By Nusrat Sidiq
SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir (AA) – Malaa Begum, a frail 87-year-old woman in Indian-administered Kashmir, has worked as a fisherwoman for over 50 years.
Begum belongs to one of the oldest and largest ethnic groups of Kashmir, called the Hanjis or water-dwellers.
They inhabit the banks of Kashmir’s water bodies like the Dal, Wular, Anchar, and Manasbal lakes and the Jhelum River.
On the banks of Dal Lake in the capital Srinagar, a prime tourist attraction in the city, Begum has been living with around 800-1,200 people from the fishermen's community locally called Gadihaenz.
Gadihaenz is one of the sub-classes of the Hanjis and mainly relies on the water bodies for their living by catching and selling fish.
“This has been my abode for over four decades of my life,” she said, pointing to the lake.
Begum got involved in selling fish when she was only 14. She remembers that her grandfather along with her father used to catch fish from the lake, and later on, the women of the household used to sell it at various locations around the region.
“At the time, the lake was filled with a huge number of fish. People used to throw away large amounts of fish even after selling it,” she recalled.
But she said the lake has deteriorated to a large extent now, and “hardly will you find a good number of fish. It is very hard labor and a hard-living too.”
- Social and economic gaps
Hanjis are active, hardworking people. The children start working by towing or paddling the boats at a very early age. But their standard of living has remained poor owing to fewer economic opportunities and negligible social inclusion like in education, medical care, or jobs in the government and private sector.
Begum said her ancestral occupation hardly gives her enough money. She said the children do not want to continue with this profession because of the stigma and low wages.
“There is nothing left now for us,” she said.
Economically, the Hanjis have been identified as lower service class people that mainly depend on the water bodies for their living.
Mohammad Amin, 59, is a Dembhaenz (vegetable grower), another class of Hanjis that cultivates vegetables in the islands dotting the Dal Lake. This class of Hanjis mainly resides in and around the peripheries of the water bodies.
They cultivate vegetables on floating gardens built from two types of weeds found in Dal Lake and locally called Pech (Typha angustata) and Nargasa (Phragmites australis).
Amin said vegetable growers weave the weeds together into floating mats that form the base of the garden.
“There are two kinds of floating gardens -- raadh and demb. The raadh is a mobile floating garden, ideal for growing tomatoes, melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers, while the demb is static, built either along the shore or in shallow waters,” he said.
However, he said that over the years, many vegetable growers from the lake have migrated due to uncertain conditions and the pollution of the lake.
Also, the government's crackdown to check the growing pollution of the lake has uprooted many families, which poses a greater risk to the community as well.
Amin says many classes of Hanjis no longer exist now.
“You won’t find them like Hakhaenz (gatherers of wood from water bodies) and Bahatchihaenz (who live in boats that are made up of Bahatch -- a type of grass),” he said.
Tariq Patloo, who also belongs to a Hanji community, has been campaigning to save Dal Lake for over 30 years and blames the government for driving out many families.
“The government has been using cosmetic solutions to save the lake, and for many years, they are blaming us (Hanjis), that you have polluted the lake, which has affected many of us,” Patloo said.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, he said that the sewage from the city and the hoteliers go directly into the lake, and still the blame is put on them, “which is pathetic.”
Begum said the Dal Lake used to be so clean that people used to drink its waters directly. But now it is like a stagnant pool.
Years of conflict and volatile situations have also forced this group to look for other options other than drawing a living from waterbodies.
Since 2019, when the Indian government abrogated the limited autonomy of the region, many Hanjis have faced stressful conditions.
For nearly two years, there was no work for the houseboat owners and boat riders -- another class of Hanjis that earns from hosting, transporting, and guiding tourists.
“Hanji is not just a group of people; it is a cultural and traditional group of Kashmir that tells you the story of this place,” Patloo said.