Human slavery is alive and well and it exists in many prominent industries, especially at the lower rungs of the supply chain. Much of this blatant exploitation of human beings exits within the informal sector, from which major supply chains source raw materials and unfinished goods. The market mechanism has not helped to make labour exploitation obsolete. Instead, the contract system seems to have exacerbated the plight of many vulnerable communities in a range of industries, in agriculture and even in the seafood sector.
Human slavery is especially rampant across the fishing industry at large. A few years ago, Reuters broke a story of poor migrant workers working under brutal conditions on Thai fishing trawlers, which provide fish products to prominent global supermarket brands. The plight of fisherfolk in Pakistan is no less perturbing.
For the fishermen on the Indus and its tributaries, debt bondage is an outcome of the modern economy, especially the contract system, which is encouraged by entities like the World Bank in the name of enhancing productivity and efficiency. Alizeh Kohari’s excellent reportage about fisherfolk communities residing on the Taunsa describes the plight of numerous Punjabi villages caught in the clutches of the contract system. These fisherfolk can seldom eat fish themselves, as all what they catch becomes the property of entrepreneurs who have bought exclusive rights to all the fish being caught by these poor fishing families. Local fishermen are left with no choice but to work for these middlemen, as they do not have the option of directly selling their catch in the market.
The contract system on the Taunsa was instituted in 1961, whereby the rivers of the Taunsa were divided into distinct parcels and fishing rights were sold to the highest bidders. The winning contractors decide what to pay fishermen for each kilo of fish caught, and this measly rate often compels fishermen to become indebted to contractors to make ends meet. This vortex of debt is inter-generational, like other instances of debt bondage, evident amongst brick kiln workers or amongst landless haris.
Decades of river construction, floods, and water pollution has propelled tens of thousands of fishermen up the river in search of livelihood. Downstream on the Indus, the contract system was overturned by an act of the Sindh parliament in 2011. But this act did not mean much as there was barely any fish by the time the Indus reaches Sindh. So, fisherfolk have kept moving north to Punjab, willingly submitting themselves to exploitation by contractors.
The Lahore High Court in 2018 issued a temporary injunction upon the annual leasing of public waterways of the Punjab, to the highest bidder. This stay had the potential to break the monopoly of the contract system not only on the Taunsa Barrage but south along the Indus towards DG Khan, and at Chashma Barrage. Yet, this order was not effectively implemented, and was not renewed. This judicial backtracking was a result of pressure from the fisheries department, which was apparently flailing financially without revenue from the yearly auction. Fisherfolk and other civil society groups have argued that instead of renewing the contract system, the Punjab government should let fishermen work for themselves and pay an annual licence to government for the right to fish, which seems like a feasible solution to this problem.
Unfortunately, the plight of the fisherfolk transcends what is occurring on public waterways. Fishing communities dependent on the coastal areas are also protesting the federal government’s recent decision to provide licences to deep-sea fishing trawlers in the Exclusive Economic Zone around 20 miles off the coast in Sindh and Balochistan.
Fish-stocks in our rivers and within the coastal areas are already under immense pressure. Using the profit maximising contract system on our rivers and allowing trawlers to prowl our coastal areas is worsening the plight of fisherfolk communities, and it is threating to deplete our remaining fish stocks to a point of no return.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2021.
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