Gar Firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen asto hameen asto hameen ast!
[If there is a heaven on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!]
- Amir Khusrau, Farsi poet, on Kashmir

Ek lakh abadi hain toh teen lakh fauj hai. Yahi hai Kashmir bhaijaan. Idhar kuch bhi ulta seedha bologe toh seedha andar.
[If there are 100,000 people, then there are 300,000 army personnel in the region. That is the real Kashmir brother. You can be put behind bars if you say anything that goes against the dominant narrative]
- A Shikarawala, 2023

Kashmir has long been referred to as the crown of the postcolonial Indian state. So much so that the newly independent Indian state did not even hesitate to accord a special status to it in the form of Article 370. The Narendra Modi-led far-right government, however, had decided to scrap the special status – all with the intention that it would bring the Kashmiri people closer to the mainland Indian populace – without taking into consideration the constant material impoverishment and cultural exclusion of the Kashmiri people, which cannot be altered through mere policy-level changes.1 It based its claims heavily on the tourism potential of Kashmir, but as a hospitality worker put it:

Modi has been on a rampage. Article 370 has been revoked, very good. Land prices have been revoked, very good again. Tourists have increased, good, although the increase is marginal. G20 happened and they fixed our roads and streets. The government made sure that Kashmir looks like a piece of heaven to those who came. Even the Dal lake today seems much cleaner, but what about us? Can we buy land? No. Can we live a good life in this heaven? No. Do we have social security in this heaven? No. Are we considered to be part of mainland India? No. Then why all these theatrics? Kashmir is heaven, no doubt, but its people are in hell.

The recent G20 Summit in India featured an extensive tour through Kashmir as well, with Srinagar2 holding an important leg of the tourism working group. 3 Despite the fact that it is the most militarised region in the world, whenever one starts speaking about the beauty of India, Kashmir gets the first mention in everyday conversations across the globe. The continued enrichment of the hospitality and tourism industry in Kashmir has increased the footfall in Kashmir exponentially, with as many as 2.3 million people visiting Kashmir in 2022 alone, a 10-year record high.4 The sector as a whole contributes around 50 to 60 percent of the total employment in Kashmir and around 7 percent of the state’s GDP.

While all of the above stats might seem to be causes for jubilation, a brief walk through the streets of Kashmir reveal the conditions of life that prevail there for the common masses. The riches of an Omar Abdullah or the political capital of a Mehbooba Mufti does not define Kashmir5, it is the common people who do so. Among the common people, the most important section remains the working class of Kashmir who make the society function. It has often been said of the workers’ movement in India that the composition of capital has frequently been the dominant factor in dictating the terms of struggle. But at the same time, it is also true that the composition of capital in any society is a manifestation of the working-class composition, and that is true of Kashmir as this piece will reveal. Kashmir stands as a testament to the failures of the mainstream workers’ movement and politics in the country. Despite the fact that the largest Stalinist political formation in the country, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has a longstanding Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the figure of Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, the working-class of Kashmir are yet to find a voice that speaks for them in the mainstream discourses. This also points towards the larger problem within most of the political organisations of the country. Mainstream political formations have often reduced the region of Kashmir to a bone of contention between India, Pakistan and China with little importance given to anything else in the region. Traveling around Kashmir serves as a brutal eye-opener for anyone sensitive to the issues faced by the poor and marginalised because it exhibits the blunt and inhuman reality of an age dominated by inequality and everyday exploitation of the poorest of the poor.

Srinagar’s Dal Lake, an iconic location for innumerable Indian films, serves as the gateway to Kashmir for most tourists. Surrounded by beautiful mountains on three sides, it is one of the most picturesque locations in South Asia, but at the same it is also a site for the super exploitation of labour in India’s northernmost frontier. This piece engages mainly with the workers engaged in the Dal Lake economy of Srinagar, the capital city of Kashmir. The Dal lake economy is mainly composed of two major parts: shikaras 6 and Houseboats 7 (See Figures 2 and 3). It employs close to 5,000 people – most of them Muslims and all of them coming from Kashmir segregated from mainland India. It has around 300 houseboats and around 6,000 shikaras – all within an area of 18-22 square kilometres. The workers here mainly engage in five different kinds of work: managerial work, regulation work, shikara driving, vending, and menial work. The shikara workers can be divided into two categories: those working as shikarawalas, i.e. shikara drivers, and shikara vendors, i.e. people selling articles on their shikaras to tourists (See Figure 4). Shikara drivers, or Shikarawalas are usually appointed on contractual basis by the owners of the shikaras and are paid around 10% of the total money earned from shikara rides in addition to their regular salary that ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 INR per month. The houseboat-based economy can again be divided into managerial and menial workers. The former’s salary ranges from 8000 to 12,000 INR per houseboat while the latter can range from 3,000 to 5,000 INR per month. Both of them enjoy around 1 to 2 holidays per month with the expectation of working on Sundays. In addition to these workers, there are middlemen and managers who regulate the shikaras and houseboats. They arrange for the tourists to be sent to their booked houseboats or negotiate between the houseboats and the tourists. Their monthly income ranges from 10,000 to 15,000 INR which includes their fixed salary from the municipality and the union, and their variable income from the tourists and houseboats depending upon the number of tourists.

Together, these workers make up the complete experience that tourists pay for – only a miniscule portion of which go to the workers who constitute it. The complete journey that a typical tourist undertakes in the lake, considering the most popular two-day trip to the lake, usually consists of an itinerary that begins with an interaction with the ghat8 managers, followed by a boat ride to the houseboat where they stay for one or a few nights, that is accompanied by one or a few rides in the shikara and finally ends with a boat ride back to the ghat. The first workers who engage with the tourists are usually the ghat managers who manage the shikaras (See Figure 5). Appointed by the established union, these managers usually act as a kind of middleman who designates a particular order to the boats and shikaras in place. Getting around 2 to 3 trips a day, the Shikarawalas are usually the first ones who give the tourists a taste of the region of Kashmir. Of this system, a Shikarawala observed:

There is no guarantee that I will get a ride. The managers are entrusted with the responsibility of being fair and neutral but as you know even with them, there are certain biases at work. They give preference to their community or village people. Then there is the issue of commission. If somebody else pays him more commission over and above what the union has decided, he gives them the number first.

Treading through the lake, the tourists reach the houseboat, where the first line of interactions are usually with the managers who control the activities in and around the houseboats. Managerial staff at the houseboats usually come from dominant communities and are often employed by the houseboat owners ancestrally. The managers who administer the houseboats are usually the ones who have direct contact with the owners of the houseboats and the agents or middlemen who manage the tourists and their trips. The agents usually take a double-commission - first from the owners and then from the shikarawalas. Although their income from one trip is lesser than the shikarawalas, their total income from a day’s trips is much higher than the shikarawalas. However, it must be mentioned here that both the shikarawalas and the middlemen usually belong to the lower echelons of the society. Contrary to them, the managerial workers’ conditions of work are usually dictated by their secured positions in the society and within their communities. But that in no way discounts the problems that are associated with their working lives. A houseboat manager stated:

I have been working here for around 5 to 6 years and have been a part of this particular group for most of that time. I used to work with my father in a houseboat, after he died, I continued his work for some time and then shifted to a new houseboat. They pay me well, but there are issues. Previously we used to do individual bookings. Tourists came here, and we negotiated with them, but today most of the tourists who come for houseboats make advance bookings.

The managerial staff usually paint a picture that is not much different from other tourism-centred locations across the globe where local players are struggling amidst the domination of the formal tourism companies. The formal tourism companies have in recent times become the major players in the region’s tourism industry which had been previously dominated by the local players. The arrival of big tourism has had a direct impact on managers’ salaries:

Previously, with local tourist agencies, we had some control over what we charged. We could even have some extra repairs or amenities in the houseboats to suit special needs or requests. But today it is difficult, mostly because there is a general standardisation in the sector. Different houseboats need different kinds of servicing and maintenance but that is not possible because we cannot increase the prices. And, if we cannot increase prices then obviously it has an effect on our salaries, the workers’ salaries, and the general condition of the houseboat. But that being said, I think apart from the issue with payments, there are no issues.

The manager here is referring to the state of the tourism industry under neoliberal capitalism in India which has launched a constant attack on the autonomy of the local tourism industry. With the arrival of the formal tourism industry, wages have stagnated. The houseboat owners usually employ the managers and as many as three managers mentioned that there has been no change in their salaries since the arrival of tourism companies such as MakeMyTrip and The point that the managerial staff have been raising is however related to the phenomenon of bakshish9 which has suffered with the arrival of the big tourism agencies. While it may seem that the managerial staff remain the worst hit in the houseboat, it is not the case. The points raised by the managerial staff were promptly refused by the workers working at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. A houseboat worker said:

What does he know of the situation at hand? He just sits and talks with the guests. It is me who has to do most of the work. Sometimes they are good people, but sometimes they are weird and crazy people. There have been times when we have had to clean up alcohol, cigarette butts, condoms, semen, and other such articles from the room. I am a practising Muslim; it feels humiliating to me.
The managers are the ones who are the main culprits in my life. I do not know who the owner is. It is the manager who directs me to do different things. It is he who will tell me to serve the guests alcohol when we get some very high profile or rich guests. What can I say to him? I have to agree because ultimately, I have to work to feed my family.

There is an intense class difference between the managerial staff and the workers employed in menial jobs in the houseboats. The managerial workers, mostly the lower middle classes as far as Kashmir’s economy is concerned, mostly focus on the continued exploitation of the menial workers. The hospitality sector in Kashmir is one of the worst managed in the country with extremely low wages, job insecurity, and most importantly, no effective platform for grievance redressal.

The absence of any effective trade union movement is apparent in the main problems that the workers face. The trade union movement in Kashmir has suffered because of the ways in which the State has followed its militarisation plans in Kashmir. There are as many as 130,000 army personnel in the region who ‘keep the Kashmiri workforce in line’ – as one old trade unionist stated in Srinagar. The region has been touted by many as one of the major sites for potential first-world tourism in the country and as such has been an important part of the tourism capital that the Indian state wants to invite into the country. The 80 billion INR tourism revenue of Kashmir is made on the backs of the continued exploitation of the hospitality workers who work tirelessly. Because of the nature of the Kashmiri hospitality workers, they have often been left untouched (read marginalised) by the mainstream trade union movement of the country. The uniqueness of the Kashmiri workforce is their many trajectories which puts them at odds with most of the mainland workers. While the mainland workers are usually segregated along lines of caste, ethnicity, and gender, in Kashmir the stakes are different. Factors such as ethnicity and gender are relatively absent in the region’s hospitality workforce because the workforce is almost entirely an all-male, all-local workforce with only a few exceptions.

The workforce here instead mostly remains segregated along lines that would seem completely alien to the workforce in mainland India. Distinctions among workers are based on their place of residence. Workers coming from high militancy zones10 are usually paid less than their counterparts from other districts. They are refused their right to negotiation and wage bargaining and are usually treated as sub-par human beings in the hospitality economy:

I come from X.11 There is no employment in my village because of the high militancy there. That is why we have to come here to work. To you outsiders, all Kashmiris are the same, but it is not so. There are a lot of differences among us. People from areas which have or used to have higher incidences of militancy are paid much less than others. They know that we are desperate for work, and that we will not get that many options for jobs.

The worker in question was a middle-aged man who had just had a child and he had been forced to come back to Srinagar. He suggested that he had exhausted his allotted number of holidays and therefore had to return to keep his job. Workers who come from such districts face an inherent disadvantage. The employers are aware that if they do not get the job or cannot keep it then it is highly probable that they would be left with absolutely no jobs for an indefinite period of time. This gives the employers an abnormal amount of leeway to exploit these workers. The uncertainty that workers face pushes them towards a situation where they become resilient to most of the exploitative and Islamophobic practices of the industry:

In an ideal situation, I would have protested or at least said something. But the problem is that if I lose the job, I will have to go back to my village and once I go back to my village, it will be very difficult for me. We have no work during the winter. In summers, we can at least have some daily-wage work that pays us some money even if that is much less, but in the winters, because of the snow we have absolutely nothing. So, yes, if cutting my beard gets me roti, I will have to do that.

The exploitation however is not unique to migrants. Even local men from Srinagar who are employed in houseboats continue to suffer from various kinds of marginalisation, most prominently based on the social conditions that they face as Kashmiris themselves:

There are many subtle issues that we face. This person is a migrant.12 I am a local Srinagar person. I have seen the nature of society changing. The wages of houseboat workers have not increased much in the past 10 years. I know because my father also used to work around the lake itself. He used to sell toys and used to come with all kinds of stories. He used to tell me that managers used to treat him like a house servant, that has not changed, even today. During his time, keeping a beard used to be an issue too because all Kashmiris are by default terrorists. Today it is the same.

Religion plays a key role in the process of marginalisation and exploitation of the tourism workers in Kashmir. This is because despite the workers being mostly Muslim, the customers that they are made to serve are usually Hindu, or Christians. The relationship that is shared between the tourists and the workers is one that is determined by a combination of the paradoxes of Indian statehood and religion. Such a relationship between the service personnel and the served, dominated by a growing Islamophobia, dictates the terms of engagement between the tourists and the workers. The overarching importance given to the ‘normalised’ ways of presenting oneself makes these workers go through numerous processes that not only cause them humiliation as workers but also denigrate them as human beings. As one houseboat worker stated:

I generally wear a Pheran13, but here I cannot wear that even in winters. Why? Because the tourists might feel unsafe. Because pheran has been used so much in movies and all depicting it as something that terrorists wear. I have become synonymous with terrorism to many tourists. So, we get official orders that we have to wear trousers and shirts and not our traditional things. It is discomforting but what can we do?

Issues such as these raise the social and political composition of which these workers are a part. Trade unions can be a solution to the issues faced by the workers. The shikara workers do have a union, the All J&K Shikara Workers Union.14 But that particular union is largely a bureaucratic body that manages the different ghats without any impact on the real state of living for the houseboat workers. The major attraction of Kashmir is not the mere scenic beauty that attracts individuals from all social classes, but rather it is the sense of possession that plays a major role in the process. The abrogation of article 370 in the country made it a point to popularise the perception that Kashmir belongs to all of India,15 something which has had a deep impact on the hospitality workers in Kashmir:

I have been working in this houseboat for around 10 years now. The nature of tourists has changed considerably. After the abrogation of 370, there has been a considerable change in the kind of conversations that the tourists have begun to have. Today they frequently ask us about our views about the Indian state. I would not like to disclose them to outsiders but that is the only topic that they ask. Yes, we are happy if the tourists are happy but that cannot be at the expense of our own self-respect.

The lake economy that this article has been speaking about is not only constructed out of the managerial and menial workers related to the houseboats, but it is also constructed by the innumerable vendors who provide the entire lake with the vibrancy that draws an average 200,000 tourists to the place, as one Shikarawala informed me. A tourist I spoke to observed:

Shikaras are the first thing that draws one to Kashmir. It seems such a magical experience, boats with tea and other essentials. It is an experience that makes people like me visit this beautiful land time and again.
A significant part of the experience that the tourist mentions is constructed by the various vendors who sell different commodities on boats creating what mane refer to as the floating market. They are as much a part of the lake economy as the workers who make the entire ecosystem function. They basically construct a mobile shop on their boats selling articles such as potato chips, snacks, toys, handicrafts, kahwah,16 etc.

These vendors, usually coming from the marginalised classes of the society, provide an aesthetic function for the tourism capital that flows into Kashmir. But their conditions of life and work remain deplorable so much so that their entire sustenance remain contingent upon the whims and fancies of the tourists:

I earn around 1000-2000 rupees on a good day, mostly during the summers. But on most other days, it is at best, maybe 100 rupee here and there. On some days, there is not even that..
It much depends on how they get treated in the houseboats and the way in which the Shikarawala treats them. If it is a good experience, they buy some articles but if they are already irritated, their behaviour is soured when they get to us.

In addition to the mobile boat-vendors, there are also cases of vendors making personalised visits to various houseboats selling woollen garments, flowers, seeds, etc. Some of the vendors again remain a testament to the growing unemployment in the region that stands at a staggering 18.3 percent:

Selling flowers on the lake at the houseboats is difficult. I get up at around 5 AM every morning, clean up my boat and then start for the houseboats. There is no guarantee of income. Having two children makes it even more difficult. But both of my children are now working in the houseboats as cleaners.17
I am a graduate in Commerce from Srinagar University, but I did not get a job. There is so much unemployment here that I have no other option but to sell clothes on the houseboats. The tourists who come these days are very conservative in spending. They ask all kinds of questions, spend 2-3 hours looking through the clothes but often end up buying nothing. For them, I am an experience not a human being.

While on the whole, the conditions faced by the vendors and the houseboat workers are similar, there are certain important distinctions between them. The distinctions range from the ways that they are paid to the nature of their income. Houseboat workers, though low-waged, still possess some guarantee of income at the end of the month. For the vendors on the other hand, no such conditions of security exist:

If I get a job as a houseboat worker, I will gladly take it. With people like you it is different, you might have a stable job and see these kinds of work as being derogatory, but for people like me, earning 3000 rupees a month is like a dream come true.

Both these kinds of workers thus face diverse issues, which require different methods of organisation. The problem of organising the houseboat workers rests upon two distinct issues. First, as a houseboat worker informed me, the workers are divided along community lines that create distinctions that reinforce the segregations that the ruling class depends on. Secondly, the workers are tormented by the marginalisation that they face in the national discourse. Vendors, on the other hand, are unprotected by any employment benefits, however marginal those benefits might be. Coming from the marginalised sections of the Kashmiri populace, these vendors remain aggrieved by the constant exploitation that they face. This affects their political composition. The hospitality sector workers in Kashmir are one of the most exploited sections of the working populace in India. The worst part of their exploitation is the complete marginalisation that they face within the kind of media discourse that is generated surrounding Kashmir. While the internal security, militarisation, the perennial ‘state of war’ that reigns in the State because of Indo-Pakistan tensions, and the massive tourism potential of the region is constantly highlighted in the mainstream media dominated by right-wing capitalist forces the hospitality and tourism workers – one of the largest groups of informal workforces in the region – remain completely side-lined.

The Dal-lake based economy of Kashmir is a massive revenue-generator for the tourism industry of Kashmir. The exploitation that goes on within that economy demands a detailed analysis. Unlike the pages of a book or an article, exploitation in the real world takes place at the level of interpersonal interactions that contribute to the social reality that these workers have to live through in their everyday lives, which drastically affects their social and technical composition. An inquiry into the state of the hospitality workers in the Dal lake-based economy makes clear the importance that class composition (with its technical, political, and social focus) holds in the context of states such as India. The hospitality workers of Kashmir, not only remain bereft of the requisite political attention that their exploitation deserves, but they are denied the basic right to be heard within an atmosphere of hostility against Kashmiris in general that is exhibited by the far-right in the country.

All Interviews were conducted in a mix of Kashmiri, Urdu, Pashto and Hindi. Translation by author with help from Aadil (Kashmiri Activist).

Figure 1: The Dal Lake with its shikaras and houseboats.

Figure 2: A shikara anchored by the Dal Lake with its driver having his lunch.

Figure 3: Row of houseboats on the Dal Lake.

Figure 4: A mobile boat-based vendor gliding over the Dal lake.

Figure 5: A Row of shikaras parked by the lake, as a military man stands guard.

Figure 6: The horizon dominated by houseboats at night on the Dal Lake.

Figure 7: A Mobile shop on a shikara

  1. See; 

  2. Srinagar is the Capital city of Kashmir. 

  3. See , 

  4. See,, 

  5. Ex-chief ministers of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) and Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) respectively. 

  6. An extremely light and flat-bottomed boat usually used in the Dal Lake. They are often beautifully decorated and have seating arrangements for 4 passengers and a driver. 

  7. A residential unit constructed on a boat that is meant to be stationary. They are usually constructed out of wood and are supported by a few wooden columns. 

  8. Ghats is a flight of steps that lead to a body of water. 

  9. Bakshish is the Urdu word for Tip. 

  10. In Kashmir the term, ‘High militancy zones’, is usually used colloquially to refer to districts that have seen increasing conflicts between the Indian Army and militant groups in recent times. 

  11. Name withheld for security of the author and the worker. 

  12. Referring to another worker standing beside him, whose experience was also similar to him. 

  13. A traditional Kashmiri gown. See 

  14. List of trade unions active in Kashmir can be found at: 

  15. A major part of the discourse is dominated by the abrogation of Article 370. More details can be found at: 

  16. Kashmiri tea. See 

  17. The houseboat worker referred to certain disturbing facts about instances of child labour, which fall outside the scope of this piece. 


Suddhabrata Deb Roy

Suddhabrata Deb Roy is a casual academic worker, author and researcher based in India. His latest book is ‘Singing to Liberation: Songs of Freedom and Nights of Resistance on Indian Campuses’ (Daraja Press, 2023).