Muhammad Majeed, an aged man who cannot recall the exact year of his birth, is inspecting the plank of a wooden boat that he is here to fix.
He has been called at the bank of the River Ravi, near Shahdara, where more than a dozen boats of the same kind but different sizes, can be seen floating on water or tied to pegs.
This is the location where the visitors are arriving all day long, to enjoy boating and spend some time at the Baradari, a recreational garden founded during the Mughal era. Either they opt for longer rides or cross the stretch of water to go over to the Baradari and return on manually operated boats. This costs them Rs50 per person.
Majeed is a well-known local craftsman who has built boats for the past many decades. Most of the boats found at this location have been built by him and his students.
Today, however, the situation is not as good as it used to be in the past. A major reason for this is that there is not enough water in the river for most of the year. Furthermore, the quality of water has worsened over time and the deodar wood has become too rare and costly.
So, Majeed is here usually to repair the boats and not to receive fresh orders. There are other locations across the River Ravi where the demand for boats is rising and he is the man of the moment.
All said and done, the profession is on the decline and giving way to the fibre glass technology introduced in mechanised boat-making industry.
Manzoor Ahmed, head of the boatmen’s families operating in the area, believes that building wooden boats has become highly non-viable as deodar is not even available at Rs7,000 per square foot. Even a small-sized boat consumes more than 30 square feet deodar which costs more than Rs200,000.
“You add labour cost and other construction material such as silver plating, paint, oars to it, and the price goes up to Rs300,000.” The bigger the size, the higher the cost.
Ahmed is concerned about the quality of water flowing in the River Ravi, and says that it contains huge volumes of municipal and industrial waste that damages the wooden boats and reduces their lives.
“There was a time when the boats obtained by a person would pass on to generations but now they are destroyed due to the action of chemicals present in the water. The smell is so bad, especially when the water level is low, that many families who come here for boating go back without a ride,” he says.
Ahmed reveals that the boats are not checked for fitness by any authority and thinks there is no need for that as people like him know their craft well.
There are locations along the length of the Ravi where the river transport is required to carry the people, crops as well as vehicles like cars and tractors to the other side. Ravi Siphon, near the BRB canal in Lahore, is a place where this means of transport is used to access Sheikhupura district via Luban Wala village. Muhammad Majeed is often called at such locations on demand, as the traffic volume has increased manifold.
While there appears to be a gradual fall in the demand of conventional boats, there is some hope for the boatmen community. Lately, the Punjab government has set up an Inland Water Transport Development Company (IWTDC) with the aim to creating a river transport system and, later, launching the boats in rivers for tourism/recreational purposes.
Najam Abbas, a spokesman for the Punjab Irrigation Department, hopes the company shall give the much-needed boost to this sector. “As the initiative seeks to promote transportation of goods through river, it is quite understandable that the scope of ship-making will also increase.
“It is also likely that a regulatory system will be put in place with safety as its prime concern, in order to regulate the sector,” he adds.
The concept note of the IWTDC also mentions that a whole new industry shall grow in the province around “repair and building of water craft, terminal construction and operations, surveying services, dredging services and a broad range of spinoff activities.” The 200-km stretch of the Northern Indus is being executed as a pilot project where primarily coal will be transported between Daudkhel and Attock in Punjab.
Rehan Ahmed, a scion of a boatmen’s family in Lahore, says that where the fibre glass technology has limited the scope of their profession it has also helped them. “The thin coating of fibre glass and resin helps to preserve the decaying boats made of deodar and increase their life. This works as a protective cover especially in case pores and cracks appear in the boat.”
Sitting on a wooden chair on the bank of the River Ravi, he points at two large fibre glass boats, and says that these were bought from a company located at Thokar Niaz Beg. “It was too costly to make such big ferries with wood, so we opted for these. The ferries operate in summers when there is sufficient water in the rivers, and depend on power provided by diesel motors.”
“No doubt the non-viability of building and maintaining expensive wooden boats along the River Ravi have made people look for alternative professions, but there are places in Punjab where boat making is still a tenable profession,” says Layyah-based Nadeem Akhtar, who has carried out extensive research on boatmen’s communities in Punjab.
Talking to TNS, Akhtar says that unlike in River Ravi, there is perennial water flow in River Indus and that is why major centres of boat-making are present along its banks.
“The people have to travel from one side of the river to the other so they use boats available mostly on locations where the width of the river is comparatively small. Besides, there are large boats or flotillas at points that help people shift their agricultural produce from one side of the river to the other and from there to the markets.”
According to Akhtar, good boat makers are hard to find. “There’s one well-sought-after boat maker at Head Panjnad in Alipur, a basti (locality) of boat makers, next to Taunsa Bridge, and another of Kheel community, adept at boat making, near Kundian Bridge. Here, the craft is common as there is a substantial movement of people and goods across and along the river.”
Explaining the point, he says the conventional wooden boats cannot be used for fishing but in Punjab “these are the prerogative of the contractors (thaikedaar) only; anybody else found involved in the activity is liable to punishment.
“The introduction of this contract system has rendered many a boat, once used for fishing, redundant.”
Though these centres are keeping the craft alive, a major threat to the traditional boat makers is the introduction of boats made of fibre glass. Their parts can be imported and assembled in leading Pakistani business centres such as Karachi and Lahore and distributed in different parts of the country. Some companies import raw material such as raisin and make moulds here. A large number of fibre glass boats have been purchased by the Rescue 1122 department and the recently raised riverine security force of Punjab. Then there are boats for hunting, water sports etc., supplied by them at affordable costs.
Akhtar says that the districts maintain records of privately owned boats and in case of an emergency or flood call all of them to participate in rescue work. On such occasions, even the flotillas maintained by the sugar mills to fetch sugarcane from the other side of the river rescue people and their immovable property including cattle.
“In the 2010 floods, many people in Layyah had refused to vacate their lands and complied only when their cattle were also boarded on the flotilla owned by the Layyah Sugar Mills,” he says. “A number of craftsmen also find livelihood here as the mills need their skills to maintain their fleets.”