Fishermen fall on hard times in Kashmir Valley

Fishermen fall on hard times in Kashmir Valley

A fisherwoman sells fish in Srinagar. Umer Asif

Zoona Begum leaves her home early in the morning to reach Amirakadal Bridge on famous river Jehlum near the city centre, Lal Chowk, the unofficial fish market of Srinagar. During her journey from home in Tailbal on the outskirts of Srinagar till she reaches her destination, only one thought plays on her mind—to quickly sell off the fresh catch.

While catching fish is the responsibility of her husband, Begum, like all other women of her community, knows the art of selling it in various markets of Srinagar better than men of their tribe. “Men of our community go out late in the evening for fishing and after hard toil, they return with the catch. We share the responsibility of selling the fish as men can’t work day and night,” Begum, who has been selling fish for 20 years, told DH while sitting on a pavement of Amirakadal Bridge.

“This is our routine, irrespective of summer or winter or rough or harsh weather. We have been doing it for generations,” she says. But despite toiling hard, the community doesn’t reap all the profits. Production of fish declines during winter when the demand is actually more. During summer, the production increases, the demand for fish decreases and with that prices plummet,” she said.

Traditional fish consumers in Kashmir are largely inspired by folklore that fish be consumed in months which bear alphabet ‘R’. And hence, from May to August, fish is rarely consumed.

“No one knows from where this logic came but our family has been following this logic of cooking fish for generations,” said Rabiya, a resident of nearby Maharaj Bazar.

For Zoona life goes on, but full of struggle. Dressed in traditional attire, especially her eye-catching earrings, Zoona says she grew up listening to her mother saying that selling a few kilos of fish in a day brings a plateful of rice at night. However, she hopes that her children don’t have to carry on the profession of their forefathers as “there is no respect for us.”

“We sit on the roadside where we sell fish during harsh summer and winter months. Then we have to fight with municipal corporation workers and policemen, who force us to vacate the pavements. And even the customers look down on us. They virtually treat us like beggars. I don’t want any of my children to take up this profession, where there is no dignity of labour or assured returns,” Begum rued.

“If there are designated fish markets in Jammu and Delhi, why can’t there be one here,” she asked. Being members of one of the first professions where women stepped out of their homes to earn in Kashmir, there is a certain historical and social significance attached to these fisherwomen. Still, most of these fisherwomen don’t want their children to carry forward the family trade.

Jigari Begum or Jigar Mass as she is fondly called, who like Zoona sells fish in the same market, says there are only hardships for fishermen community.

“There is no dignity in doing this work anymore. When the police beat us and throw away our fish, people gather to look at us as if some street show is going on. Where will we go to sell our catch? Instead of helping us, the government creates more hardships for us,” she complained.

Though in 2014, the government had planned to provide permanent space for the fish market, there has been no forward movement till now. At the end of a gruelling day, all that fisherwomen like Jigari get for their hard labour are a few hundred rupees.

Jigari says she has worked hard to educate her children and if her son gets a job, she will leave her profession. “From catching to selling fish is hard work and requires a lot of stamina. My husband often has blisters and sores due to staying in the water for long hours.  We don’t want our children to suffer the same way,” she says.

There are more than 2,000 families that depend on fishing in the Dal Lake for their livelihood. But a majority of them live in dismal conditions in slum-like colonies along the wasteland in the interiors of the lake.

As low profits, harsh winter weather, a declining fish population and lack of government support have made it a trying profession, many youth are not taking up traditional fishing as means of livelihood.

“The challenges of catching and selling fish have a deterrent effect on younger generation from carrying forward the traditional profession. If the government fails to take immediate measures for welfare and promotion of fishermen community, soon this profession will vanish in Kashmir,” says Shabir Ahmad, a young fisherman from Dal lake area. 

“Over last decade or so, this trade has received a setback as youth from our community have started opting for other alternatives. They don’t find fishing profitable,” he said.

Zahir-ud-Din, a senior journalist in Kashmir who has been keenly monitoring fisherwomen at Amira Kadal, says he is surprised that government or even NGOs have neglected fishermen community in welfare measures.

For women like Jigar and Zoona, their lives continue to be a struggle.