When the government announced a lockdown in March to stem the spread of SARS-CoV-2, Nagaraja H., a houseboat owner from Chathanad in Alappuzha, was worried but did not have the faintest idea that it would cripple the houseboat sector and change the course of his life.
With the industry at a standstill since March and no signs of houseboats setting sail again anytime soon, Mr. Nagaraja has taken up the job of a grocery deliveryman to make ends meet. Following the declaration of the lockdown, I was hoping for a return to some sort of normality soon like in the case of the Nipah outbreak and floods. After my first houseboat was gutted in a fire, I bought another one after securing a bank loan. Things were going smooth until the outbreak. But the pandemic has dealt a never-before blow to the houseboat sector that recovery is now a distant dream. I am left with no choice but to take up another job, he says.
Varghese K.T. has been operating a houseboat in the Alappuzha backwaters for the past eight years. He terms the COVID-19-induced crisis unprecedented and is forced to take up another job. They are not the only ones seeking new pastures as several other houseboat owners and employees are already turning to online fish delivery, setting up cafes, and food delivery to make a living.
A longer hiatus
Vinod V., president, All Kerala Houseboat Owners Association, says the industry is staring at an uncertain future. The State governments reluctance to waive fee or extend the soon-to-be-expiring survey, registration, fitness, and other certificates of the boats has not helped the sector either. Although other sectors are slowly reopening, we expect the houseboats to remain anchored for the rest of the year. Even if the government gives the nod, we are not expecting tourists to come soon. The government should provide some relief to the sector, Mr. Vinod says.
There are 1,500 houseboats in the State, a majority of them in Alappuzha. Thousands of people are directly attached with the sector and many thousands indirectly. A large number of them have already become jobless. The situation of shikara boat operators is not much different.
T.G. Abhilash Kumar, deputy director, Tourism Department, says no decision has been taken yet on restarting the houseboat operations.