Floating Economies: The Cultural Ecology of the Dal Lake in Kashmir, India

Victoria Green

Welcome to the place that the word “paradise” was made for: the Valley of Kashmir and the Dal Lake. This study of the people who live on, with, and beside the Dal Lake is an exceedingly ambitious and comprehensive work that organizes the economic activities of three discrete groups who live off the bounty of the Dal: the market gardeners, the tourist houseboat owners, and the fishing families. Though their livelihood and prosperity is intertwined with the health of the lake itself, both pollution and continued political corruption plague this part of the Kashmir Valley.

The Dal Lake is an economically, historically, and ecologically significant freshwater lake in Kashmir, near Srinagar City, in India. Some thousands of families live directly on top of the lake in houseboats and man-made islands. The title Floating Economies is to be taken literally. Three distinct groups of people depend on the lake for their livelihoods, having carved out specific niches for themselves that take advantage of the water as a source of irrigation, of the powerful attraction of the lake’s natural beauty to tourists, and the fisheries beneath its surface. Market gardeners cultivate vegetables on the lake, houseboat owners rent out their floating vacation rentals to tourists, and fishers draw out their catches from it. What each of these households is able to make is due in part to their ingenuity, but it is largely a gift from the Dal. Each of these groups are almost entirely dependent on the lake.

Part I is concerned mainly with situating the Dal socially, historically, and even chemically. Although a lake is bounded by its edges, the Dal is enormous in terms of geography and in terms of cultural, ecological, and historical significance. The author, Michael J. Casimir, first visited the region in 1981, and in 2009, he went back and spent eight years traveling to the region and conducting an impressively comprehensive body of research that is interdisciplinary and methodologically diverse. Those living on the Dal are recognized to be both a part of its nature and a threat to it. 

The history of those who live on the Dal is traced back to just before Kashmir’s mass conversion to Islam, beginning in the 1300s. A further division split the Muslim population into Sunni and Shia, and this separation is significant in terms of the divisions of labor which the author proposes: the market gardeners of the Dal are Shiites and the (generally wealthier) houseboat owners are Sunnis; however, so are the precarious fishing families.

The market gardeners are unique in that they are able to cultivate the only true floating gardens in the world. As the author acknowledges, the term “floating gardens” typically refers to the chinampas in Mexico, but this is a misnomer, as chinampas are raised fields. The Dal gardeners build both raised fields on man-made islands as well as moveable rafts on which vegetables can be grown, and they have been doing this likely since the Mughal period (1580-1750) (p. 68). The author reveals, through the use of water and soil samples, that a large amount of agricultural runoff ends up in the lake and is partially responsible for the lake’s ongoing eutrophication. Despite their ingenious use of the lacustrine resources, the market gardeners are also identified as the group with the smallest stake in the lake’s overall health: “only the acreage on the islands or on raised fields counts; and if the lake dies, even more land can be encroached” (p. 263).

Despite the fact that the houseboat owners who operate hospitality businesses are overall the wealthiest of all three groups, their industry is the least dependable, and it bears the brunt of political, economic, and all other crises. During the increased militant unrest in the late 1980s until the late 1990s, many local people lost their lives and tourism to Kashmir dried up. In a seasonal industry, missing the fruits of just one season could mean famine, and this conflict lasted for years until the industry recovered. The tourism industry has the broadest economic impact of all three niches described by the author, so its importance to the region is outsized. However, it is also the most ecologically destructive, and as the lake is limited in its size, an increase in tourist numbers directly impacts the lake’s eutrophication, as almost all of the houseboats or large hotels that line the lake’s shore have a plumbing system that empties directly into it, with the large hotels being the largest culprit.

Over the centuries, industries and livelihoods have risen and fallen, and what the author describes for the fishing families looks like the decline of their industry. Due to the increasing pollution and degradation of the lake over time due to the dumping of raw sewage as well as agricultural run-off, the variety of fish species have collapsed, and their size, pound for pound, has shrunken as well, so that there is no longer as much money to be made from fishing (p. 181). Many, if not most, fishing families have focused on sending their sons and daughters into Srinagar City to work salaried jobs in order to support and develop the family, and fishing is no longer the backbone that feeds the family.

The second part of the book and the final two chapters provide a description of the increasing pace of ecological destruction of the Dal, despite publicized efforts by the government and local people to protect it. Many local politicians espouse plans to slow the pace of development, stop the dumping of sewage and fund new water treatment plants, while at the same time continuously allowing villas and hotels to be rapidly constructed right at the shore. These short-sighted cash grabs threaten the long-term survival of the tourism industry, but as the author describes, there has been no truly effective plan implemented to clean up the lake.

Instead, state interventions meant to save the lake are often hypocritical and heavy-handed. Some lake dwellers, largely fishing and market gardener families, were displaced to a development in a swampy region far from the lake, undesirable marsh land that was neither good for farming or fishing (p. 241). Although they were often enticed with promises of land, removing these residents from their means of livelihood often meant abandoning them to poverty in order to prioritize the livelihoods of the tourist-business operators.

In contrast with the popular image of the Anthropocene, which assigns the blame for ecological destruction on human activity in general, the degradation of the Dal Lake is more so a consequence of governmental corruption and mismanagement than it is a consequence of the activities of the three groups which the author describes. It is the endless greed of those involved in an ever-expanding tourist industry and the weak will of local politicians who turn a blind eye to their encroachment upon the lake’s shore as well as their dumping of waste into it which truly threatens the Dal Lake. The traditional livelihoods of the houseboat owners, market gardeners, and fisher families, while not existing in picture-perfect harmony with the lake’s nature, are nonetheless a longstanding part of it, whereas the extreme degradation of the lake is a phenomenon that has worsened significantly only in the last several decades.