The debt trap

October 28, 2018

By abolishing the fishing leasing system, the government can effectively put an end to slavery in the inland fisheries sector and ensure that 600,000 impoverished fishers are able to earn a decent livelihood

The debt trap

"The river used to be free -- and we used to be free -- before the leasing system came", says Shamim Bibi, a local fisher from Chashma Barrage.

This comment must not be taken in a metaphorical sense. Since 1961, when the Punjab government implemented a policy of leasing out fishing rights in public waters (rivers, ponds, reservoirs, canals), fishers living on and working these waters, have quite literally been reduced to bonded labour.

Informal estimates by local NGOs and fishers estimate that close to 80 per cent of the 600,000 fishers in Punjab work as bonded labourers. The widespread prevalence of bonded labour on the public waters of Punjab is particularly astonishing given that these waters are not the property of any one individual or group. They are a public resource held in trust by the state and it is thus duty bound to use and protect them for the benefit of the public, both present and future generations.

However, through the lease system, the government has been selling off the waters to private individuals who derive extraordinary profits by exploiting this public resource and depleting already dwindling fish reserves through overfishing and other harmful practices.

Meanwhile, the actual skilled and physically exacting work of fishing is done by adivasi (indigenous) fisher communities. These communities (which include the kehal, mor, mohanay, jhabel) have lived on the river banks since time immemorial, transferring their well-honed fishing skills and ecological knowledge to each successive generation. Some have migrated upstream from Sindh (the Loorieay and Mirani) due to the impact of upstream river interventions, resulting in reduced flows and environmental degradation of traditional fishing grounds, such as Manchar Lake.

With the system of leasing these waters, fishers are unable to exercise any historical or customary right to fish in these waters. The waters are effectively privatised and under the complete control of the lessees (thaykaydar) who are invariably local influentials wielding considerable power in the area.

Also read: Tied to the river

Khawar Mai, a fisher in Karror, district Laiyyah explains how the leasing system leads to rampant indebtedness amongst the fishers. "We are forced to fish for the thaykaydar who gives us next to nothing for the fish. At the market this fish sells for twenty to thirty times the price what we are paid for it. It is impossible to survive on this wage." She points out that the thaykaydar provides none of the capital expenditures involved in fishing -- the fishers are expected to own the boats, the motor attached to the boats and the nets. The cost of maintenance, repair and replacement has to be paid out of their own pockets. Due to their minimal earnings, they are forced to take advances (peshgi) from the thaykaydar to repair or replace the equipment. The debt steadily builds up, forcing fishers to fish for the thaykaydar without any payment.

The nature of their work and deep historical ties to the waters means fishers cannot easily leave the river and find work elsewhere. Every public water in Punjab has a similar system, and thaykaydars have been known to collude with each other and ‘return’ fishers who try to escape to other waters.

With the system of leasing, fishers are unable to exercise any historical or customary right to fish in these waters. The waters are effectively privatised and under the complete control of the lessees (thaykaydar) who are invariably local influentials wielding considerable power in the area.

The details of the steady accrual of debt rubbish popular accounts that argue that labourers go into debt due to overspending on weddings and other frivolous expenditures. In addition to necessary loans taken for capital expenditures, maintenance costs, illness and medical expenses, debt is artificially inflated with a number of everyday practices.

Instead of paying a fisher in cash for their daily catch the thaykaydar directs them to local stores where food is sold to them at inflated rates and the amount added to the khaata (account). Fishers do not have access to the khaata and false accounting is common to increase the amount of debt. Outrageous fines to the tune of 20,000 rupees are also levied in the event of any noncompliance, such as keeping fish for their families. All this plus high rates of compound interest has meant that, over the years, this debt has steadily ballooned with current estimates ranging from 8 to 10 lakh per family.

It is common knowledge in the Khawar’s basti that the fishers who have migrated from Sindh are the worst off having arrived with just their skills and knowledge of the water; they are particularly vulnerable to the power and control of the thaykaydar. First hand accounts detail strict surveillance with some hair-raising stories of the thaykaydar’s personal jails and physical abuse. The sheer brutality of this system is further laid bare in reports by concerned local NGOs that women from the communities have been forced into prostitution to try to support their families while men are forced to fish for the thaykaydar for decades without any pay.

This system of exacting forced labour against peshgis (advance) has been specifically outlawed under the Bonded Labour (Aboilition) Act of 1992. There have been countless pleas made over the past two decades to local government officials, the Fisheries Department, the Labour Department and even the chief minister to take note of the situation.

For the government to plead ignorance of this situation would be incredulous. As per the Act and the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Abolition of Bonded Labour and Rehabilitation of Freed Bonded Labourers (2001), it is the government’s responsibility to establish district vigilance committees empowered to investigate claims and instances of bonded labour, and address them as per the law. Here you have a situation where these committees are virtually defunct with investigative and rehabilitative efforts almost non-existent, but where fisher communities are consistently making representations to government departments, collecting and presenting information and proof on bonded labour, only to be met by a deafening silence.

Also read: A brief history of fisheries

What is even more bizarre is that the revenue received by the Fisheries Department is nominal compared to the actual price of the market. The value of the local fish market in 2017-18 was priced upward of 15 billion rupees of which approximately 30-40 per cent come from these public waters, the remainder from fish farming. Whereas the revenue generated by the leases for the government for this period amounts to a paltry 232 million rupees.

In effect, the state is subsidising private individuals who profit immensely by virtually enslaving the most vulnerable citizens of the country. Abolishing these middlemen who are leaching off a public resource and allowing local fishermen to fish and sell directly to the market will surely allow for a more equitable distribution of the gains of the fish market. If the government is concerned with a loss of revenue, licenses can be issued to these fishers for a small price as is the practice in Sindh - but more crucially, the immense social, human and ecological value generated from the switch should be reason enough to end this system.

Merely freeing these labourers, as has been the common effort in Pakistan with respect to bonded labour, will be pointless. These are skilled communities and their knowledge of the river is unparalleled -- their ancestors have lived and breathed on this river and their children have often been born on these very waters. Their lives are bound to the river in ways that words like ‘work’ and ‘livelihood’ cannot capture.

They will have to go back to fish for the thaykaydar and will slowly and surely fall back into debt.

The job of the new government is clear cut here. By abolishing the leasing system, constituted as it is by bonded labour, and granting these communities the right to fish, the government can effectively put an end to slavery in the inland fisheries sector and ensure that 600,000 impoverished Pakistani fishers are able to earn a decent livelihood in dignified conditions.

The debt trap