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COMMUNITY: THE ISLAND IN A COMA

July 01, 2018

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Boats and launches are parked aside as fishing season is off | Photos by the writer
Boats and launches are parked aside as fishing season is off | Photos by the writer

In the fish shop customers gathered around the weighing scale in an uproar. The fish seller behind it was barely visible. A young boy broke midway into the sea of heads. “Machhi agayi hai! [the fish has arrived],” he screamed. The return of a fisherman with provision for the islanders, is cause for long-lost smiles to reappear on the villagers’ faces.

Many more burst out of their homes as they heard the good news. It seemed as though the hunger spell that had engulfed Baba Island was finally over. This was followed by a group of women draped in chadors, clustering around the fish stall. But seeing the high turnover, it did not look like the quantity available would be enough for the entire locality.

“I was lucky to be able to catch fish in this season,” exclaimed Ahmad, the returning fisherman and resident of the island, explaining that in June and July, the sea is far too rough for fishing activities.

Seasonal unemployment brings life at Baba Island to a halt

At a 20-minute distance via boat from Karachi’s Keamari port, some traces of settlement at Baba Island are 300 years old. Secluded from the rest of the city’s population, the only means to commute to and from there is through water. Generally populated by lower socio-economic groups, the inhabitants have struggled for decades to make ends meet. So much so, that bearing transportation costs to the mainland and back also becomes a problem. Unsurprisingly, they all share a common interest, which is fishing. Their reasons behind subsistence fishing are well-founded due to the island’s close proximity to the harbour. However, this proximity is also a disadvantage in months of high tide. During June and July fishing activities are at a bare minimum.

Animals feeding on garbage dumps
Animals feeding on garbage dumps

Ali Muhammad, a fisherman and a resident of the Baba community, laments that he is currently unemployed. A couple of other fishermen express similar sentiments. Muhammad Imran and Tariq Muhammad, fisherman and boat driver respectively, sat idle in the middle of the day. “Every year, these two months are the toughest to pass,” says Imran, squinting in the sun. They know that the rest of the summer would also be spent unproductively under the blazing sun.

With an estimated population of 12,000, the island is literally drowning in filth. Their homes invaded by mosquitoes and flies, the residents of this community are silent sufferers. More commonly known as a model fishing community, Baba Island is the oldest piece of land among all others that comprise Union Council-41 in Keamari.

Ahmad selling his meagre catch in the off-season
Ahmad selling his meagre catch in the off-season

The community’s biggest plight, however, is negligence. The occupants of Baba Island have long been deprived of life’s basic amenities. Only a handpicked group of individuals enjoy the luxury to earn in the dreaded summer months. Sajid Ali, a fisherman all year round, engages in repair and maintenance of boats as an alternative means of income. “I am lucky enough as I can earn my bread and butter and provide for my family even during the off- season,” he smiles, looking at the garbage strewn around him. “Boats used for fishing activities during the year are due for servicing, paint, polishing and woodwork,” he explains as he strengthens the hinges of a boat that he is working on.

Women, too, have opted for alternative professions to support their households. Nusrat, Saiba and Saniya are housewives and work as schoolteachers. “My husband is a fisherman, and these two months are so hard that he ends up taking gutka,” says Saniya sadly. Gutka addiction plagues the community. Her eight-year-old son, Mohammad Ali dropped out of school and became a gutka addict. Many a time, she has found him loitering door-to-door barefooted or asleep on broken pavements. “There is no motivation for them,” she says, “Ali has even eaten trash and fallen sick.”

People relax under makeshift shade
People relax under makeshift shade

The ever-rising piles of garbage, one after the other, almost serve as an unofficial boundary for the forsaken island.

As Saniya finishes speaking, wailing sounds from the background emerge. Lack of health facilities has resulted in the deaths of many residents. Fisherman Haji Muhammad, also a resident, speaks of several incidences when someone had a heart attack during the night or women who needed to go to the hospital for childbirth but were unable to go and died as commuting to the city is difficult and time-consuming. Despite the presence of a hospital on the island, people do not have access to an emergency centre as the hospital unit is operational only for two to three hours per day.

Mohammad Tariq, currently unemployed, recalls the incident of his father’s death. “He suffered a heart failure around 3am,” he sobs. “He died as he could not receive immediate treatment.” There is no money for the sick to get treatment and there are not enough transport facilities to make it to the city in case anyone needs intensive medical care.

Garbage and filth surround the island
Garbage and filth surround the island

Although a Baba Social Action Committee has been set up, there are little to no funds to sustain its operations. “A total of 800 household units reside in this locality and the ration provided by non-governmental organisations to survive these summer months is only enough to cater to 400 families,” says Syed Asghar Ali Shah, chairman of the committee. As if to drive his point home, he ruffles through a pile of unpaid bills and unsettled invoices.

As sundown approaches, men, women and children walk towards their homes. However, for most of them, it is just another meaningless day. With little to no income roughly from June to August, this cycle continues. Education is barely given any significance, and, children rarely go to school. Soon after starting school, four-year-old Muqaddas had to quit as her mother was killed by falling off the roof of their house. Only Obaid Ali, a seven-year-old boy, proudly states that he goes to school as his mother is a schoolteacher and therefore emphasises the importance of education.

A first look at Baba Island, 20 km from Karachi’s Keamari port
A first look at Baba Island, 20 km from Karachi’s Keamari port

Despair prevails, with almost no improvement for the community’s overall wellbeing in sight. The government seems to have ignored the islands falling under Union Council-41, which includes Baba Island. This place seems to have fallen prey to everlasting bereavement in the government’s books. Moreover, their hopes have been further snuffed as the youth wastes its precious years in dirt, seawater pollution and gutka addiction. It is also hard to stay away from the range of diseases that arise from polluted seawater.

Transportation, sanitation, shelter and clean water remain the community’s main issues. “I do not sell fish and, therefore, I am not unemployed during summer,” says Mohammad Omer, a chicken shop owner on the island. “But who do I sell chicken to if my customers do not have the money to purchase it?” Omer says that he incurs a greater cost in carrying the meat from the main city to the island, but doesn’t earn much return from it.

The fish caught by Ahmad may have lasted a few hours.

But ironically, it was a dream come true for many islanders to be eating fish in the off-season.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 1st, 2018