World Fisheries Day is celebrated across the planet on the 21st of November, and is marked by celebration and solidarity of all fisherfolk.
In most countries, the key issues revolve around over-harvesting, marking international water boundaries and sanctioning countries that refuse to follow international conservation norms.
However, our Pakistani fisherfolk are still struggling for basic personal dignity. Extortion by the coast guards is a daily routine for those going out to fish every morning. Villagers are forced to comply to extortion demands or face serious harm and humiliation.
About one week ago, a few fishermen grew tired of this daily extortion and refused to pay. In return, they were forced to strip naked in public, saying they needed to check if they were Muslims or Hindus. When they again resisted, they were beaten until they stripped.
On November 19, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum organised a huge rally near the coastal village of Ibrahim Haideri to protest the illegal actions, but no action has been taken against the offending Guardsmen. Unfortunately, the norm in Pakistan is for the victim to be punished for complaining of abuse. So, instead of being worried about this open protest, the Coast Guardsmen have increased their harassment of the fishing community.
The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum is headed by Mohammad Ali Shah with members from all over the coast of Sindh and Balochistan. In the past, the Forum struggled against abuse by Rangers who had been given monopoly over fish trading contracts by the Government. The fishing communities were not allowed to sell their catch to anyone but the Rangers at whatever price demanded. After nineteen years of struggle the PFF was finally able to end the exploitative arrangement with this official mafia, only to find that the Sindh government had given similar contracts to landlords in Manchar, Shahdadkot, Badin and Sanghar.
Why is it that powerful people who violate rights live a great life in our country with full confidence that no one can touch them, while those without political power are humiliated and struggle each day just to survive? We continue to reinforce this system by supporting similar abusers in the name of party loyalty, patriotism, hero worship or, often, just for petty personal gain. The poor, who have little access to the corridors of power, hesitate to complain for fear of retaliation because they know that wrongdoers are rarely punished by our courts without political backing.
Perhaps our next Chief Justice can use his influence in the Law and Justice Commission to focus on reforms in the lower judiciary rather than pursuing selected flamboyant cases. For today, would it be too much to ask the Government to stop the constant abuse of the fishing communities and take the offending Coast Guardsmen to task?
Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2013.