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The fishing boats of Sindh, exploited and plundered

After Punjab Lands, Army Grabs Fishing Business of Coastal Sindh

By M A Siddiqui

KARACHI, October 31: After rummaging through, and occupying the fertile lands of Punjab, the Pakistan Army is now imperiously conquering the coastal areas of Sindh, depriving even the poor fishermen of their daily catch of fish, their lifeline.

And despite the din of noise and protest in the Sindhi Press and some sections of the mainstream Pakistani media, the treatment being given to the squealing and screaming locals is nothing short of a humiliating gesture using the middle finger.

The pattern is exactly the same as used in Punjab where thousands of hectares of the most productive land was grabbed, in the name of protecting the frontiers from the enemy, declared commercial and sold at market rates, bringing millions upon millions for the higher and middle ranking officers.

The Rangers in Sindh were allowed to involve in fishing business by late General Zia only on 7 lakes and Sindh waters known as Zero Point at Badin. The Sindh government under Ali Mohammad Maher, a puppet Chief Minister who was then booted out because of reports that he was incompetent and gay, signed an agreement with the Rangers to take over possession of 29 lakes and Zero Point.

The clause of the agreement that Rangers would vacate these areas after a certain time was ignored. Rangers are now involved in fishing, in water tanker business, illegal checking of traffic and making money from petty offenders and have grabbed possession of most of the hostels and big buildings in Karachi and other cities of Sindh. It is purely an illegal occupation.

In interior of Sindh the force being used is the Thar Rangers, the specialized units of the Pakistan Army deployed in the interior. “The impoverished fishermen of Badin and Thatta are trapped in a no-win situation. The rangers are meanwhile raking in the bucks, for doing nothing whatsoever,” said an early report in the Monthly Herald of Karachi. The report was largely ignored but its content raised chilling questions. The Army has just added a new line of business to its Military Incorporated: Seafood Unlimited.

In one reported case of brutality, fisherman Mitthan Mallah was “caught and arrested” carrying just two kilograms of the over 80 kg fish he had caught in the day. The 80 kilos of saltwater fish had already been snatched away from him by contractors appointed by Rangers at rates abysmally lower than the market.

On his way home, Mitthan had to pass through one of the 11 checkpoints set up by the Rangers in the Badin coastal area. When the secret 2 kg cache of fish was discovered amongst his belongings, a rangers official smashed his face with a rifle butt, leaving a permanent scar.

“I’m a fisherman but no one in my house has eaten seafood for six months,” Mitthan, a poor man who has no choice but to accept his sorry fate, told The Herald. The marauding men with the guns in uniform, obviously don’t care.

It was almost 20 years ago in 1982 when the Thar Rangers had asked the Sindh government for exclusive fishing rights over a few outlets of the right bank outfall drain (RBOD). The catch from Badin’s coastal areas, they argued, would help ensure the welfare of the Rangers personnel posted in the area.

During the Zia dictatorship, in 1980, Rangers were sent to guard the borders of Badin. In 1982, they wrote to the Department of Fisheries for lease of fish ponds in the area to generate some revenue. However, they did not pay the leasing amount after obtaining the leases from the provincial government.

Once they got to know the business, The Rangers began controlling the fishing market by forcibly stopping the fisherman from selling their catch in the open market. The fishermen were forced to sell to the contractors appointed by the Rangers.

The initial contract extended by the Zia regime to the Rangers had erupted into their full control of the coastal fishing areas, as well as inland areas during present times.

This led to a revolt by the fishing community with civil groups and political parties supporting the fishermen. Activists among the fishermen formed a Resistance Group called the Fisher Folk Forum (FFF).

The usual repression and harassment followed with the threat of using the gun lurking in the background. The situation worsened when the Thar Rangers resorted to raids, torture and filing of false FIRs against the fishermen similar to the treatment meted out to the tenants at Okara Military Farms by the Punjab Rangers.

According to PPP leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, almost 15,000 fishermen have been forced to internally migrate following persecution by law enforcement agencies. They could no longer earn a livelihood or feed their children once they were stopped from catching fish.

Benazir said in particular the allegations that individuals belonging to the Rangers subjected women and children to torture in Kandri village needed a high level judicial probe. She hoped that human rights agencies would raise this issue.

She has raised a strong voice for these fishermen but the Rangers, encouraged by the success of their colleagues in Punjab, just don’t care. And General Musharraf and his junta do not mind because they are themselves involved in land grabbing and extending the corporate interests of the Army all over the country.

There was speculation of kickbacks being involved in the handing of contracts to outsiders. The price differential between catching the fish from the coastal areas and selling it in Karachi went from Rs 15 in the coastal areas to Rs 500 in Karachi with fishermen getting a pittance.

Moreover, over farming meant that the fish catch, which had been 200 tons per vessel in 1992 had dropped to 75 tons per vessel since 1998. There were complaints that the fishermen of the Sindh coast were physically forced to anchor their boats offshore by Rangers to ensure monopoly for the outside contractors.

As the issue got more attention and big political voices like that of Benazir Bhutto took up the case, the Rangers tried to explain their position which basically took cover behind the excuse that they were guarding the country’s borders.

A press release issued by the Pakistan Rangers Sindh Headquarters, said that statements being issued in this regard by the leaders of Fisher Folk Forum were devoid of facts and motivated. It said the area being mentioned by the press in district Badin is not a routine international sea, in fact, it is a coastline being shared with India. The coastal area under the control of the Rangers for security reasons is common international border with India where, at many places, no defined demarcation exists, it added.

In fact, some of the water pockets locally called ‘Dhands’ are shared by India and Pakistan. The area mentioned is a restricted area against the general impression being created of a very large area. It said this particular area is under the jurisdiction of Rangers being an international border for checking any possible incursion of illegal immigrants, terrorists and smugglers into Pakistan area from Indian side.

Rights of the fishermen and rules of the fishing in the area are in the knowledge of the Sindh government, the Rangers statement said, dismissing all protests.

It said: “It is pertinent to mention that rates for the fishermen for their catch have already been fixed. These rates are open to revision for each renewed annual contract. It said that contractor was not authorized to stop any fisherman from catching fish. Locals of the area are much satisfied with the dealing of the Rangers and welfare projects already initiated. It added Fisher Folk forum is unnecessarily exploiting the situation and trying to use the names of the innocent poor community."

“The locals of the area are very much alive to the situation and currently not participating in a false, fabricated and incorrect campaign against uniform personnel dedicated for ensuring peace and harmony within their area of responsibility,” it added.

But the clarification by the Rangers has raised many more questions and no one is buying this flimsy pretext to take over the livelihood of fishermen in the name of security.

Analysts say the statement has in fact corroborated the fishermen’s complaints that Rangers control the lakes, ponds and other waters in the ‘border areas’. Rangers’ stance is that yes, they control the waters but their action was legal and duly authorized by competent
authorities. In this regards they point out to two agreements that they had signed with Sindh government in years 2002 and 2003.

The fishermen say that it was not Rangers’ job to control fishing in the coastal areas or to award/sub-lease contracts to their favored people to deprive the local fishermen from their only source of livelihood. The fishermen are demanding that government agreements with Rangers should be voided to end the exploitation of the poor fishermen.

The simple fact is that because they have power, the Rangers have become middlemen, touts and traders of the fish caught by the locals, buying it at dirt cheap rates and selling in the market at 20 times the purchase price. It is simple extortion and exploitation. Fishermen cite the example that what they are forced to sell for Rs 15 or Rs 20 a kg to the Rangers who sell the same fish for Rs 300 in the Karachi wholesale market.

The FFF is desperate and fighting a much bigger and ruthless business adversary, supported by the Generals in Islamabad. But their campaign is picking up steam, international human rights organizations and think tanks have become involved and another chapter is now being documented in the history of the black deeds of the men in uniform of the Pakistan Army.

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