KARACHI: Earlier this year, a speedboat with officers from the Maritime Security Agency (MSA) approached a group of divers near Charna Island and told them to stop what they were doing.
After a cursory inspection of their documents, their equipment was confiscated and the divers were told to turn back. Countless meetings between both parties made one thing clear: while people had been participating in recreational activities in the open sea since the late 1970s, Pakistan had no rules, laws or regulatory bodies for coastal tourism.
Talking about the incident, a diver who did not want to be named told Dawn that they normally had a letter of intent or NOC when going diving or snorkelling but this time was different. “They showed up with a gun and asked us for an NOC. We had all our paperwork in order as we do this regularly.”
“We wanted to know how this could be fixed. When we met the MSA officials they told us to get an NOC from the Ministry of Defence. When we approached them, they told us they could not help as this was for recreational purposes and did not pose a security threat. We even went to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs,” he said.
Another diver and snorkelling expert claimed the incident had been bad for business. “The situation right now is quite bad. There were only two diving schools in Karachi and one of them has shut down. How can the prime minister expect a boom in tourism if there is no mandate or regulatory body for coastal tourism,” he wondered.
“We were trying to fix the situation; sit down with the officials and come up with a set of rules, etc but we were given the runabout. Eventually, a group of us got together to file a petition against the MSA, federation of Pakistan, government of Sindh (tourism department) and the Sindh tourism development corporation. We hope that through the court we can get clarity on the matter or at least a mandate for coastal tourism,” he said, adding that the next hearing was scheduled for Oct 15.
The first time Pervez Sadiq went deep-sea diving was in 1978 and he loved it. He had such a good experience that he kept going back to Charna.
Talking to Dawn, he said that a decade or so ago this was a recreational activity limited to the elite. As per the law of the commons, he said, cultural and natural resources should be accessible to all members of society. “According to this, we should have access to the sea too. But unfortunately, it is not so. Look at what has happened to Paradise Point because of Kanupp. I started diving from there and now all those places are inaccessible. If you question them, they say it is a security issue,” he added.
Mariam Ali, who got her diving licence recently, said she had an amazing experience at Charna Island. “My friend and I trained in a pool with the diving school instructors to learn basic rules and techniques,” she said.
For its part, the MSA claims that it is just concerned with ensuring safety precautions are taken. According to its spokesperson, if the life of a citizen is in danger, the MSA will take an appropriate action.
“We are the police of the seas. If we feel that procedure is not being followed then we will take matters into our own hands. We are not against diving or snorkelling or anything, we think it is a healthy activity but a check and balance is important,” he said while talking to Dawn at the MSA headquarters in West Wharf.
The MSA which works under the Pakistan Navy and Ministry of Defence is mandated to implement international and national laws in all maritime zones of Pakistan.
“We need to check all boats and their registration as boats and vessels can only be used for the purpose mentioned in the documentation. When a fishing vessel is in the water we have a crew list with corresponding CNIC numbers. These diving expeditions, from our research, were issued letters for boat rides not diving or snorkelling and other recreational activities,” he said.
“When our men approached the boat in March, the boat was overcrowded, they did not have life jackets for everyone and they did not have a medical technician with them. Diving is a very technical sport, if you do one thing wrong you can build unbearable pressure in your ears and lungs,” he added.
The problem, according to the MSA spokesperson, was there were no laws and regulations for coastal tourism and specifically diving as a recreational sport or activity.
“It is not our job to come up with laws and legislation. We already have a lot on our plate. We can’t do everything. However, having said that I know once the issue was taken up, the Bahria University’s National Institute of Maritime Affairs did reach out to the divers and they did make rough list of rules and regulations,” he said.
A solution, according to the divers, would be if like Astola Island, Charna was also declared as a maritime protected area. “This would limit all sorts of activity. Everyone would have to follow rules to protect the island.”
The MSA claimed that the Balochistan Environmental Protection Agency had already issued a notification in this regard. The spokesperson said that water sports were healthy activities and they would wait for the court’s decision to move forward. “Our priority is life…where it is threatened, we will poke our nose,” he added.
Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2019