"We have won against the army"

Wednesday 31 August 2005

Muhammad Ali Shah has been crusading for the rights of fisherfolk for the past three decades. Presently he heads the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). He is perhaps the first civil society activist arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO), a section of the Pakistan Penal Code commonly employed against political party workers. He spoke to S Raza Hassan at the PFF head office in Ibrahim Hydri, a 200-year-old fishing village at Korangi Creek, Karachi. Excerpts:

-- How did you come in conflict with the paramilitary Rangers?
It started in 1977, when the Rangers were deployed at the border along the coastal belt of district Badin in Sindh. They gradually took control of all water resources in the area, and an exploitative contract system evolved.

Local fisherfolk had no option but to sell their catch to contractors, who had the Rangers' full support, at very nominal rates. For instance, for prawns priced at Rs 200 to Rs 250 in Karachi, the contractor gave Rs 5 to Rs 10 to fisherfolk in Badin. The fisherfolk couldn't take even a few fish home. If caught, they would be punished, army style.

In 1994, the fisherfolk of Badin and Jati, a fishing town of district Thatta, started a movement. Gradually, pressure mounted; the provincial government announced that the Rangers would be withdrawn, but the decision was not implemented.

Following its formation in 1998, pff organised a movement against the contract system. In October 2004 pff organised an all party conference where it was unanimously resolved that fisherfolk would stop giving their catch to the Rangers from November 22, 2004. On that day, Pervez Musharraf intervened. Government announced that by 31 December, 2004 the Rangers would completely withdraw from Badin. And from January 2005 the fisherfolk would be free from the dreaded control of the Rangers.

It is perhaps the first instance that a down-trodden sector of civil society here has won against the army.

Why were you arrested?
Since the Rangers' exit, the Sindh government is trying to come in. pff does sit-ins whenever government announces an auction. After one such sit-in, outside the Fisheries Department in Hyderabad, I was told that the District Police Officer wanted to see me to settle the issue.

As I went to his office along with some of my associates I was arrested and dragged into a police mobile. We were lodged in Jail for 22 days under mpo. A police official frankly told me that the State was not happy with me at all.

Tell us about your organisation
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum was founded on May 5, 1998 to fight for the rights of the fishing community. The main issues that concern us are deep sea trawlers, destructive nets, marine pollution, the degradation of the Indus delta and of inland lakes, detained fishermen in the two countries, inland contract system and basic human rights of the fishing community. At present there are 60 units of in Sindh and Balochistan. Work to spread the network in Punjab is under way.

pff has a membership of 15,000; it is the second largest fisherfolk organisation in the world after National Fish Worker Forum of India.

What of the influx of new labour in the sector?
Burmese, Bengalis, ethnic Pathans, Punjabis, all have stepped into the fisheries sector, in some cases forcing the traditional fishermen (residents of coastal villages of Sindh) to leave this sector.

This influx has led to over-fishing. The future of this sector seems bleak if government fails to take some corrective steps. Despite being a major source of foreign exchange earnings, government seems least interested in the fisheries sector.

How do you see the arrest of fisherfolk by India and Pakistan?
It happens almost everywhere in the world when fishermen cross over to the waters of other countries. But what goes on here happens nowhere else. They simply suffer the ill feelings the two countries harbour against each other.

In some cases, they intentionally cross over in order to get more catch. Otherwise, it is unintentional; often currents are fast at the Sir Creek. Sometimes they are arrested to make up the number game. Practically, the poor fishermen are treated like prisoners of war. It is serious human rights abuse the two countries indulge in regularly.

Why are you boycotting forthcoming local body elections?
The Sindh government says the contract system is of the past. But politicians are bent upon making easy money by filling in the vacuum left by the departure of the Rangers. We have stated at a recent press conference that if, by August 15, 2005, the Sindh government does not issue a notification declaring an end to the contract system in the fisheries sector, we will register our protest by boycotting local elections.

Muhammad Ali Shah

Muhammad Ali Shah

Working for the rights of fisherfolk for the past three decades. He is also the first civil society activist arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO), a section of the Pakistan Penal Code commonly employed against political party workers

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

Scroll To Top