Chained to the rivers

Published January 18, 2021
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

FOR centuries, the adivasi fisher communities of South Asia lived a life tethered to the banks of its rivers. They shared an intimate tie to their environment, one that gave them a unique insight into its cyclical nature — the rhythmic ebb and flow of its waters, the shifting geography of the riverbed underneath, and of course, the many plants and animals that dotted this landscape.

As custodians of the riverbanks, they exercised a right to fish, based not on the sanction of any law but on custom and tradition, shaped and navigated through time immemorial. Then came the Raj, and the Brits, with their unbridled thirst for economic extraction no matter the cost, usurped the rivers altogether and began to ‘regulate’ them, effectively planting the seed of a legal framework that would one day come to ensnare these communities.

Post-independence, having inherited this colonial infrastructure (and consequently, the same mindset), the government under Ayub Khan went several degrees further in its quest for maximising revenue. In 1961, the Fisheries Ordinance was introduced, empowering the state with the ability to ‘lease out’ the right to fish in public waters for a period of three years. Before long, the rivers were butchered, sectioned off into disparate parts and parcels, as though one was not intrinsically linked to the other, and then, these large bodies of water (stretching at times up to 90 kilometres in length) were sold off to the highest bidders. Naturally, these ended up being ‘local influentials’, who, with their deep pockets and their political clout, colluded with the state machinery to create a grotesque and sinister system of entrapment.

Since a lease provides the leaseholder with an ‘exclusive’ right to fish in the particular section of the river that has been auctioned off, it automatically becomes illegal for anyone else to fish in leased waters. For adivasi fishers, this meant that they had suddenly become trespassers in the very rivers they had long practised their craft in. Due to their dependence on an aquaculture-based economy, they faced insurmountable challenges in uprooting themselves for greener pastures, leaving them with little option but to enter into whatever exploitative arrangements lessees had to offer. As a result, today, the waters that once fed them have ended up shackling their ankles, turning them from a collection of free and self-sufficient communities into the bonded labour of a ruthless mafia of leaseholders.

The waters that once fed them have ended up shackling the fisher communities.

While Sindh has largely abandoned the practice and shifted to a licence-based system, in Punjab leasing remains the favoured method. In August 2018, three members of these communities — Khadim Hussain, Ghulam Sarwar and Bashiran Mai — together filed a writ before the Lahore High Court, challenging the legality of the leasehold fishing system as violative of their constitutional rights and in derogation of the Punjab Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1992. Till date however, their case is caught between the cogs of due process, which in our country have a tendency to turn faster for some but excruciatingly slowly for others.

They have described to the court, in vivid detail, the entire process through which they are held captive. First, they receive an advance (peshgi), which is typically used to buy fishing equipment. In exchange, they render themselves to their creditors for an indefinite period of time, forfeiting as they do so both their right to seek alternative employment and their freedom of movement. Their catch is not deemed the fruit of their labour, but that of the lessee, who gives them a paltry sum in return and then sells the fish on the open market for 20 to 30 times this amount. This leaves the fishers with an income so meagre that it barely suffices for basic necessities, forcing them to ask for yet more advances, and thus they find themselves caught in a cycle of inescapable debt, working against credit for the remainder of their lives.

To make matters worse, many leaseholders exert a disturbing level of control over the everyday lives of debtors — from dictating the amount and quality of fish they may keep for their families to forcing them to buy food at inflated prices from ‘handpicked’ shops. Non-compliance is not taken lightly, with some leaseholders apparently operating their own ‘private’ jails, where harassment, unlawful detention and physical torture have become routine.

According to their petition, informal surveys estimate that there are approximately 600,000 fishers in Punjab alone, a number that is only expected to increase, as more and more fisher communities are migrating from Sindh to Punjab due to environmental changes. Of these, nearly 80 per cent are currently indebted to their leaseholders, with an average debt ranging from Rs300,000 to Rs1 million per family. This debt is also transferrable, meaning that as leases expire, incoming leaseholders buy the accumulated debt from their predecessors-in-interest, thus creating a perpetual chain of bondage.

This is a classic example of modern slavery, and to think that it has been masquerading under the guise of an ill-conceived leasing policy is appalling. The exploitation of these communities must end. The leasehold system should be abolished in full, and their customary rights ought to be restored and given legislative cover. We may even find, in fact, that their riverine traditions hold far greater wisdom than our warped and commercial imagination.

As their plight continues, there are many state actors who must shoulder the blame for their present condition — the Punjab Assembly, for their abject and shameless failure to produce an equitable law to accommodate these communities; the government of Punjab (incumbent or otherwise), for neglecting its duty to safeguard their lives and livelihoods; and last but certainly not least, the superior judiciary, which has thus far treated their plea with a seemingly shocking degree of lassitude. For now, one can only pray and hope that, very soon, one of these institutions shall snap out of their inertia and give this issue the immediate attention it requires.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2021

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