Out at sea and out of touch with their families for 10-15 days at a time, the fishermen who eke out a precarious living along the coastal area between Pakistan and India risk not only storms at sea, which they can usually weather, but arrest by border forces of the other country that land them in prisons across the border perhaps for years.
The maritime border security agencies are always on the lookout to pounce on them for violating the border, which is unclear and unmarked, largely due to the as yet unresolved Sir Creek boundaries.
The arrested fishermen are unable to inform their families who suffer great uncertainty about their fate. They usually have no consular access until they have served their sentences and are due to be released. Only rarely are civil society organisations or media able to meet them. Due to this inaccessibility, there is no comprehensive study on the situation of these fishermen.
While researching this issue in 2008 for the Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research (Piler), I talked to ten of the 473 Indian fishermen in Pakistani prisons – Landhi and Malir District Jails, and the Youthful Offenders Jail, Central Jail, Karachi. Little has changed since then, although the men I spoke to have since returned home safely.
Fear, dejection, hopelessness and misery are writ large on their faces, traumatised by being away from home and their loved ones. As one of them said, “Had any of the politicians from both sides of the border been detained for a single day in jail in the conditions in which we are living, probably they would have understood our ordeal. I am sure they cannot endure this. But who else is there to tell them about our misery?”
My interaction was enough to gauge the ordeal and emotional trauma they underwent during their detention in Pakistan. Most appreciated the Pakistani authorities, which provided them with food, clothing, education and health facilities and allowed them to practice their faiths – the Deputy Jailer had even given them money to celebrate Holi during their incarceration. They were allowed to live in one barrack together and were able to freely talk to each other and share their grievances. Some felt that their health had improved due to regular meals, while their complexion has ‘improved’ by not being exposed to the sun, salt air and high winds at sea.
In prison, they had learnt beadwork. They manage to make and sell beautiful rings, necklaces, keyrings, bangles and tasbeeh (prayer beads). The money earned enables them to buy ghee and chillies, the two items the jail doesn’t provide. Some felt that had Benazir Bhutto been alive, she would have done something for their release as she did in 1995.
They were roundly critical of the governments who have failed to acknowledge their pain and resolve the differences due to which they and their Pakistani counterparts are routinely detained.
They said that due to unemployment and poverty in rural areas of Gujarat, they more easily find jobs in the fishing sector where they can earn more than any other field. Only two of the ten fishermen I spoke to had taken up work as labourers on fishing boats due to unemployment in other sectors. For the other eight fishing ran in the family.
Given the lack of a clear maritime boundary, they often can’t tell when they have crossed the border. They said that the border forces of both sides purposely allow them to cross the boundaries in order to make these arrests. “If our border security forces warn us when we are heading into dangerous territory, no arrest would ever take place,” said one fisherman.
Nine out of the ten denied that they had violated the border, while one admitted to having mistakenly crossed the border into Pakistani territory. They said they had been arrested at night, while their nets were in the sea and they were asleep.
Sometimes the arrested fishermen are accused of spying for India. This charge is usually unfounded, but fishermen on both sides of the border, with age-old ties, may well pass on innocuous messages or exchange items like coconut, dry milk and gur (brown sugar). Sometimes they are arrested after assurances by fishermen from the other country that there are no patrolling parties around.
The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum has called for the two governments to resolve their differences and adopt a different policy for the fishermen so that those not involved in any criminal activities may be released immediately after necessary interrogation.
Money money money
Mostly, fishermen on both sides venture into uncertain areas under pressure from the fishing boat owners to make large catches, or risk losing their jobs. Due to environmental degradation and pollution, fish nearer the shores are getting scarcer and scarcer, making it difficult to bring home the 10-12 tons of fish that owners demand.
The salaries of the arrested fishermen ranged from Rs. 2,500-10,000. They worked on the boats as labourers, captain (Nakhuda), mechanics or cooks.
The Indian fishermen said that they are sent after the Red Fish (Lal Pari), which is abundant in this area and sells for INR 15-16 per kg. Prawn (Jheenga) sells for INR 300-500 per kg while pomphret fetches INR 350 a kg, they said.
Another loss they have to bear is that of their confiscated boats, worth Rs. 20-22 lakh each, including equipment like fishing nets, diesel stock and the occasional television or tape recorder set. Hundreds of boats lie rotting in Karachi harbour.
The families suffer
When fishermen – typically the main bread earners for their families – are arrested and incarcerated in the other country, not only they, but their families back home, suffer immensely.
Their families depend upon them not only for their daily bread and butter but also for children’s education, dowries for sisters or daughters, or to look after old or ill parents who were unable to earn.
Hailing mostly from Diu in India’s Gujarat District, the ages of those I talked to ranged between 19-39 years, with education levels from complete illiteracy to the intermediate level. Eight were married with children while two were unmarried. Between 8-13 family members were directly dependent on their earnings (see table).
They worried about how their families back home are able to manage. They can only hope that immediate or extended families help out, because they get no news apart from occasional letters dispatched, or telephone calls made, through the good offices of the relatives of their fellow Pakistani prisoners.
They feared that their families may have had to take loans with interest, resulting in ever-increasing amounts to be repaid. Some of them hear that their families had to take children out of school, like *Kumar’s sister and *Prem’s brother who had also started working to help make ends meet.
* Vikram’s wife had taken up work as a farm labourer, earning Rs. 50 per day. His children were studying in government schools, where education till 7th grade was free.
With *Vrisag and his brother both in Pakistani prisons, his family had lost two bread earners. Vrisag’s wife was earning a meagre Rs 1,500 a month making and selling flower garlands but had taken a loan to support their two sons and two daughters.
“For one year the loan is given at 25 percent interest, which increases to 50 percent the next year and the rate keeps on rising,” he said.
(*Not their real names)