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Poaching fish in Kutch Sea

By Anosh Malekar

Caught between declining fish yields, the carving of the oceans into exclusive economic zones since the 1980s, frequent inquiries and detention by the Indian maritime security forces after the 26/11 terror attacks and the risk of capture by Pakistani maritime authorities, Gujarat’s 3.5 lakh marine fisher folk are fast losing their traditional livelihoods

Gujarat's 3.5 lakh fisher people are swept up in a gigantic brawl and   scrambling to survive
Gujarat's 3.5 lakh fisher people are swept up in a gigantic brawl and scrambling to survive

“Fishing is not for the fainthearted.” 

“The sea currents and tides are part of a fisherman’s life. They make fishing a dangerous game.” 

“Fishermen are 10 times more likely to be injured or killed on the job than truck drivers.” 

“The danger is the attraction.” 

“When fisher people get out of sight of land, they feel they have left the law behind too.”  

Skipper Laljibhai Sidi was unstoppable when queried about the occupational hazards of fishing. The middle-aged man, thinly built with a swollen gut, from Diu has been fishing for years in the Arabian Sea off the Gujarat coast. 

Back then, in the 1980s, when he started as a teenager “with nimble fingers that trained fast”, nobody seriously believed that the ocean's free-roaming fish belonged to any one nation. “Six men in a small fishing boat felt safe by themselves anywhere in the deep sea. The skipper would announce ‘Boys, we're going fishing tonight’ and then add ‘If anybody doesn’t want to come, better opt out on the shore rather than be thrown overboard mid-sea.’ As young boys, we always wanted to go,” he recalled. 

Two decades later, however, life at sea is changing, especially around the Gulf of Kutch, and always for the worse. 

It all began with the industrial nations of the world sealing off their continental shelves with 200-mile ‘exclusive economic zones’ throughout the 1980s followed by new restricted zones, no-catch areas and special permit sectors that have reduced the once-unbroken blue sea into a complex maze of curbs and checks on traditional fishing. 

On August 20, 2009, the day we arrived in Diu, seven local fishermen were knocked overboard by a patrol vessel of the island’s coastal police. Their traditional wooden boat was destroyed completely; it reportedly split into pieces and sank within minutes of being hit by the patrol vessel. The fishermen were rescued and brought to a government hospital on the island. One of them had serious injuries and was shifted to Rajkot on mainland Gujarat, some 260 kms by road. He died. 

The following day, when I met Laljibhai, fishermen in Diu recalled the patrol vessel intercepting the fishing boat for a routine security check, introduced since the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008. After verifying the identity cards of the crew members, the patrol prepared to leave. Before anybody realised it, the operator of the vessel made a U-turn and charged on the fishing boat at great speed resulting in the mid-sea collision. 

Kantibhai Kharwa, leader of the local fishermen community, demanded that only well-trained and disciplined policemen be posted on marine patrol duty. “The police operator could not control the speed of the patrol vessel,” he pointed out. A senior fisheries department official later alluded to an island rumour that the police operator was in an inebriated state. Of course there was no official verification. No tests for drunkenness were conducted. 

The mid-sea crash at the beginning of the fishing season could be more than just a setback for the fishing crew involved, perhaps a bad omen for the entire fishing community on the tiny island, I thought. But the islanders went about their daily activities as if nothing had happened. At the Vanakbara jetty, the fishermen were busy holding elaborate havans, the sacred purifying ritual, on their colourful fishing boats with distinct names and the Indian tricolour fluttering atop them.   

Fishermen at Vanakbara jetty
Fishermen at Vanakbara jetty performing a havan ahead of a new fishing season

Vanakbara is a typical fishermen’s village, located on the western tip of Diu facing the Arabian Sea. The island itself is about 11 km long and 2 km wide, separated from the Saurashtra or Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat by a marshy creek. Diu (from the Sanskrit word ‘dwip’ or island) was a Portuguese colony for over 450 years till India took over in 1961. 

Traditionally the island economy has been based on trade and fishery. There was and is little agriculture with only 20% of the land mass under cultivation. Lately a part of the Daman and Diu Union Territory, tourism has emerged as a significant contributor to the economy of this area. A perfect weekend getaway, especially for the Gujaratis coming from a dry state, Diu is better known now as a tipplers' paradise. 

“The residents of Vanakbara too love their tipple, preferring the environs of their shabby fishermen's bars to celebrate the victories at the dangerous game of fishing in foreign waters,” Laljibhai said. But this year, it is not time yet to celebrate the good catch. The first contingent of boats has left the shores just five days ago. 

At noon on August 21, the Vanakbara jetty was a buzz of activity with boats lined up and readied for fishing expeditions. The atmosphere was charged. Nobody seemed to have the time for a chat. The tandels or skippers were shouting last-minute instructions to their young assistants busy loading the boats with ice, salt, diesel and other provisions for longer spells of fishing that could stretch from a week to a fortnight. A little distance from the shoreline, expert repairmen in dirty tunics, their mouths bulging with tobacco and betel nut juices, were conducting last-minutes repairs while their helpers cleaned the wood shavings at the insistence of the boat owners, who couldn’t wait to see their vessels ready with a fresh coat of oil paint. A stone’s throw away, closer to the warren of typical fishermen’s dwellings, the specialists were mending fishing nets. The fisher women, usually part of the scene sorting out the day's catch or hanging fish for drying on the ropes, were conspicuous by their absence. The arrival of the first catch of the season was still a couple of days away. 

Officially, all fishing activity, except by non-mechanised boats and on foot, is banned from June 10 to August 15 along the entire west coast of India to provide a chance for each fish to breed during the monsoon season and ensure natural revival of their stock. But this year, Kutch district authorities had banned fishing without any exception, severely affecting the livelihood of the traditional fishermen on the island. The authorities perceived a security threat to India’s maritime security in permitting small fishing boats in the Kutch Sea. 

Over 50% of the fishing vessels operating near the major ports on the country’s western coast are unregistered. Most of these ports are compliant with the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code, which prescribes the responsibilities of the government, shipping companies, shipboard personnel and port personnel to detect security threats and take preventative measures. The code was introduced after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. 

Still, the menace of unregistered boats persists. “Unregistered fishing boats neither have proper identification numbers nor do their crews have any identity cards. The boats enter the sea at their will, with no information or record of what happens to them while at sea in close proximity to Pakistan. If left unchecked, these vessels can be used for any kind of subversive activities in India,” assistant superintendent of fisheries Sukar Anjani said. 

The Indian security agencies were especially wary since the 26/11 terrorists had hijacked Indian fishing boat MV Kuber from Porbunder, near the Sir Creek marshlands and traveled to Mumbai to carry out the attack. The 10 Pakistani gunmen had earlier set out from Karachi in a Pakistani vessel. 

The Indo-Pak boundary in Gujarat runs through the low-lying, tabletop, salty wastelands called the Rann of Kutch. A number of creeks jut out like fingers from the body of the Arabian Sea into the marshy flatlands of the Rann. Apart from declaring an area of 10 nautical miles from the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) as a no-fishing zone, the Coast Guard sought a ban on fishing in a 500-metre radius of oil refineries, oil rigs and important ports on the Saurashtra coast. 

The fishermen were informed in advance about the changes in security measures that the Coast Guard planned to propose to the state government. They had no objection to the 10-nautical-mile no-fishing zone on either side of the IMBL, but wanted the no-fishing zone area to be limited to 100 metres instead of the proposed 500-metre radius. “We do understand that these are sensitive areas. We are ready to follow the boundary drawn from the IMBL, but a 500-metre no-fishing zone will adversely impact our livelihood,” Vanakbara Boat Owners’ Association president Bhagwanbhai Baraya said. 

Fishermen at Vanakbara jetty
The map detailing the changes in security measures that the Coast Guard had proposed near the Indo-Pak boundary. Click here to view pdf

Former sarpanch of Vanakbara and boat owner Premjibhai Solanki said they had stopped going into the deep seas since the Mumbai incident. "What can we do? Our men and boats have been taken away in the past by Pakistan, leaving the families to starve," he said. "Our livelihood is dead. There is no fish left along Gujarat's coastline. But if we venture out in the high seas, we risk being captured by the Pakistanis." 

Many of Diu and Gujarat's 3.5 lakh fisher people, who depend on marine fishing for a livelihood, must feel like Ramjibhai these days -- ignored by the world, swept up in a gigantic brawl that is being fought largely over their heads, and scrambling to survive. 

Because of a rich delta, Gujarat once had the best fishing grounds, and the Gulf of Kutch the best fish in India. The waters of the Indus delta at the Arabian Sea are considered good for fish breeding. It lures the Indian fishermen to enter into Pakistan's territorial water for a better catch. As a result, the Kutch Sea has become the scene of numerous arrests of fishermen after they stumble into either the disputed areas or the territory on the side of the border other than their own. The woes of these fishermen, after they are caught, are well-known. The two countries don't treat them as they should -- in accordance with the international laws. They are kept in confinement with no charge and offered no legal assistance. 

In the wake of the Mumbai attack, Pakistan’s director-general of Maritime Security Agency (MSA), in a weekly talk with his Indian counterpart, said he was passing instructions to apprehend Indian fishermen caught fishing in Pakistani waters with immediate effect. According to official sources in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar, the director-general of the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) found that complaints by Pakistan about the large-scale presence of Indian fishermen in the Kutch Sea off the coast of Karachi, were not unfounded, and requested the state government to take stringent punitive measures against those found violating the International Maritime Laws. 

In early-August 2009, India’s Border Security Force (BSF) arrested nine Pakistanis and seized a small fishing boat in which they had entered Indian territory near the Sir Creek on a day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said intelligence inputs suggested more 26/11-type attacks on Indian soil launched from Pakistan. The BSF said its suspicions were raised when the nine Pakistanis claimed they had been fishing in the sea for three days, yet had not a single catch in the boat to show for it. 

Porous borders along the International Maritime Boundary Line bordering Pakistan and lack of enough maritime security personnel have made ports located on the western coast further vulnerable to subversive activities. There are around 133 ports located along India’s western coast, spread over five states and two union territories. 

According to coast guard sources, minor ports like Oka, Veraval and Porbandar located on the Saurashtra coast have the worst security in place. These ports handle commodities like oil, coal, pig iron, raw bauxite, wheat, sulphur, coke, LPG and fertilisers, among others. Adjacent to these ports in the Rann of Kutch, which is rich in marine species, over 200 vessels can be found fishing on a daily basis. 

“Since this area is rich in marine species, sometimes even fishing vessels from the Pakistan side tend to cross our border. However, with our limited resources and personnel, it is not possible to check every vessel. So we do only a random check,” said a Gandhinagar official. 

The alignment of the international border here is disputed and is commonly referred to as the Sir Creek issue. The Sir Creek dispute involves defining the international boundary along the creek, roughly a 100-km-long estuary in the saline wetlands of the Rann of Kutch between the state of Gujurat in India and the province of Sindh in Pakistan. The dispute predates the creation of India and Pakistan and stems from differences between the British Indian state of Bombay and the princely state of Kutch in the first decade of the 20th century. 

Post-Independence, fresh complications ensued when it was noticed that Sir Creek had started to shift its course northwards towards Pakistan, a normal geographical phenomenon for shallow creeks. It is now one of eight major issues on the Indo-Pak composite dialogue agenda devised by the rival South Asian nations for the peace process that they launched in 2004. The UN Convention on Law of the Sea required that all maritime boundary conflicts should be resolved by 2009, failing which the UN may declare disputed areas as international waters. 

The talks on Sir Creek under the fifth round of Indo-Pak composite dialogue were scheduled to be held on December 2-3, 2008 in New Delhi. However, in the aftermath of Mumbai terrorist attacks, India put a “pause” on the composite dialogue. 

There is also silence on the fate of the 554 fishermen and 418 boats from India, mostly Gujarat and Diu, still languishing in Pakistan’s custody. For the families of the fishermen and boat owners this is disturbing, like the silence of the high seas. 

Among those in Pakistani jails are 120 fishermen along with 19 boats from Diu. What happens to them? Ramjibhai had no answer. He only stared back at me with a knowing smile. I had met him in 2004 with a similar query. The situation had not changed. 

The fishermen of Diu are resigned to their fate. With the catch dwindling along their coast in recent years, it's not unusual for fishermen to move deeper into the sea in search of a better haul. And when the storm breaks and the waters turn choppy, it does not take long for them to lose their bearings at sea. “We have to take the risk. During the day you lay the nets in the deep seas and wait all night for the elusive catch. But the currents in the high seas know no boundaries. They are fierce, and almost always accompanied by strong wind. And when the wind blows through the Kutch Sea, it turns you over to the enemy,” Laljibhai said. 

"We thought we were in safe waters," said Haresh Mandan, one of four fishermen from Diu who were spared by the Pakistani Marine guards after they crossed their territorial waters on April 22, 2004. "It was around 11 am," he recalled. "We had spent six days at sea, when the Pakistanis came in speedboats. They abused us saying, 'Why do you come here? We are tired of capturing you', and took away 21 fishermen and left four of us— a 60-year-old and three minors." 

Haresh was 18 at the time of the incident. And like all the boys his age in Vanakbara, he had offered to help his friends on a fishing expedition that day. “When surrounded by the boats of the Pakistan navy personnel who were firing in the air, I was scared we were all going to be shot and dumped in the sea. Luckily, that did not happen." 

For the families of those captured it is a long wait. "How do I feed my four children?" a young Deviben Sidi asked. "I am forced to take up casual labour. Is there any hope for my husband's return?" 

Ramu Sidi was the tandel of the fishing boat Nandini Sagar from Vanakbara, which was captured a couple of years ago. He had ventured out into the sea a day after his mother's cremation. "We badly needed money, there was no option," his wife recalled. Now she has to feed the children --Yagnik, Milind, Pinkesh, and Jenil, aged between 2 and 9 years -- on the meagre Rs 30 she earns as daily wages. 

The family of Chunilal Jiva Sidi, who accompanied Sidi, is relatively better-off. His brothers Sonji and Vijay earn enough to feed his wife Dhaniben and eight-month-old son. Iruben, their mother, is concerned but helpless. "It is fate," she says of her eldest son. "I cannot ask my sons to give up fishing. The currents and tides are part of our lives." 

The fisher folk know that they shouldn't be sending their children out to the sea, but it's hard to resist the additional income and the boys have to learn the ropes someday. Young boys are in demand for their nimble fingers – useful in sifting the small catch from the big, and for assisting the experienced fathers and uncles. The general equation is four-six adults and two minors to a boat. A boy earns up to Rs 3,000 a month for the season extending six to seven months a year. 

“We don’t know the fate of our brethren, some of whom have been languishing in Pakistani jails for years,” said Manish Lodhari, the Porbandar-based secretary of the Gujarat forum of National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF), which has been appealing to the leaders of India and Pakistan to settle the matter once and for all.  NFF’s counterpart, the Pakistan Fisherfolks Federation, has been pursuing the matter with their leaders. 

What happens once captured by Pakistan is incarceration in prison, mostly at Karachi Jail. Some of them will be lucky to be released as a goodwill gesture mostly around August 14—Pakistan's Independence Day— but the procedure for release is completely arbitrary. It is completely dependent on the goodwill of the two nations. 

Responding to an NFF memo, a senior official in the union ministry of external affairs conceded a mechanism has to be put in place to address the prisoners’ issue. "Though there is a hotline between Indian coast guards and the Pakistan Maritime Force in place since 2006, and more than 1,500 boats have been saved from detention, there has to be a permanent mechanism to address the problems of fishermen not covered by any security net," the official stated. 

India has an agreement with Sri Lanka on the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal allowing fishermen from both countries to share the catch. The fishermen of Gujarat and Diu hope the external affairs ministry would think of a similar solution with Pakistan, Lodhari said. 

Infochange News & Features, September 2009