House boat owners have turned to making idly-dosa mix and selling fish to make ends meet
With many key states in the country’s tourism map opening up the tourism sector, demands to follow suit have been increasing in Kerala too. While Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Goa, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan have opened their states for travel, Kerala continued with a 15-day quarantine policy for visitors.
Kerala’s tourism sector brought in more than Rs 45,000 crore in 2019, contributing nearly 12% to the state's GSDP. With the tourism sector in Kerala estimated to employ 15 lakh people directly and 20 lakh people indirectly, the lifting of curbs is vital for many.
The Lede reports from Alappuzha which is in essence the home of all houseboats in Kerala and India about their current state of affairs.
“All the boats are tied up,” says 47-year-old Rajesh PR, a house boat owner in Alappuzha district of Kerala, less than a kilometre away from the port harbour from where tourists the world over once alighted daily on their overnight cruise of the Ashtamudi Lake.
Ever since the onset of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed brought the travel and tourism industry world over to a standstill, the houseboats in Alappuzha have remained anchored. With the number of houseboats plying on the lake estimated to range from 2000 to 2400, each employing at least three persons, the primary livelihood in Alappuzha screeched to a halt in March.
Things were not looking good even before the lockdown announcement.
“As it is, the previous two years were lacklustre for us,” says Rajesh.
Rajesh has been in the house boat industry for more than thirteen years and owns a two bedroom house boat with a hall and a kitchen.
“Since the floods of 2018 and 2019, business had been well below 40% of the pre-flood era. Tourists weren’t coming as much as they used to,” he says. “This was the year that things were expected to turn upwards. Then this happened,” he says, about COVID.
“80% of the houseboat owners are from average financial backgrounds,” says 44-year-old Vinod MS. Vinod has been associated with the industry for 18 years and owns two house boats and held one under lease at the time of announcement of lockdown.
“Banks don’t extend loans for house boats as it is. It is by borrowing and pledging jewellery and properties that most owners manage to get a boat ready and running,” says Vinod. For such owners, the lockdown and the shutdown has meant the end of their lives as they knew it.
“Until now there was the option of moratorium. Now that it has ended, things are going to get tougher,” he says.
“Even when moratorium was in place, private financiers were pestering us for money. They were calling up people who had stood guarantee and even contacting their employers. Now the situation will get worse. Just because the boats aren’t running doesn’t mean we don’t have to bear the expenses associated with it,” says Rajesh. “We still have to pay for the parking rent and other such fixed expenses.”
Parking rent refers to the rent paid by each houseboat to land owners in front of whose property the boats are anchored at night or when not running. Post lockdown, this has meant the entire time.
It is also a source of revenue for land owners in the area who have grown dependent on it. They also provide electricity supply to the houseboats when parked at night so that they can run the ACs and other electric requirements without the need to keep the generator running through the night. For this, most houses by the lake have special commercial connections as well.
“The land owners would earn anywhere from Rs 15,000 and above for each boat,” says Sumesh Kumar, an auto driver who was about to take a boat on lease when lockdown came into effect.
“Naturally it is a big part of everyone’s financial planning here,” he says. “People have built houses availed loans, all with this income in mind. All of them are suffering now with no proceeds whatsoever. Rent is only a part of their income. Electricity is what earns them more money,” he says.
Now that the income from providing electricity has stopped, owners still insist on getting the rents for the anchored boats, says Vinod.
“Those charges alone come to around Rs 4000 a month per boat,” says Vinod.
Unable to make ends meet, owners like Vinod are trying out other ventures.
“At least 50% of the owners here have started new ventures in the last two-three months,” says Vinod.
Both Rajesh and Vinod are amongst those.
“With no income coming and debt piling up, I reached a point of falling into depression by the end of two months of lockdown,” says Rajesh.
“That is how I started my fish stall. I know that not everyone who are doing something new is going to succeed,” he says. “The idea is to stay afloat somehow till normalcy returns.”
But Rajesh has not been lucky so far.
“The problem with a new field is the lack of experience. Those who have been doing it traditionally know better,” he says.
“When I started the stall in Chenganassery two months back, there were four shops selling fish in the entire locality. Within a month, four more have now come up fast. None of them have any prior experience in the field. Some are Gulf returnees. What do I do?” he asks.
Rajesh has invested a total of Rs 1.75 lakh in the stall and has a partner, also a house boat owner. A consequence of the copycat stalls has been a steep fall in sales within a month.
“In the first month, I had sold around 550 kg of fish. Last month the sales had gone down to around 350 kg and this month only 140 kg were sold. In between, containment zone restrictions also came in in the area and I had to try and do home delivery. It is still not in a stage where I can take a call on whether to continue or not,” says Rajesh.
While Rajesh started a stall, after the lockdown restrictions began to ease, Vinod ventured into dosa and idly mix preparation.
“Just before the lockdown, I had spent Rs 5.75 lakh on hull maintenance of one of the boats I own,” says Vinod.
“I could luckily get rid of another houseboat I had taken on lease. It alone would cost me Rs 50,000 per month as rent. But still, parking rent for the two boats I own and other fixed costs is costing me around Rs 14,000 per month,” says Vinod.
“Apart from this are the other debts which needs refurbishment. I didn’t have money coming in even to run the day to day affairs of my house. I had to do something,” he says.
And so it was that while his two house boats lay anchored, Vinod used part of the money he got as a bank loan for his house renovation to put in place a unit producing dosa and idly mix in a small plot of land he owned.
“I pledged my wife’s jewellery, borrowed money and used the loan money and arranged whatever I could,” says Vinod. An acquaintance running a travel agency in Ernakulam later chipped in as a partner.
“He had a fleet of cars lying just like my houseboats. His drivers were all out of work too. So he took up the distribution of the mix in and around Ernakulam city. The drivers come and pick the packets and they themselves distribute it for an additional commission,” says Vinod.
How is the business?
“It is too early to call it,” says Vinod. “The idea is to make a parallel source of revenue so that if this crisis lingers on, I wouldn’t starve out.”
“Nobody is doing all this because they can. I reached a point where I had to do something to get out of the pit I was getting into. So in a sense, I had to do something is the only reason why I began,” he says. But with an investment running into Rs 17 lakh in the dosa-idly mix venture, Vinod realises it could be dicey but he is betting still.
“Whenever something happens, the tourism industry is the first to take the hit and the last to recover. We saw that with the floods. Even when the issues receded, the number of foreigners coming to Alappuzha had fallen considerably. What happened was that, with Alappuzha missing out for two years, people started looking for alternatives. In the process, cheaper places like those in Sri Lanka picked up. So now, even if markets open completely, we don’t know what the recovery will look like. It is safer to have second options,” he says.
“Other houseboat owners are all thinking similarly. Josekutty, former president of one of the six different Houseboat Owner’s Associations here has converted his house boat booking office in town into one selling sunglasses. Others have started selling fish, vegetables, raising fish or have taken to selling food on the roadside. It is not like we are not afraid of the virus. I have my fears. But when I can’t hold on any longer, how can I sit home to look after my safety?” he asks.
“We need the moratorium to continue for at least one and a half years to two years. That is the least the government should do. I don’t even know what else I should ask. I am not asking them to write off the loans. But at least the pressure of having to pay dues with no income coming should be lifted. The tourism department should also come up with something probably,” he says, unsure how the recovery should or would look like.
The dire straits that the house boat owners find themselves in have meant that the employees who were once employed by the houseboats are forced to look elsewhere for livelihood.
41-year-old Madhu C was a painter until in 2010 he took up job as a cook in a house boat owned by one of his neighbours. 10 years later, he now finds himself left with no job nor any means of livelihood.
“I now work as a mason one day and a painter on another,” says Madhu. “There are regular workers already in the market and when there is shortage of any kind, I get work. But it is very sporadic. Most days I have nothing. I took an auto on rent and tried driving it early on after the lockdown relaxed,” says Madhu.
“The rent per day came to Rs 250. I wasn’t earning even that much. So I returned the auto and took to looking out for painting work.”
“Occasionally I go check on the houseboat. Nobody pays me for that but since that is what gave me a livelihood for long, I do it anyway. I do not know how to work on paddy neither I know fishing. So I am having to make do with whatever I get. At home, I have my mother, wife and two kids to look after. I had broken my knee cap in an accident on a house boat. So the kind of work that I can undertake are limited too,” he says.
Madhu was earning a monthly salary of Rs 12,500 as fixed by the labour unions along with a bata (daily wage) of Rs 290 per trip.
“Guests would also be generous with tips if they liked the food,” says Madhu. But with guests no longer visiting and boats anchored, seemingly for good, Madhu’s finances have taken a hit.
“I have already pledged whatever I have,” he says referring to the gold owned by his family. “It is not me alone. This is the condition with everyone here. We are all going through tough times. Many of my former colleagues have also moved into other fields. Some are working in quarries, two have taken boats on rent and are now fishing in Nedumudi and Kainakiri. Almost all the people now selling fish and vegetables in stores in and around Alappuzha are former house boat employees.”
51-year-old Rakesh P who holds a houseboat engine operator and houseboat driver’s license, says that while both the owners and workers are both in dire straits, the workers have it tougher.
“Even during Onam, none of the authorities have cared to look into our plight,” says Rakesh.
“The government should intervene and do something about it now. How else will things improve?” he asks. Rakesh has land on which he grew paddy this lockdown - a rare feat in the region where most of the paddy fields - all below the lake’s water level - saw flooding during the heavy rains in August.
“People are literally surviving because of the rations being given by the government,” says 38-year-old Anoop J. Anoop works in the same house boat he owns in partnership.
“The issue is that those falling under BPL (Below Poverty Line) category are getting sufficient ration while those in APL (Above Poverty Line) get far lesser,” he says, repairing a fishing net.
“There are a lot of people like me who were living on the edge who have literally gone under but are not eligible for the benefits of BPL. It is the lowest of the APL who need immediate support.”
Anoop is a house boat owner, which he runs in partnership with the partners working on it too. Seated by his house, Anoop sounds depressed.
The Kerala government had announced a loan scheme of Rs 450 crore to support the state’s tourism sector known as the Chief Minister’s special tourism loan fund allowing small ventures in the travel industry to avail up to Rs 3 lakh from the scheme, while entrepreneurs could get loans up to Rs 25 lakh. But to cover old loans with newer loans is not an option for owners like Anoop who are already neck deep in debt.
“Continuation of moratorium is a must,” he says. “We are running from pillar to post. Nobody wants to help us. State is pushing it to the Centre, Centre is saying states can do whatever to help the industry if they want. They play politics travelling in AC cars fuelled by public money. When it comes to doing something, they have excuses why not to. Have you seen any of them lose livelihood amidst all this?” he asks.
“Soon you will see suicides here and then some hue and cry will be made even. Media will run it for a few days. That is it,” says Anoop, hopeless.
His attempts to get the plight of those like him highlighted in the local media ended badly with distorted information appearing in print. And this has earned him the wrath of his neighbours, all similarly placed like him.
“They add their own masala to make news interesting,” says Anoop.
“I am fishing, raising fish in a leased area and also working as a daily wager in the paddy fields nearby,” explains Anoop. “Work in paddy fields is seasonal and less. But they printed something else altogether,” he says.
“It was a kid in the neighbourhood who is doing some journalism course who took photos and all. I don’t know what happened but when the news got printed, it said that there is so much work at rates of Rs 1500 a day in the paddy fields of Kuttanad that even house boat owners are choosing to do it.”
Anoop and the many in his vicinity felt betrayed. Blame fell on Anoop.
“Actually, we get work in the fields for 20-odd days in the 130 days of the growing season,” he says in the passing. “That too is split between those requiring men and those that only need women. The good thing that happened is, I realised how different truth is from news reports. I started off as a cook in a houseboat 15 years back. For the last five years, I had been running my own boat. But now I am worse off than where I began,” he says.
And there are many more like Anoop.
36-year-old Manoj Kumar M had joined the field 18 years back as a worker.
“After working for a few years here, I went to the Gulf to work as a driver.” Upon returning after seven years, Manoj like many other returnees, started a venture - a house boat in partnership.
“I bought this house boat in partnership with two others eight years back,” says Manoj.
“I pledged my wife’s gold, everything I had saved and sold off the small property I got as ancestral share to do it,” he says.
“What I have achieved in these eight years is that I have bought off shares of the two other partners,” he says. “I am now the sole owner of the boat.”
Manoj himself worked in the boat, a situation not uncommon, he says. His two-bedroom house boat could fetch anywhere upwards of Rs 60 lakh today is his assessment.
“We had brought it for 24 lakh,” he says.
But he is now in a quandary. All his gains over the years risk being eroded slowly.
“The day of the lockdown was when my boat should have hit the lake after renovation. I spent around Rs 6 lakh on the interiors and other repairs. I didn’t earn even one rupee,” he says.
He does not see much difference from the plight of other owners.
“People generally have a belief that house boat owners are all rich people with deep pockets. It is the combined credit worthiness of all our efforts which plies on the lake as a house boat - all of our combined financial capability. I, for one, am living in a rented house here and have nothing else with which I can make a living," he adds.
Manoj says he is now planning on selling his car to cover for the debts incurred with boat renovation.
“The returns are not as good as they used to be,” complains Manoj.
“When I first joined a houseboat in 2002, the per day running rate here was around Rs 6500 for a one-bedroom houseboat. Back then diesel cost Rs 35 a litre and salary was Rs 2500-3000 with a bata of Rs 25 per trip. Compare that with today’s fuel prices and the worker salaries of Rs 12,500 and Rs 290 bata, which are many times over.” The charge per room he says has gone down meanwhile.
“Today the going rate for rooms is around Rs 5500 to Rs 6500. This is what the owner gets. Because of the increasing competition, we are unable to peg the price upwards.” Over the years, the number of houseboats has grown manifold, he says.
“Compare it with the investment and return for running an ACE (auto),” says Manoj. “The investment is limited to Rs 7 lakh and yearly maintenance isn’t as much either. But in spite of all this trouble, if things return to normalcy, people will still return to running house boats here,” he says.
“There are more and more returnees coming from the Gulf. They will look for dependable running businesses with established markets to get into.” House boats in Alappuzha cut the mark.
“Someone or the other will get them to invest either directly or in partnership. Many such people learn the trade only after buying. People will continue to invest that way. Whether anyone will make anything out of it is a different question. Even though this is the case, I am so invested into this that I don’t know if anything else will be possible ever.”
“If they allow the boats to ply now, maybe we will be able to make something this November and December,” says Vinod. “It will be impossible to run any of these boats without undertaking repairs and renovations though,” he says.
“Anchored boats lunging into each other caused by the strong winds have caused damages to many boats here,” says Madhu.
The boat he was working on now leaks from the roof.
“As it is, every year, the roofing has to be re-done and it costs anywhere from Rs 60,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh per boat,” says Manoj Kumar.
“If there are other damages, the costs would be far higher," adds Rakesh.
"That is the next big tension,” says Rajesh. “How to arrange money for repairs once the boats are allowed to ply if and when that happens.”
While they hope for further announcements, the house boat owners all share one pressing question.
“People usually come on tours by parting with a portion of their income. But left with no income, will they travel?” ponders a house boat owner in Alappuzha.