in and around the Dal, leading to mass relocation.

Fishermen Colony, Habbak. 

(Photo: Hamreen Khan)

Our respondents also said that before relocation, there was strong social cohesion among the Maahigeer but as soon as they were relocated, tensions arose among the neighbours and even between families.

“We were given five marlas per family. I have five brothers they have been given five marlas. They live in such horrible conditions. Five of my brothers live in one house. There is a lack of space and no privacy. They fight every day”, lamented one respondent.

Another respondent said, “I have three sons, and the land had to be divided into those three sons, what did they get? They live in small huts. They don’t have a private space.”

Some of the residents alleged discrimination by the Lake Conservation and Management Authority (LCMA). They alleged that it gave away plots discriminately. “If you have good relations with sahab in the LCMA, they will give you two plots instead of three. I had nobody to fight for me so I got only one plot.”

On being asked if they were given any monetary compensation by the government, Ghulam Mohammad stated, “Just at the time of filling housing forms, they gave us about Rs 1,40,000. Some families got Rs 80,000, while some got Rs 1,00,000. They would give us money for one room. They have given one plot to each ration card holder. If there are 10 people mentioned in a ration card, they will collectively be allotted five marlas”.

Our respondents alleged that the people in the Department of Fisheries are corrupt and will help only those who have some kind sifarish (recommendation). People also complain that they are being asked to pay huge electricity bills.

On the question of ration, one respondent asserted, “Earlier we used to at least get ration for our family and it was enough to survive for the month, but now we are given only four kg rice per person. Will we eat only four kilograms of rice per month.”

The J&K government came up with relocation plans for those living in and around the Dal, leading to mass relocation.

Garbage lying on the streets of Fishermen Colony, Habbak.

(Photo: Hamreen Khan)

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The Ga’ed Haenz faced a lot of hardships in the relocation process, including a sense of losing their identity, especially the older generation of the community. “We think that we were like fish without water. Survival is very difficult for us”, claimed a respondent.

“The Dal was is our culture and identity, relocating us to these tight spaces has choked us emotionally as well as physically.”

This loss of identity is also evident in the fact that the younger generation of the community is not willing to take up this trade.

Despite these obstacles, the people demonstrate remarkable resilience. The assertion, "The Dal is our life, and if it dies, we die," encapsulates the existential significance of the Dal for the Hanji people, transcending mere economic considerations.

The absence of governmental support exacerbates the community's marginalisation, hindering access to essential resources and avenues for advocacy.

Acknowledging the complexities of the Hanji community's plight is crucial in fostering an environment for their revitalisation efforts. By recognising the intrinsic value of the Dal tradition and supporting initiatives aimed at its preservation, policymakers can contribute to the long-term viability of the community's livelihood and cultural heritage.

(Deepanshu Mohan is Professor of Economics and Dean, Office of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director, the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), O P Jindal Global University. Najam Us Saqib is a PhD Student and a Research Analyst with CNES Visual Storyboard Team.)

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