The Last Fishermen of Kashmir
Once teeming lakes are fast disappearing and with them, a lucrative career for tens of thousands of people in the region.
SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir—On one evening in February, 40-year-old Nazir Ahmad Kondoo returned from Anchar Lake to his single-story house in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Exhausted, he hauled his fishing equipment—a net, a Panzar (a type of rod), and a fishing basket—with him. But no fish.
This was not the first time that Kondoo was unable to catch anything. But it was the third consecutive day he had to come home empty-handed—and that was unusual.
Kondoo, who learned the art of fishing from his father, has been in the business ever since he dropped out of school at age 15. In those days, he would accompany his father to Anchar Lake, which is situated about 5 miles from the capital. They would mostly catch a kind of fish commonly called Kasheir gaed, and they earned a good amount of money—$12 to $15 a day, which was enough to feed their family of 10 people.
“My father raised us solely with the fish business,” Kondoo said, recalling the crystal-clear water of the lake in the 1990s, when it was the main source of income for thousands of fishermen. “But look at the condition of this lake now. It is difficult for me to even meet the ends.” Once 12 square miles in 1893–94, now the lake is only about 3 square miles, a relatively small dot on a map.
Anchar Lake is not alone. According to research by the International Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Studies, Kashmir’s water bodies have been defaced by extensive pollution, siltation (when water becomes choked with silt and clay), and encroaching development since 1990. All of that has slowly diminished fish biodiversity.
In 2019, at a two-day national conference on fisheries and climate change at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences & Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST), Nazeer Ahmad, a professor at the university, said 93,000 people in the region are still dependent on the fishing sector. But it is hard to know how long they’ll be able to get by. Many fishermen have opted out of the business, unable to meet their families’ daily expenses.
Among them is 64-year-old Ghulam Ahmad Shalbab, who was a fisherman for 30 years but quit as profits declined. His wife, 60-year-old Sondree, said he would go to Anchar Lake every day with the hope of a good catch but always came back disappointed. “For a very long time, he would tell me that he should do some other work, but deep down, he couldn’t as he thought that he won’t be able to do some other work,” Sondree said. One day, he woke up and simply decided not to go to the lake.
Shalbab found it difficult to support his family, so his wife found work. Sondree now wakes up early in the morning to join a group of women who sit on the banks of Anchar Lake, peeling the skin off kaanis (sticks used to produce decorative wooden baskets and other pieces). She earns about $4 a day.
“I cannot afford sitting at home. I have to work hard now that my husband is not working. How else can I feed my family? This is the reason that I don’t mind working here in the middle of a pile of garbage,” she said, pointing to the lake, which is spotted with floating piles of trash.
She said she still sees men heading out with their fish catching equipment each day. “I remember how my husband used to wake up with enthusiasm, but in the end, he realized catching fish is going to be the toughest job in Kashmir.” As she spoke, several men made their way down to the water and unlocked their boats.
“These men you see, they are all fishermen, fellows of my husband, but he is no more a fisherman now,” Sondree added with a grin. Minutes later, another group of men came with nets and Panzars. Within 30 minutes, the two groups, including Kondoo, joined in the center of the lake, making what looks like a flotilla of almost 50 fishermen on the hunt for the few fish that still live in the water.
Feroz Ahmad Bhat, who is an assistant professor and head of fisheries resource management at SKUAST, believes agriculture is the main reason fish are harder to come by. He said pesticides used in agricultural activities ultimately leak into Kashmir’s lakes and prove hazardous. “When the environment is not viable for the breeding of the fish, how can you expect that there will be an increase in the production?” he said, adding that four decades ago, the periphery of Dal Lake in Srinagar was sandy and apt for fish breeding. Now, due to waste and pollution, the shallows are no longer a good breeding ground.
Dal Lake, the second largest lake in the region, is also situated a few miles from the capital. A study conducted by the University of Kashmir found that Dal Lake has also lost about 25 percent of its area in the last 157 years due to unregulated changes in land use and land cover.
To address these problems, the regional government formed the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) in 1997 as a self-ruling organization to oversee and conserve the region’s water bodies. LAWDA estimated that nearly 176,400,000 pounds of silt, 68,343 pounds of nitrates, and 8,818 pounds of phosphates are added yearly to Dal Lake. LAWDA said about $150 million have been spent on improving the lake’s condition since the 1980s. Even after that immense sum, though, the condition of the lake shows no improvement.
Meanwhile, Kashmir’s Fisheries Department said it is building fish-raising units for the fishermen community and young people. The department said it has created over 1,000 fish farms, which it touts as a good source of employment.
However, Kondoo and his community feel the man-made farms are a hoax. And even if they do help younger Kashmiris, he believes the old fishermen community is not seeing any benefits. And anyway, “the natural water bodies are obviously better than man-made,” Kondoo said.
Back in Anchar Lake, Kondoo has yet to catch any fish, but he’s still hopeful. He sits patiently, how he passes every day. And one day, he might get a good haul.
Kondoo is afraid not every fisherman is as hopeful as he is. He said he has seen many people quit this profession. “This is the last generation of fishermen, and with our death, we will get finished like fishes in the Kashmir waters,” he said. He may well be right.