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Kashmir's shikarawalas wait endlessly for tourists
Sumir Kaul in Srinagar | June 19, 2006 10:19 IST
With hope in their hearts and despair in their eyes, the boatmen at Jammu and Kashmir's legendary Dal Lake wait for elusive tourists whose numbers have dwindled drastically since a string of attacks on travellers by militants.
The shikarawalas, who have no other source of livelihood, have probably been hit hardest by a fall in tourist arrivals since five people from Gujarat and West Bengal were killed in the recent attacks.
The boatmen, sitting despondently in their shikaras with elegant names like Golden Heaven, Paradise Lily and Jannat (Heaven) tied to the banks of the lake, keep looking at the nearby Boulevard Road in search of tourists.
But the only people to be seen there are daily wage labourers and gun-toting army and paramilitary personnel who have no desire to take a boat ride in the placid waters of the scenic lake.
"For us the famous song by Kishore Kumar -- Kiska rasta dekhe... -- summarises our miseries. Sometimes even we can't say why we keep waiting for the tourists," says boatman Ghulam Mohammed as he smokes his hukka at the Nehru Park on the bank of the Dal Lake.
After a day's wait, Idris, another shikarawala, paddles his boat home with a dejected look on his face. He says there were no tourists to take a ride in his boat, and therefore, no earnings to support his family.
It was not the same a little over three weeks ago, when these boatmen were a happy lot following a major increase in domestic tourist arrivals over the past two years.
"The attacks by militants on tourists on May 25 and May 31 changed our fortunes. Since then, we mostly spend our time counting the waves of the Dal," says Idris, who added that he easily earned as much as Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 a day before the attacks.
While four tourists from Gujarat died in the first attack, one man from West Bengal was killed and about 30 were injured when militants lobbed grenades at buses in the busy Dal Gate area.
State government officials are tightlipped about the slump in tourist arrivals but the silent waves of the Dal Lake tell the entire story. The waters of the lake are now disturbed mainly by motorboats of the state police or the Central Reserve Police Force and not by shikaras carrying tourists.
"There was a time when an hour's ride fetched us Rs 300 to Rs 400 but now we don't even have Rs 50 in our pocket to meet our daily demands," says boatman Gulzar.
"Those reponsible for the attacks on tourists may term this as jihad but what do we tell our future generations -- that in the name of jihad, these people have not thought about your tomorrow?" Gulzar asked.
Over six lakh (600,000) tourists had visited Jammu and Kashmir last year, when domestic tourist arrivals alone went up by 83 per cent.