The sea levels may be rising but the standard of living for Karachi’s fishermen has been going down over the years.
With the World Fisheries Day on November 21, there is little cause for celebration for fishermen in the country. Forty-five-year-old Khalilur Rehman, the captain of a fishing boat anchored at Karachi Fish Harbour, has spent more than 30 years venturing out onto Arabian Sea, sometimes battling gruelling and unpredictable weather to support his family. Though some people may romanticise life at sea, for this fisherman - and a lot of others in Pakistan - it is nothing more than an all-too-real nightmare.
“I started out as a Khlassi (labourer) and now I’m a Naakwa (Captain) but my standard of living has plummeted over the years, instead of rising. The sea is our universe and our lives revolve around fish and prawns.”
He believes his life is similar to that of an inmate - the only difference is that he is caged not by metal bars but by a lack of rights, benefits and crippling financial conditions. The fishermen are hired by those who own large boats. The owners pay them by the quality and amount of the catch, skimming off most of the profits.
Rehman is now worried that he is too old and nobody will hire him. “When I was young, all the boat owners needed me but now they consider me useless.” He looks quite weathered and blames the tough life at the sea for making him age horribly. “The seawater eats your body and makes you look older than your age.”
But the fisherman has braved more than just stormy seas - during his life, he spent six months in an Indian prison, three in an Iranian jail and 15 days in Kot Lakhpat jail in Pakistan.
He sends around Rs15,000 each month to his family and most of the time, he has to borrow the amount from others. “I will discourage my children from becoming fishermen. My eldest son tried to do so but quickly returned home when he went on a fishing trip in which he faced starvation and rough weather for a mere Rs7,000 a month.”
A medium-sized fishing boat can accommodate a captain, a driver and 23 labourers. Before setting out on their journeys, the fishermen take spices, ice and fuel from shopkeepers, promising to pay them after returning with their catch. They eat from the catch - but only the small and bad quality fish, because the good ones have to be saved up to be sold in the market.
The fishermen’s income fluctuates with the weather. During storms most of them are afraid of setting off into the deep sea. At other times, the storm will hit when they are already out and then they have to scramble to return without any catch because they are afraid the sea will swallow them.
The sea is also off-limits in June and July because this is the breeding season for prawns and other small fish. Most of the fishermen organise their weddings in this period. Abdul Latif, a young fisherman, said, “Our weddings are dictated by the amount of fish we catch in a season. If the haul isn’t good, we have to wait an extra year to save up and get married.”
Waheed Mughal, All Karachi Fishermen Labour Welfare Association’s general secretary, said that there are more than 18,000 boats at the Karachi harborur, generating millions of rupees worth of revenue for the country.
“The poor fishermen get nothing and the so-called fishermen associations are eating millions of rupees in the name of fisherman rights.” He added that each fisherman submits Rs220 each to ‘insurance companies’ every time they leave for a trip. But the companies disappear without a trace when a fisherman dies on a voyage.
Mughal said that his organisation was formed when three fishermen were killed in Baluchistan.
It now has over 12,000 members. He criticised the celebration of the World Fisheries Day. “We want the fishermen to be given their rights. They are the most deprived class of Pakistan despite the amount of the revenue they generate.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2012.
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