"Kashmir breathes within its locals and visitors alike with a pulse that they can sense, a heartbeat that they can feel and an expression that they can personify."
Gulaam Hassan, an elderly man, walks on the banks of the Dal Lake every morning, selling intricately carved souvenirs, most of which are based on shikaras.
Another man travels 50 km every morning to set up shop at the bustling banks of the lake, selling freshly plucked apples from his farm. His work is hard, but he bears it not as a burden, but with joy - all with a toothless yet charming smile spread across his weather-beaten face.
The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is popularly heralded as Heaven on Earth for its rolling hills, lush green lands and enviable snow-capped mountains, often visible in a single frame.
While lauded for its natural beauty, the crown jewel of the summer capital of the Union Territory is perhaps the Dal Lake. Spanning across an area of 22 sq mt, the lake offers a beautiful amalgamation of people from all walks of life, and one of the most unique living experiences to be sought in the country; it's also the most-visited spot in the entire region.
If one wants to know inner peace and tranquility, one need not stray further than the Kashmir Valley. Ironically, despite the political unrest and geographical and social challenges, the way one's heart feels in Kashmir is like no other.
It's common practice in the region to see people in two unique categories, those who live on land, and those who live on the lake. Culturally speaking, the Dal Lake is one of the most potent symbols of the Valley, along with the shikaras (a kind of wooden boats) which are peppered across its waters. Life on the lake is largely sustained by the tourism industry of the UT.
After horticulture, the tourism industry is the primary source of employment for the UT, with 50-60 per cent of the population engaged in the sector in one way or another. The Kashmir Valley is known for the tradition of pilgrimage and tourism; and the tourism industry is one of the most vital sectors of the region, as it generates revenue and income, promotes interaction, improves social development and creates jobs for the local population. A substantial part of the labour force in the UT relies on tourism and related industries for their livelihood. The shikara-owners are a staple of this industry.
After the industry and people in the region suffered during the pandemic due to the lockdowns, tourism has made a stunning comeback this year. Despite the political unrest in the region, records show that the Valley saw a record-breaking footfall of two million tourists in the first eight months of this year; tourism proved to be an industry which didn't see a lull in revenue at any point so far during the year - tourists have continued to pour into the Valley across all seasons.
This massive influx of tourists - both from within the country as well as foreigners - has resulted in 100 per cent occupancy in hotels and homestays in Srinagar, as well as a whopping occupancy of 70-80 per cent of houseboats moored to the Dal Lake.
Three years after the Central government abrogated Article 370 - removing the special status of the region and turning it into a Union Territory - the Kashmir Valley has finally blossomed back into the tourist goldmine it used to be, three decades prior.
The Dal Lake, unlike any other in the country, enjoys a glorious life of its own. Providing a livelihood to close to two lakh people, the lake is home to over 5,000 shikaras, nearly 1,000 houseboats and claims to house nearly 80,000 people.
The lake comes to life as early as 4 am, with the extraordinary floating market of vegetables and fresh produce. As the sun slowly peeks from behind the Zabarwan range, reflected in the calm sparkling waters of the lake, numerous shikaras navigate around each other, bathed in the morning glow.
Surprisingly, this market is one where the rare practice of barter still works as a means of payment. As one's eyes sweeps across the scene, vendors can be seen swiftly exchanging their produce in return of the produce they require. The spirit of brotherhood and humanity is reflected as clearly as the sun's morning rays, as the people help each other load their products onto their respective boats. In fact, this spirit of cooperation is not limited to their brothers in business, but to the visitors present to watch the ethereal scene unfold as well.
The government of the UT has been engaged in promoting the growth of the region, with the inception of special programs which particularly cater to the population residing and working on the Dal. A study from 2021 revealed that with the presence of one lakh tourists, the lake generated $26 million annually in recreational revenue. The Mission Youth Initiative, launched by the J&K government, aims to develop five "tourist villages" in the lake as part of its Tourist Village Development Programme, which will help further boost the economy of the region.
Among the numerous new schemes announced by the Central government in November 2021 for the region, was the Shikhar and Shikara scheme, aimed at aiding the community of boat-owners. The initiative allowed for credit being extended up to Rs 15 lakh for the purpose of purchase or repair of a shikara.
Students hailing from Jammu and Kashmir, studying at the Aryans Group of Colleges developed an application to better facilitate the shikara-rides that tourists take in the region, as the application puts all shikara-owners in direct contact with potential customers. The Central Government was quick to grant a copyright to the "Aryan Shikara" app, being heavily invested in ideas of the people which help promote and streamline the services provided in the region, which ultimately lead to economic development for the locals as well as the territory.
In April tis year, the J&K government held a tourism festival to usher in the spring season in the Valley with pomp and show. The festival included shikaras at the Dal to be lit up with lights, creating a breathtaking picture, as well as a host of cultural activities organised as a mark of celebration.
Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has been making concerted efforts to reduce perceived friction between the citizens and the Central government.
The inception of a 'Boat and Shikara' festival, meant to be held in the waters between Ganderbal and Srinagar, was reminiscent of a lost era of fervour, joy and excitement, prior to the region being consumed by terrorism and unrest.
Furthermore, through way of providing special medical aid to inhabitants of the Dal Lake6, providing ration kits to shikara-owners, and extending monetary aid to shikara-owners to deal with damages to boats - the authorities of the region have been making direct attempts to touch the lives of the people who are an integral part of their society.
The Valley is bound to bounce back to its times of glory in no time if plans proceed smoothly, and the bountiful nature of the valley expected to increase multifold as the locals continue to prosper with a collective effort, just as they have in the past one year.