Despite the snow and bone-chilling cold, the daily slog of the women tending their floating gardens in Srinagar’s Dal Lake never ceases. They use shovels to clear the snow to harvest vegetables.
For centuries, these floating gardens have been the source of livelihood for a large number of Kashmiri women. Raht Ded, 50, lives on Meer Behri island on the lake with her granddaughter Nusrat. As we talk, they carefully weigh their stock before loading it on to a narrow shikara, which they will row to the local markets.
The lake is partly frozen and most people are indoors. But women like Raht don’t have that luxury.
“Life has always been like this,” says Raht smiling, “As a kid, I used to help my parents in the floating garden.” And now her granddaughter, a class X student, helps her.
“It is our way of life, it sustains our clan,” says the soft-spoken Nusrat, adding, “We own three small floating gardens that collectively fetch close to Rs1 lakh per season (January-July).”
I learn that the floating gardens are built from two types of weeds found in the Dal and known locally as pech (Typha angustata) and nargasa (Phragmites australis). Boatmen weave the weeds together into floating mats that form the base of the garden. Layers of pruned weeds are added and, in three years, the floating garden becomes a 2m-thick, 3m-wide and 45m-long raft. The sizes, of course, may vary.
Then, there are two kinds of floating gardens, raadh and demb. The raadh is a mobile floating garden, ideal for growing tomatoes, melons, pumpkin and cucumber. The demb is static, built either along the shore or in the shallows. Farmers grow almost every variety of vegetable on them: turnip, radish, carrot, saag during winter and melons, tomato, cucumber and pumpkin in the summer.
These organic vegetables, sold in the local markets, are in high demand with well-heeled customers. “In fact,” says Manzoor Shangloo, a farmer, “through local contractors, our organic vegetables are even sought by the Badamibagh Cantonment Board, military outposts and some big army garrisons in Kupwara.”
More than 6,000 families depend on the floating gardens. But many of these families were uprooted and their gardens cleared when the government linked the farming activities to the pollution in the Dal Lake.
Raht says the J&K Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (Lawda) has identified 6,250 households in 52 hamlets around the lake and recommended shifting them under a project that is estimated to cost nearly Rs417 crore. So far, 300 families have been moved.
“They don’t appreciate how we are actually taking great care of the lake,” Raht says. “Lawda has put machines in the Dal for algae extraction. But these machines only cut the stem, leaving behind the root, which grows back into a plant within 15 days.” She says the farmers extract algae with the roots and use it as organic manure in their floating gardens.
The lake is being damaged by houseboat and hotel owners who, she says, dump their waste in it. “We aren’t the ones damaging the lake,” says Nazir Mir, a computer science student. “We have our own stretch where we decompose waste and use it later as manure.”
“Floating gardens are an ecological system in the Dal Lake,” admits Tehseen Mustafa, vice-chairman of Lawda. “Vegetable gardens as such create no harmful effect on the Dal—unless they use chemical fertilizers.” He agrees that the lake dwellers are good at removing the algae—“but there are only a few—around 300—who know how to do it.”
Zareef Ahmad Zareef, Kashmir’s historian-poet best known for his campaign to save the Chinar tree, links the floating gardens to Pakistan’s Sindh. “It was Kashmir’s most benevolent king Badshah (Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin),” he says, “who brought the engineers called meerabs from Sindh (in the 14th century) to clear weeds from the then rotting Dal Lake.”
“In return, they were given ownership of fish and other products of the water body.” After stabilizing the lake, the meerabs came up with the idea of floating gardens, says Zareef. And floating gardens found a “home” in the Dal Lake.
Environmentalist Anzar Khoroo, however, says the vegetable growers of the lake, women such as Raht, are a lifeline for the community. “The Dal has been crucial in providing vegetables to the whole of Srinagar, especially during crises, like the recent one when the entire city was put under curfew.”
In the Kand Mohalla of Dal Lake, I meet Kulsum Mir, 30, who is busy picking haakh (collard greens) from her floating garden. “It has been snowing for the last three days,” she says, “and I haven’t been able to extract any haakh, a much sought after vegetable in the local markets.”
“To meet rising expenses, I, along with my husband, spend ever more time on our floating garden. We want to give a good life to our four children and that’s why my husband goes to the markets early morning for sale. I sow seeds and saplings,” she says.
As the snow continues to fall, Raht prepares to take her boatload of vegetables to the markets. “This floating garden is my ancestors’ prized possession. They formed it by collecting dirt and waste from the Dal. I’m taking care of a family heirloom,” she says.