Fisher folk falling through safety net

May 10, 2020

Amidst restricted access to sea during the lockdown, scores of fisher people in their largest settlement in Karachi risk starvation

Boats parked during the lockdown.

Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, scores of fisher folk are facing serious challenges in their largest settlement in Karachi along the coastal belt of Arabian Sea, Ibrahim Hyderi. The Sindh government had already imposed a ban on fishing in deep sea during the lockdown. On April 12th, through an executive order it imposed a ban on fishing and ceased all fishing related activities at the Karachi Fish Harbour. This was done to control the increasing number of coronaviurus cases in Sindh.

Karachi has a 129 kilometre-long coastal belt where over a million fishermen belonging to Sindhi, Baloch, Burmese (Rohingya) and Bengali communities are settled in several villages. They are battling unemployment and starvation due to the ban. The community has not received rations or cash support from the government.

Zareena, a 45-year-old woman living in Ibrahim Hyderi, tells The News on Sunday that her husband is a fisherman who would go for fishing in the sea in the morning and come back with the catch at night. Since the lockdown started, she says, the family is fighting hunger. Her husband is a daily wager and the only bread-earner for the family.

“The government has even not tried to find out how we are surviving in poverty without food and money in the holy month of Ramazan,” she says. According to her a majority of the poor in Ibrahim Hyderi have not received any financial support from the government.

Muhammad Ibrahim, a 50-year-old fisherman, says that fishing is his only source of income but during lockdown they are not allowed to take their boats to deep sea. “Sometimes the Maritime Security Agency (MSA) guards allow a small boat with two or three people to go fishing for a few hours”, he adds.

“People are borrowing money from landlords or buying groceries on deferred payments from the shops as they don’t have cash due to loss of jobs”, says Ibrahim, adding that people will die of hunger if the lockdown continued in its current form for longer in Karachi. “Our community isn’t rich and can’t survive for long without fishing, which is our only source of livelihood to feed the family members”, he says.

No one from the fishing community has received money from the Prime Minister’s Ehsaas Programme in this locality, he adds. “The government should allow the fishermen to sail into deep sea for hunting”, he says.

Khadija, a 50-year-old Baloch woman, says that a few hundred bags of 5kg of flour were distributed by Sindh and federal governments’ representatives in some areas in Ibrahim Hyderi but it has been almost 45 days since the lockdown was imposed in Karachi and no one has noticed that fisher folk are dying of starvation here.

“People are afraid that they may die due to coronavirus but I am afraid that my family and I might die of hunger if this lockdown continues further,” she says.

Since the lockdown started, Zareena says, her family has been fighting hunger. Her husband, a fisherman, is a daily wager and the only bread-earner of the family.

Kamal Shah, a representative of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) states that a huge population of fishermen is settled in Ibrahim Hyderi, Chashma Goth, Baba Bhit islands, Bhatta, Rehri Goth, Mubarak Village, Jumma Goth and other areas along Arabian Sea. Hundreds of boats are parked on various jetties and harbours due to the coronavirus pandemic that is holding hostage, he says.

Nasir Khan Buneri, the Fishermen Cooperative Society (FCS) and Karachi Fish Harbour’s emergency centre representative says that a complete lockdown was being observed at fish harbour and fishing in all the coastal belts of Sindh under the government order.

“More than 200 boats were parked at Baba and Bhit Islands as the fishermen belonging to Khyber Pakhtunskhaw and interior Sindh have left for their hometowns after the lockdown due to coronavirus”, he says.

Nasir Buneri says that at a meeting between stakeholders and representatives of Sindh government held in Islamabad on April 27 at the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) the Federal Ministry for Marines Affairs had allowed fishermen to continue fishing in deep sea while following the approved SOPs to make sure that the social distancing is observed during fishing. The ministry has issued an order in this regard, he said.

Fishermen could also stay more than a week in the deep-sea during fishing, he says, adding that Maritime Security Agency (MSA) and Fishermen Cooperative Society officials are monitoring and allowing the fishermen to sail after a thorough medical checkup. He says four to five people are allowed per boat for fishing.

However, in practice things look very different, according to the community and their representatives.

“The federal and provincial governments are claiming that they have ‘lifted’ the ban from fishing but that it is wrong”, says Muhammad Ali Shah, the chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF).

He adds that “only small boats are allowed for a few hours for fishing in coastal waters. Launches are not given permission to go to deep sea, where sizable quantities of fish can be netted”, Shah says.

The catch, he explains, is good when 15 to 20 people spend 10 to 15 days in the deep sea. “This is how they can catch a large catch of good quality fish and get an ample amount of money for their catch”, he says.

The prevailing ‘ban of sorts’ on fishing, he says, also impacts the export of fish, thus causing loss of foreign exchange to the exchequer.

“The lockdown and a ban on fishing have directly affected over a million fishermen.

While that federal and Sindh governments have announced relief packages for the citizens, both Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) governments have failed to do anything specifically for the welfare of fisherfolk community in Sindh,” he says.

“Even fisherfolk who have got their CNICs have not received a single penny from the so-called Ehsaas Programme in Karachi’s largest fishermen settlement, Ibrahim Hyderi,” he says.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5

Coronavirus lockdown: Fisher folk falling through safety net