KARACHI: On Tuesday morning, petitioners walked into the courtroom of Justice Mohammad Ali Mazhar of the Sindh High Court hoping to hear a final decision in a constitutional petition filed against the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency, federation of Pakistan, government of Sindh (tourism department) and the Sindh Tourism Development Corporation.

Since March 23, seasoned divers and tour operators have been unable to access Churna Island. With this petition, they hope that the void created by a lack of rules, regulations and mandate for coastal tourism will be resolved and they can, once again, dive in the open waters.

“I have been here 10 times already and I will come again till this issue is resolved,” said one of the petitioners while talking to Dawn outside the courtroom.

Divers, tour operators desperate to access Churna Island since March 23

However, this was not his day.

Around 10am, Justice Mazhar heard the petition. He reprimanded the PMSA for wasting the court’s time.

According to the petitioners’ counsel, Barrister Asad Iftikhar, at the last hearing the judge had asked the Ministry of Maritime Affairs to look at the draft made by the National Institute of Maritime Affairs and stakeholders. The barrister said that the judge had asked the ministry to inform him when these could be notified.

“On Tuesday, the ministry’s representative said that it was not their jurisdiction. He claimed that anything within 12 nautical miles of the province was the province’s jurisdiction,” Mr Iftikhar said. “The judge asked why the ministry didn’t say anything when the draft was being written.”

When the provincial additional secretary for sports and youth was asked about the provincial government’s response, he said there were no policies or laws regarding coastal tourism.

Justice Mazhar kept the petition aside and told both parties and their counsel to return an hour later, at 11am, with a decision, otherwise the court would decide for them.

When they returned to the courtroom, the provincial additional secretary for sports and youth and maritime ministry repeated what they had said earlier.

Here, the additional advocate general said he did not endorse what the secretary had said and would take the matter up with the chief secretary.

It was decided that the next hearing would take place on Oct 29 with remarks from the chief secretary.

Under water

“The main issue is that the federal minister’s representative said that after the 18th Amendment this does not fall under their jurisdiction and the provincial department concerned does not seem interested in it either,” said one of the petitioners.

“Since the federal and provincial parties did not show interest in scuba diving and recreational activities, the judge told the PMSA that if the government was not serious, then who were they to interfere. He also told them to follow their mandate,” he added.

The petitioner, who is also a diver, said that this was not an ideal situation. “The season for diving and recreational activities has been open since last month. But there is no business. One diving school has already shut down. We are using all our savings for court and other such expenses,” he added.

Mehek Ali, a diver, said that as a recreational activity in Pakistan, diving is healthy, environmentally friendly, and increasingly accessible.

“Diving in Pakistan is much more affordable than it is abroad, but it also gives you the opportunity to dive elsewhere and experience different waters. It also draws attention to Pakistan’s marine life and dive locations, attracting international divers. It makes you feel integrated with a larger global body as a Pakistani representative,” she said.

“By stopping certified divers from accessing and practicing their dive skills, Pakistan will lose divers (divers must conduct at least one dive every six months to maintain their licences), lose out on ecotourism capital, and further degrade the quality of these sites. I do agree that for a natural site to heal, humans must exit the scene for good. Scuba divers are not the enemy here.”

According to Mirza Hasan Askari, a petitioner who started diving a few years ago, the last dive season was stressful.

“Last dive season we were given some trouble by local authorities, which was strange as we were never really given a reason for the troubles we would have to undergo,” he told Dawn.

“We always met all the requirements in terms of life jackets onboard but despite this our equipment was confiscated. Getting it back was a tedious process to say the least,” he said, adding that it seemed strange that this was the approach taken towards recreational divers, especially given that most divers are much more conscious with regards to the environment and protecting our waters.

Policing the sea

For its part, the PMSA stands firm on its stance on what happened in March and later months. They claim that initially registration of four boats carrying passengers were checked. It was found that two of the four boats were not registered by the mercantile marine department. These boats were also overcrowded.

The PMSA spokesperson said: “The boats were registered for the purpose of fishing. However, they were carrying passengers, which was in violation of chapters 19 and 32 of the Pakistan Merchant Shipping Ordinance 2001. The passengers in the fishing boats were short of lifesaving equipment which is contrary to Article 2, Regulation 7, Chapter 111 of the SOLAS Convention, 1974.”

He added that no qualified diving medical technicians were available to cater to any diving-related injuries or emergencies.

According to the spokesperson, there were two qualified divers for about 60 personnel, which is not sufficient.

“The abovementioned shortcomings were the main concern for the PMSA staff to query diving activities from the tour operators. However, they were unable to give any plausible reply,” he said, adding that therefore, the activities were stopped and the operators were asked to approach the PMSA headquarters.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2019