Amidst diplomatic wrangling between India and Pakistan, fishermen on both sides perish in jails of the other country without much aid forthcoming 

In a fishing village in Karachi, families of fishermen who went missing and are reportedly in Indian jails await their return since many years. Many of them have not given up hope.

Slightly better is the case of the 300 odd Indian fishermen and crew members who were arrested and served a jail sentence before being released in August. The Pakistan government’s decision to release them has come after intense lobbying for their release and the families, many of them in Gujarat, were reunited recently.

A recent report “Fishing in Troubled Waters, The turmoil of fisher people caught between India and Pakistan”, published by Dialogue for Action, an initiative of Programme for Social Action, New Delhi, says the issue of fishworkers’ arrests between India and Pakistan by the Indian Coast Guard and the Maritime Security Agency of Pakistan dates back to the time of Independence. The number of people arrested almost reached a thousand in the 1990s. The compilation covers the history of intense efforts of the last four years in releasing fishworkers and also the lobbying for creating a permanent mechanism for their release.

Jatin Desai, one of those lobbying for fishworkers’ rights,   said there is still a lot of confusion about the numbers of arrested fishermen. Under the Agreement on Consular Access signed in 2008, both the countries have to give a list of arrested persons of the other country on every January 1 and July 1 which is being done. 

The recent additional affidavit submitted by P.V. Sivaraman, director (Foreigners), Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA),  says the list of Pakistani prisoners lodged in jails/detention centres in India was exchanged with the Pakistan High Commission on January 1, 2013, with status as on 12.02.2013 is 260 and 37 fishermen. 

A joint statement on the sixth meeting of the India-Pakistan Judicial Committee on Prisoners statement issued on May 3, 2013, after visiting Pakistani jails and meeting Indian prisoners says a total number of 535 Indian prisoners, including 483 fishermen (that includes 11 juveniles) and eight civil prisoners, believed to be Indian nationals, are in district jail Malir, Karachi; eight are at Adiyala jail, Rawalpindi; and 36 prisoners at Kot Lakhpat jail, Lahore. They were presented before the committee. The Pakistani Fisherfolk Forum says India has 171 Pakistani fishermen in their jails.

But according to the figures submitted to the Supreme Court of India on February 12, 2013, a total of 297 Pakistani prisoners are in Indian jails, including 37 fishermen. There were 342 fishermen (most of them recently released) in Karachi’s Malir jail and in India, the number of Pakistani fishermen is 159. There seem to be discrepancies in the figures. While an Economic Cooperation Agreement aimed at sharing marine resources and implementation of “Release at Sea” is a long way off,  the report  calls for political will from the leadership of India and Pakistan and a permanent resolution of the Sir Creek issue.

The other pending matter is the need to release confiscated boats of fishermen from both sides. There are close to 765 Indian boats in Pakistan and around 200 Pakistani boats in India. All the boats from India are owned by the fisherfolk from Gujarat and Diu and the boats were bought after taking loans. In Karachi, in 2011, Mr. Desai who has been working for the release of fishermen along with other campaigners had met Mai Bhagi whose son, son-in-law and two relatives were arrested in 1999 after their boat was destroyed. She found out her son-in-law died in 2012 in the Ahmedabad civil hospital and after much effort his body was sent home to Karachi after 25 days.

Similarly Rambhai Wala, an Indian fisherman died in Karachi jail and his body was sent back after 45 days of wrangling. 

The report has articles by journalists and activists not only on fishworkers but also on Sir Creek, the Wullar Barrage dispute and Siachen and is a good resource on these issues.