SRINAGAR: Even in this all-encompassing lockdown, life has not come to standstill in the human settlements within and along the Dal Lake.
People, as they would do pre-Covid times, come out of their homes and huddle, bustle, and trade from early in the morning. There is no disruption caused to the 100-year-old floating gardens that supply vegetables to Srinagar. Traders in their canoe, locally known as naav, gather at the centre of the lake at the break of dawn and finish up before the sun starts to rise from beyond the nearby mountains.
During the day, the same vegetable sellers open up their groceries store, many of which have sprouted on the murky water of the Dal Lake. Otherwise, in times of no lockdown, most of the veggie sellers took out their canoe, anchored them at the shore of the Dal and waited for business, while the women at home took care of the shop.
“Honestly, I am more afraid of the smell emanating from the polluted water of the Dal, than the virus,” says Muhammad Abbas, a resident of Leat Mohallah in the Dal’s interiors.
It is April afternoon. Abbas is sitting at the shop where he sells grocery, milk, bread, after bringing in supplies from the lake in the morning. In the evening he returns home, the day’s work finally done.
“This is the safest place for us. I am the fourth generation being nourished here. Life has never been disturbed here. In 2019, when all of Kashmir was locked, we were doing our work, except for a few days that count as an exception. So it had been during 2008, 2010, 2016,” he says.
The indifference, or call it defiance, to the lockdown, according to Abbas, comes from the years of “built-up immunity” among the people. He said that the settlements here cropped up through migration of people from various places over the last century. Abbas’s great grandfather had come here after facing problems from a section of society. For him, migration meant finding livelihood in an area that was not easily accessible. The ecosystem of the water was a perfect refuge.
Abbas gave an example of the 2014 floods, when his concrete house was under water, he was still living a normal life in his houseboat with his family. He had everything at home, and he often went out on his canoe to reach people who needed help.
This is perhaps why the people here vote in large numbers, the Dal always a fertile ground for support for mainstream political parties in Srinagar, where polls are by and large boycotted. In the 2014 elections, Abbas says, he voted for the PDP, severing his decades-old connection with the National Conference, which was defeated after a long time in the constituency.
In recent days, Arif Ali, a budding entrepreneur from Okhoon mohallah, has purchased a shop in this area and he is now furnishing its interiors. Aware that the lockdown will remain for a long time, and his barber’s shop at Kalwal Mohallah area of Rainawari and a furnishing factory at Rangerstop in Saida Kadal will both remain shut, Ali saw an opportunity to open another shop.
“Life in this area remains unchanged, come what may,” he said. “So, I thought of opening a shop here. I know it will be successful.”
On Monday, when this reporter paid a visit, grocery, barber, vegetable, tailor, fruit shops all were open. People from nearby localities (under lockdown) were coming here for buying groceries, and for getting hair cuts. They were exchanging curious and suspicious looks with this reporter whose face was covered by a mask.
Construction work on a mosque and a house here was completed a few days ago. The leftover construction material remains piled on surface which was only water till a few years ago. During 2019, 2016, and 2010, the three years worst hit by political unrest in the last decade, a lot of earth was used to fill parts of the lake. Many passages connecting the interiors with the main roads were also put in place during these years. They remain, undisturbed, despite a government body tasked with protecting the lake from encroachment and erosion.
In the last century, a vast portion of the lake was converted into land. About 8km of the shoreline has been lost, according to Tariq Ahmad, an activist working for preserving the water body.
“We have learnt how to live here. Nobody, so far, has been infected here by the disease. A team of doctors had conducted tests here; they all came out negative. Police don’t come here often to make us observe the lockdown. We take it lightly anyway. Allah will protect us. He has been protecting us despite all efforts to remove us from here over the years. We have only won,” Abbas said.
He was referring to the efforts of both the Jammu and Kashmir Government and the High Court which have been trying to remove the habitations from the Dal Lake for two decades now.