NARBAL (BUDGAM): Come winter, homes in the village of Narbal Ghat, situated along the banks of the Flood Spill Channel, turn into mini food factories, with families working tirelessly to extract millions of water chestnuts from their needled shells.
The main workforce in a household are the women, many of whom call their occupation a blessing, but many others say that the work damages their skin, as extracting water chestnut from the needled shells is a prickly business.
Laced with protective rubber padding all over her fingers, Daulat, 55, has been doing the job since her childhood.
Moving a special knife tactfully over the chestnuts, she says it is difficult to understand the pain that is suffered in making this thorny fruit edible.
“The padding is protecting my hand, but still I will suffer a lot of damage,” she says.
The villagers say that their day stats at dawn, with the boiling of water chestnuts to make their peeling easier. As the day progresses, the whole family joins the work, which continues for the whole winter.
The chestnuts come to Narbal Ghat village from the Watlab area adjoining Wular Lake, where the crop grows in abundance.
Dealers in Narbal Ghat village stock tons of it for the winter and allocate portions to each family engaged in the job.
While many women want machines to do the job to ease their sufferings, Feteh Mohammmad Khanday, an elderly man of the village, says that it must continue in the traditional way, as machines will rob many of a sustainable livelihood.
“In the past we used to row boats filled with water chestnuts from the lake to this place, but now trucks do the job,” he said. “The processing, though, is still done in the traditional way and many families, mostly women, earn their livelihood from it,” he said.
Asked about the “turnover”, he said that no one has ever made efforts to calculate it, but given the fact that truckloads of the produce are processed here, the business may run into several lakhs.
Six kilograms of the processed stuff, dealers said, is sold at Rs 300, and rates go up as the winter progresses.
The shells of the chestnuts do not go waste. The women take care to store them separately, to later use them as fuel in kangris.
“Extraction is painful,” says Shakeela Akhtar, “but the gain is the leftover shells that come handy to fuel kangris in winter.”
Shakeela said that many women are also experts in ari work and chain-stitching on fabrics, but after machines took over this job they again switched to the older practice of water chestnut processing.
Khanday said that the processed chestnuts are supplied to Srinagar city and also to districts in south Kashmir.
He said that the water chestnut retains a vibrant market as people like to munch on them in winters. It is also consumed for the medicinal benefits it has.
“In north Kashmir, many villages around Wular Lake, like Lankreshpora, Baniyari, Madvan, also carry out the processing of water chestnuts, but the main supply to the city as well as to areas in south Kashmir is from this village,” Khanday said.