Caught at sea

Published February 14, 2023

POOR fishermen on both sides of the border are amongst the hardest-hit victims of the decades-old Pakistan-India enmity. The men are hauled up by the respective authorities when they mistakenly stray into the other state’s territory, and end up languishing in jail for years, with their vessels confiscated and their families usually reduced to penury. When the fishermen are finally released their families are naturally overjoyed, as was witnessed recently when 12 of them returned home to Karachi. It was an emotional homecoming when fathers, brothers and sons rejoined their loved ones. Some of the men had been in Indian jails reportedly for over a decade. While in years past there have been reports of cruel treatment meted out to Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails, this time the men said that they had been treated in a more humane fashion.

This cruel cycle of capturing and incarcerating fishermen needs to be abandoned by both states. At times an entire family’s breadwinners — working on the same boat — end up in a foreign jail, and when their seized boats are not returned, the men lose their sources of livelihood and have to start from scratch. These factors only worsen their fragile financial condition. Unfortunately, the bureaucracies on both sides are least interested in the fishermen’s plight, and were it not for the efforts of community activists and civil society, repatriating the men would be even more difficult. There are no markings at sea indicating the maritime boundary, which means that whenever a vessel crosses to the other side, it is captured and the crew incarcerated. Also complicating matters is the bilateral dispute regarding Sir Creek, an area frequented by fisherfolk from both sides. Instead of arresting fishermen and putting them through labyrinthine subcontinental legal systems, Pakistan and India need to evolve a common mechanism so that fisherfolk who stray across the maritime boundary are warned and told to turn back. And in case they are detained, the fishermen need to be repatriated swiftly, instead of having to spend years in prison. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea — which both states are party to — arrested crew and vessels need to be promptly released after “posting reasonable bond or other security”. The least both states can do is to honour this commitment to lessen the misery of fishermen.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2023

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