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The woes of contract system in fishing

March 26, 2012

Fishermen who were on a hunger strike in front of city press club Naukot told Dawn that they have been protesting here since the last three weeks, but no elected representative or authority has taken notice. – Photo by writer

UMERKOT: Despite the abolition of the contract system in fresh water fishing by the Sindh Assembly, fishermen are still barred from catching fish in Puran and other waters, due to bans imposed by influential landlords of the Mirpurkhas division.

Fishermen who were on a hunger strike in front of city press club Naukot told Dawn that they have been protesting here since the last three weeks, but no elected representative or authority has taken notice.

Ramzan Mallah said that this area was rich in fishing some decades back but later, due to water scarcity, canals and lakes were dried and made extinct. However, the recent floods caused the canals to fill with water and that led to the breeding of fish there.

Thus, this once again became their livelihood. Mallah said that when they started catching fish there, some landlords attacked them, snatched their nets and boats and implicated them in false cases. According to him, it all was against the law but according to fisheries laws, the water in canals or in lakes and fish therein is property of fishermen.

Another fisherman, Ghulam Haider said that they approached the fisheries department and the police but the effort was in vain.

They complained that these influential landlords have hired contractors from Hyderabad and Karachi and given them the contract to fish there which is depriving the locals from their livelihood.

Muhammed Ali Shah, Chairperson Pakistan Fisherfolk told Dawn that the contract system in the fishing sector of Pakistan has a short history of 34 years. It was started in 1977 by the government authorities on the behest of politically influential people to benefit their well wishers.

Under this system they auctioned several fresh water bodies in a legal way but several other waters were occupied by certain influential people illegally, depriving the indigenous fishermen families of their right to livelihood. Before the contract system fishermen used to enjoy free catch, earning a sufficient amount and lived a prosperous life.

Through this typically political move, fishermen were compelled to handover their entire catch to contractors and in return they were being paid a small amount as labourers.

Gradually, the move that had started from a few small water bodies shifted to major waters in the entire province. Eventually it was legalized by making amendments in the provincial law. The government's Fisheries Department was authorised to arrange auctioning inland water bodies openly.

Since the contractors did not realise the sustainability of the natural resources, they utilised unsustainable methods to get more catch, depleting the natural fish reserves.

Shah said that the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), realising the fact that the community is being exploited through this cruel system, initiated a campaign since its inception in 1998.

The PFF adopted a strategy to mobilise the oppressed community to fight against this cruel system jointly and also launched a move to sensitise policy-makers, government authorities and the media, putting the case before the people representing human rights organizations. This move opened the path for the PFF to continue the campaign to safeguard the community rights and preserve the natural resources from destruction, with the belief that the community people are the natural custodians of these resources.

Bill and Aftermath

Despite tall claims by the PPP, who formed the provincial government in the province, it took a lot of time to make laws. The Sindh Assembly, however, passed a bill, abolishing the contract system from all the waters. Obviously, it was a great achievement, but still some waters are still under the control of the influential parties, depriving the poor fishermen of their rights.

It is pertinent to mention here that heavy floods in 2010 recharged several water bodies, which earlier were dry due to persistent water shortage in River Indus. The flood brought short term prosperity to the local communities. However, the communities are still living a stressful life due to such atrocities and political nepotism.

Syed Noor Ali Shah, Assistant Warden Fisheries department Mirpurkhas, confessed that influential landlords have illegally encroached upon fresh waters and deprived license holding local fishermen from continuing their work.