A heaven on earth? Not so much

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — From the shores of Srinagar's Dal Lake, once described as heaven on earth, the water looks dull and brackish. The storied houseboats that were the summer playgrounds of India's British colonizers are lined up across what from this vantage appears to be a weed-choked pond, no larger than a football field.

The boats' garish decorations and cheery names — “New Australia,” “Sansouci,” “Young Dreams,” “The Golden Fleece” — hint at a Gatsbyish heyday of long, lazy afternoons and parties that echoed across the water through the night. But packed chock-a-block, in all their faded grandeur, most of the boats lie empty.

Dal Lake is dying, and along with it a remarkable culture.

“If you had seen Kashmir 20 years back, 30 years back, then half of the population lived in boats,” Rashid Dangola, owner of a houseboat named “Hilton Kashmir” tells me. “In the next 20 years, day by day, this culture will go.”

In fact, the football field-sized parcel where the Hilton Kashmir lies moored is only a tiny portion of the real Dal Lake, which spreads over six square miles but which over the last 30 years has shrunk to half its original size. It has been reclaimed by weeds and eventually land, paved over by the government in an effort to improve roadways and accommodate Srinagar's growing population, or simply converted to real estate and farmland by people in need of a place to live.

Only a small part of the remaining lake can be seen from the shore, because at its heart it is a sort of floating, rural Venice — a maze of canals, vegetable gardens and lotus-root farms where houseboats have been converted into souvenir stores and papier mache factories, and islands have been reclaimed to erect towering colonial brick houses.

These islands, and the “floating land” that an estimated 40,000 farmers use to grow eggplant, squash and tomatoes, multiplies every year. So do the people. And so does the waste they create. Garbage spills into the water from the Dal's banks, and a thick green scum covers canals that 20 years ago were splashing playgrounds for local children.

“[The] Dal has become a vegetable garden; where is the water body?” an exasperated high court Chief Justice Bashir Ahmad Khan reflected recently, as he issued a stern warning to the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) and the Srinagar Development Authority (SDA), which have failed to arrest the lake's decline despite investments of some $125 million over the years.

As a rented shikhara — India's version of the gondola — ferries us through the lake's floating villages, Dangola tells me: “I was proud to bring people to this side, so they would understand how we live. But now it is all spoiled.”

Conventional wisdom once blamed the pollution problem on the lake's 1,200 houseboats, but in reality these boats account for only about 3 percent of the waste released into the lake. The real culprits are a succession of poor planners and the city of Srinagar itself — with a population of about a million — which releases tons of raw sewage into the waters of the Dal through 15 different drains along the shore. Moreover, due to a poorly thought out decision to pave over the network of canals that once linked the Dal Lake to several other bodies of water surrounding Srinagar and the fast-flowing River Jhellum, the waters here are now stagnant.

In June, Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh committed another $225 million — $60 million of which the central government has already rubber stamped — to build sewage treatment plants, purchase de-weeding machines and resettle nearly 10,000 families who live on the lake's network of islands. But Kashmir has been throwing money at the problem for years, and resettling the families who live in the lake would be tantamount to destroying it.

A two-hour shikhara ride along the shore and through the winding canals reveals that while claims of the lake's great beauty are somewhat exaggerated — it is by no means a crystal clear, glacial teardrop like Lake Tahoe — it boasts a unique and vibrant culture.

The enormity of the task at hand is also clear. Everywhere, clawing weeds choke the passages, and the water is covered with tiny specks of green algae, massing like something out of B-grade science fiction. The reason the plant life is so prolific — excessive fertilizer in the water — is evident, too.

From secluded pipes that are easy to spot from inside the lake, the coffee brown sewage of the city of Srinagar glugs untreated into the water. Though some years ago 6,000 families deemed to be “encroachers” without legitimate claim to houses in the lake were pushed out, the cleanup effort now appears to be limited to half-a-dozen dredging and weeding platforms — which patrol the waters, belching smoke, when the whim strikes their operators.

According to locals, it's a haphazard, rearguard action with little hope of success. The 6,000 displaced families have been replaced by some 20,000. The city's much discussed sewage system shows no signs of building itself. And even the dubiously expensive deweeding machines, parked in convenient proximity to shore while I was in town, seem to remain idle most of the day.

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