Fishing in troubled waters

WHEN TENSION mounts between India and Pakistan, people living along the land border are affected. But so are those who depend on the common stretch of sea between the two countries for their livelihood. Each time relations between them sour, one of the first groups to be caught in the virtual crossfire are the fisherfolk. Inevitably, the navies of the two countries swoop down on fishing boats that have strayed beyond the unmarked border in the sea, and for months, sometimes years, these people are incarcerated on either side. The recent release by Pakistan of 269 Indian fishermen and their boats was a reminder of this ritual.

But there is more in common between these fishing communities than their experience of spending time in the jails of each other's countries. During the recent South Asian Labour for Peace Conference in Karachi, one of the more striking examples of parallels between the working class communities in the subcontinent was between the fisherfolk on both sides of the border.

Pakistan's fisherfolk are an increasingly endangered species. According to Sikander Brohi, a Karachi-based researcher, 70 per cent of Pakistan's fish production, drawn in from inland fisheries and the 1,000 km coastal area, is affected by globalisation. Specifically, it is the advent of industrial fishing that has adversely affected and marginalised artisanal and traditional fisherfolk.

Mr. Brohi points out that the Pakistan Government had no fishing policy until 1995 when it brought in a Deep Sea Fishing Policy that allowed foreign-owned trawlers to fish in Pakistani waters. In 2001, when thousands of local communities protested against this policy, the Government withdrew licences to trawlers and accepted that their method of fishing was destroying the spawning grounds and depriving small fishermen of their catch.

Within six or seven months, however, the same Government changed its mind and allowed trawlers to operate within 12 to 35 nautical miles off the coastline. This means the traditional fisherfolk are now restricted to 12 miles off the coast. The quantity of their catch has already depleted because of the kind of nets and techniques used by industrial trawlers. According to Mr. Brohi, the fish catch dropped drastically, from six lakh metric tonnes in 1993 to just 60,000 metric tonnes in 1999.

These changes have had a direct impact on the role of women in the fish business. In the past, women would be involved in both fishing and processing. Some of them continue to play an active role, particularly along the Balochistan coast. But in Sindh, largely as a result of increasing commercialisation, women do not go out in the boats any more.

Mohammad Ali Shah, president of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum told The Hindu that with commercialisation, "the sustainable tradition of fishing has died down." In addition, thousands of fisherfolk have been displaced from their livelihood through the destruction of the Indus Delta. Construction of dams along the Indus river has stopped the flow of fresh water into the creeks of the delta. As a result, there has been sea intrusion and the natural spawning grounds of many fish species that lived in fresh water have died. Lakhs of acres of agricultural land have become saline and an estimated 1.5 lakh hectares of mangroves have been destroyed. Many fishing communities have been left with no option but to migrate to the nearest city.

In the last month, the fishing community in Karachi has faced an additional problem. An oil tanker, the Tasman Spirit, struck the rocks around Karachi's Clifton beach on July 27. The ship split into two and, in the process, around 28,000 tonnes of crude oil, a little under half the total load of 67,500 tonnes, spilt into the waters. An estimated 200,000 fisherfolk living in 13 coastal villages around Karachi have been directly affected. For weeks the majority of the 90,000 registered fishermen have been sitting around without work. The problems of the Indian fishing community are almost a mirror image of the Pakistani fishermen's experiences of recent years. N. D. Koli of the National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF) of India, who also attended the Karachi meeting, said that in India, fisherfolk had to fight similar battles — against pollution, deep-sea trawlers, and the impact of globalisation. Indian fishing communities had also opposed New Delhi's Deep Sea Fishing Policy much as their Pakistani counterparts. Following a hunger strike and a nationwide bandh by NFF in November 1994, the Government was forced to recall the policy and appoint a committee to review it. The final report of the Murari Committee, released in February 1996, was in favour of the fishing communities and thereafter the Cabinet approved its recommendations in September 1997. Licences to foreign trawlers operating within Indian waters were cancelled. But Mr. Koli says that some of this is now being reversed as the Union Ministry of Agriculture has permitted around 32 deep-sea fishing vessels to operate.

The story of the fishing communities of India and Pakistan emphasise, yet again, the many common problems that unite people on both sides of the border, even as politics continues to separate and divide.

Recommended for you