SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir
Malaa Begum, a frail 87-year-old woman from Indian-administered Kashmir, has worked as a fisherwoman for more than 50 years.
Begum belongs to one of the oldest and largest ethnic groups in Kashmir called the Hanjis or water dwellers.
They inhabit the shores of Kashmir’s water bodies like Dal, Wular, Anchar and Manasbal lakes and Jhelum river.
On the shores of Dal Lake in the capital Srinagar, a major tourist attraction in the city, Begum lives with around 800 to 1,200 people from the fishing community known locally as Gadihaenz.
Gadihaenz is one of the Hanji subclasses and primarily depends on bodies of water to live by fishing and selling fish.
“This has been my home for over four decades of my life,” she said, pointing to the lake.
Begum got involved in selling fish when she was just 14 years old. She remembers that her grandfather and father used to catch fish in the lake, and later the housekeepers would sell it at various places in the area.
“At the time, the lake was filled with a large number of fish. People were throwing away large amounts of fish even after selling it,” she recalls.
But she said the lake has deteriorated to a great extent now, and “hardly will you find a good number of fish.” It is a very hard work and a hard life too.
Social and economic gaps
Hanjis are active and hardworking people. Children begin to work towing or paddling the boats from an early age. But their standard of living remained poor due to fewer economic opportunities and negligible social inclusion such as in education, medical care or public and private sector jobs.
Begum said his ancestral profession barely brought him enough money. She said that the children do not want to continue with this profession because of the stigma and the low salaries.
“We have nothing left now,” she said.
Economically, the Hanjis have been identified as lower service class people who mainly depend on bodies of water for their livelihood.
Mohammad Amin, 59, is a Dembhaenz (vegetable farmer), another class of Hanjis who grow vegetables on the islands bordering Dal Lake. This class of Hanjis mostly reside in and around the outskirts of water bodies.
They grow vegetables on floating gardens constructed from two types of weeds found in Dal Lake and locally called Pech (Typha angustata) and Nargasa (Phragmites australis).
Amin said vegetable growers weave weeds together into floating mats that form the base of the garden.
“There are two types 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 water,” he said. declared.
However, he said that over the years many lake vegetable farmers have migrated due to the uncertain conditions and pollution of the lake.
Additionally, the government crackdown to control the increasing pollution of the lake has uprooted many families, which also poses a greater risk to the community.
Amin says many classes of Hanjis no longer exist now.
“You won’t find them like Hakhaenz (gatherers of wood from bodies of water) and Bahatchihaenz (who live in boats made up of Bahatch – a type of grass),” he said.
Tariq Patloo, who is also from a Hanji community, has campaigned to save Dal Lake for more than 30 years and blames the government for driving out many families.
“The government is using cosmetic solutions to save the lake, and for many years they have blamed us (Hanjis) for polluting the lake, which has affected many of us,” Patloo said.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, he said the sewage from the city and hoteliers goes straight into the lake, and the blame is still on them, “which is pathetic”.
Begum said Dal Lake was so clean that people drank its waters directly. But now it’s like a stagnant pond.
Years of conflict and unstable situations have also forced this group to look for options other than sustenance from water bodies.
Since 2019, when the Indian government abrogated the region’s limited autonomy, many Hanjis have faced stressful conditions.
For almost two years, there has been no work for houseboat owners and boat drivers – another class of Hanjis who earn by welcoming, transporting and guiding tourists.
“Hanji is not just a group of people; it is a cultural and traditional group from Kashmir telling you the story of this place,” Patloo said.
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