Announcements to abolition the Contract system on Inland fisheries in Sindh

In Pakistan, Sindh province is highly rich with natural resources like minerals, agriculture, forest and fish species which not only meet the need of the province but support it in export as well promotes GDP of Pakistan. Among these resources, sweet inland water bodies are very much significant. On the records, in Sindh, there are 1209 fishing waters, including ponds, depressions, reservoirs, canals and Indus River. Millions of fisher and semi-fishers draw their livelihood from these fishing grounds of the province.

After the independence of Pakistan, till 90s fisher communities of Sindh had been fishing freely in lakes, ponds, depressions and in Indus River to earn their livelihoods. But the scenario got changed when rich and greedy poachers in company with state’s representatives started getting contracts through auctions of water bodies. Then the fishers’ survival rested at the disposal of landlords, bureaucrats and state’s weak laws in the fishing sector.

Until 1977, fishing activities were not regulated with great care. In the year, for the purpose to regulating the fishing activities and registering the indigenous fishermen, the Government of Sindh introduced ‘License System’ on major fishing grounds of the province under which the fishers were made obliged to get themselves registered with the Fisheries Departments in the districts. The fishing licenses were issued to them against the payment of a license fee. Those possessing licenses were allowed to fish in the fishing grounds independently.

Although the license system in fishing was officially and legally introduced in 1977, the then Sindh Government brought the Sindh Fisheries Ordinance 1980, which also gave legal status to the license system. Section 3[1] of The Sindh Fisheries Ordinance 1980 reads, “Government may, by general or special order, grant license or lease for fishing in any public waters on such terms and conditions and on payment of such fees as may be prescribed.”

Through this ordinance, Sindh Government introduced contract system on the water bodies through which waters were auctioned to influential contractors and allowed to carry out fishing through fishers. The bureaucrats maneuvered the term ‘lease’ and ‘contract’ mentioned in the section 3[1] of the Ordinance 1980. In the beginning this exploitative system was introduced on few fishing lakes, however, gradually more and more fishing lakes were brought under this system, replacing fisher friendly License System.

The Sindh Government has been adopting both licensing and contract system on fisheries in the past. Most of the time the government has been allowing the local fishers to catch fish from these waters by issuing them licenses on payment of affordable fees. Even in some years, the Sindh Government had exempted fishermen to pay the license fees. For example, in 1992-93 budget of Sindh province, the then Finance Minister Liaqat Ali Jatoi had exempted license fee from fishermen of Manchhar lake. Later, in 1993-94, the former Sindh Chief Minister Syed Abdullah Shah had also withdrawn the license fee from fishermen of Manchhar lake. This licensing system continued till 1998-99.

This system was exploitative, anti-people and against the spirit of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It puts the fishers into an ending vicious bondage life.

Although this system occasioned excruciating troubles for the fishers.

From the very day when the Sindh Fisheries Ordinance came into existence from that moment 1209 water bodies of Sindh are auctioned to the landlords by Sindh Fisheries Department which occasioned unending troubles for the fishers. In 1998, PFF with its birth committed to launch an effective struggle against the system but had been waiting for an appropriate time and larger support from the fishers. Although PFF continued its awareness activities through the time but the bureaucracy and PFF came face to face when Sindh Fisheries Department Hyderabad announced to auction water bodies on 26th February 2005.

On 18th, January 2005, PFF called a joint meeting of civil society organization at Sidko Center, Karachi, to devise strategies to stop the government for selling waters to the landlords. Besides, PFF also held a demonstration in Karachi for pressurizing the government to take its decision back and issue licenses to the fishers. A large number of civil society organizations and political parties participated in the demonstration. In the entire Sindh a wave of demonstrations and hunger strikes was observed. Everywhere fishers demanded the restoration of their genuine rights by issuing them licenses and abolishing the contract system.

On 5th May 2005, Awami Adalat (peoples’ tribunal) was convened. It was a unique in its nature and was attended by thousands of fishers. After four hours’ proceedings, Adalat gave its verdict that the contract system is an annihilation of the rights of the fishers given to them in the 1973’ constitution of the country. This contract system completely squeezes the fishers’ social, political and economic life. PFF believed and truly follows the practice of a peaceful movement. Throughout the time, PFF’s struggle has remained non-violent but the Government has always showed worse reactions to its movement. For instance, once CM’s advisor for Fisheries in a programme said that PFF is not a good organization and openly threatened that if movement is not stopped, there will be severe consequences. The news came in the newspapers but he did not own it. However, on 16th May, his words became true when Mohammad Ali Shah, Sami Memon, Jamal Mustafa, Mohammad, Allah Dino Mallah were arrested during a peaceful demonstration at the time of auction in Hyderabad.

The news of arrest spread all over the world and caused much anguish among the fishers and international organizations. On the same day, Saeed Baloch General Secretary PFF, and Vice Chairperson, Tahira Ali, and other leaders organized a press conference in which they condemned the government’s actions and said that PFF’s movement will never end until the rights are given to the fishers. They also announced a series of demonstrations and hunger strikes across the country.
On 19th May, in Hyderabad Civil Court, bail was nominated to the PFF leaders but police did not release the leaders. On the next day, court ordered the police to again release the leaders but the police gave an excuse that Government of Sindh has ordered to keep them in the custody under the MPO (Maintenances of Public Order).

PFF leaders were sent to Nara jail and no one was allowed to meet them.

PFF started hunger strikes at all districts’ press clubs of Sindh. These hunger strikes camps were visited by all the political parties’ leaders. On 6th June 2005, PFF leaders were suddenly released. They were taken from Nara Jail to Karachi by a very large number of people.

On 30th May 2005, about 4,500 fishers of inland waters filed their petition against the contract system wherein they requested the Judge to stop the government from auctioning inland waters. On 8th June 2005, PFF also organized an all parties’ conference.

On 19th June 2006, PFF planned to organize a rally from Mazar-e-Quaid to Sindh Assembly which meant to march peacefully and at the end wanted to submit a memorandum with the CM but regrettably, the feelingless government used forces against the non-violent movement of fishers. Thousands of fishers in convoys’ coming from interior Sindh were stopped, arrested and badly tortured by the police. In the direct firing on fishers, more than 55 fishers were wounded. Although the fishers coming from all corners of Sindh were stopped and arrested but Shah and other activists held demonstration at Mazar-e-Quaid and Press Club Karachi. The Government’s such ruthless attitude earned bad name in the country.

Besides other activities on the streets, PFF started writing letters to all the heads of the state and informed them about the reality which proved very positive for PFF. The President of Pakistan, Pervaiz Musharaf, wrote a letter to Sindh Government over the matter and instructed to resolve the matter.

Moreover, in November 2006, a series of hunger strikes was observed at all the districts’ press clubs in Sindh. At last the day came when the Chief Minister of Sindh declared to abolish contract system. The unremitting struggle with supreme sacrifices of PFF leaders and fishing community compelled the Government of Sindh to accept the fishers’ demands. On 21st April 2007, the then Chief Minister of Sindh, Arbab Rahim, during his visit at Zero Point in Badin declared the abolition of contract system and announced promulgation of licenses system on the water bodies. On the occasion, he directed Government of Sindh Livestock and Fisheries Department to award licenses to fishermen immediately. Abiding by the above direction, Government of Sindh Livestock and Fisheries Department issued notification dated 21 August, 2007, No.19 (23) SO (Fish) L&F/07.

With this, the fishers felt some relief but still the lords were occupying the water bodies at large and persistent to continue holding grip on the waters that completely deprived fishers from fishing rights.

In 2008, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) had several meetings with the Fisheries Minister, over the issue, who conveyed PFF’s message to the Chief Minister of Sindh. On 16th June 2008, the CM of Sindh in his budget speech in Sindh Assembly session announced that “we are abolishing all types of Licenses’ from the fresh water lakes of Sindh so that there is no middlemen and the incomes of poor fishermen increase”.