Caught in the Crossfire: India and Pakistan’s Fishing Communities

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Caught in the Crossfire: India and Pakistan’s Fishing Communities

Fisherfolk in India and Pakistan are the victims of a turbulent mix of politics, economic crises, and climate change.

Caught in the Crossfire: India and Pakistan’s Fishing Communities

Boats docked along the coast in Gujarat.

Credit: Safina Nabi

SUBHASH NAGAR, PORBANDAR & KETI BANDAR, THATTA – Laxmi Chunilal Chawda, 55, sought respite on a humid afternoon, her head gently cradled against a faded, worn-out wall. Alone in her modest one-room dwelling, her surroundings told the story of her life’s challenges. The single room doubled as both bedroom and kitchen, with dusty shelves bearing witness to the passage of time, adorned with plastic bottles that spoke volumes of her daily struggles. 

Laxmi had borne three sons, yet now found herself alone. One son forged his path with his family. The other two had been drawn to the sea, their lives intertwined with the rhythms of fishing. Tragedy struck hard; one son drowned, lost to the unforgiving waves, while the other, Mahesh Chunilal Chawda, unwittingly trespassed into perilous waters, a misstep that sealed his fate when he was captured by the marine navy of Pakistan.

“My younger son took care of me,” Laxmi recounted softly, her voice carrying the weight of years of uncertainty. “It’s been three long years since he was caught. I do not know anything about him.”

Laxmi Chunilal Chawda in her home. Photo by Safina Nabi.

She continued: “After weeks and months of waiting, I began to work tirelessly to make ends meet. Some days, I venture out to sea, casting my net in hopes of a good catch, earning a meager 100 rupees to sustain myself. On other days, I find work in different households, wherever I can so that I cover my expenses and afford the medicines I need.”

Chawda is not the only fishermen to fall afoul of India-Pakistan tensions. The root of the problem is environmental: Coastal waters are heavily polluted, with significantly fewer fish. To improve their catch, impoverished fishermen from both countries often venture into deeper seas, and end up crossing the marine border line, leading to their arrests by the authorities.

Gujarat stands as India’s foremost marine fish producer. Its expansive 1,640 kilometers of coastline sustains a population of 400,000 fishermen and women. The fishery sector has witnessed serious crises during the last decade, however, owing to its limitations in adjusting to the changing environment. 

Gujarat ranks second among the Indian states in industrial development; this rapid growth of industries and cities has led to environmental degradation both inland and along the coast. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pitch for Swachh Bharat (Clean India), Gujarat remains one of the most plastic-polluted states. Even in tourist-targeted coastal beaches, plastic and other garbage pollution is evident. Industrial expansion and urban growth combine with land reclamation, waste discharge, salt pans, mining, dredging, and natural disasters to pose serious threats to coastal ecosystems. These human activities directly harm the environment or introduce pollutants that degrade ecosystems over time.

The coastal fishing communities are mute spectators as their right to a clean and pollution-free common habitat is compromised. The impact on their fishing resources is not even talked about. In the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat, the Marine National Park and Sanctuary has buffered the industrial pollution in the marine environment along the coast. However, land-based nonpoint source offshore pollutants continue to run off to the coast, impacting common areas like the beach.

“As far as climate change is concerned, the sea level and temperature rise in the marine environment is so chronic and gradual that it is not even noticed,” Professor B. C. Choudhury, a retired senior scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, told The Diplomat. “Only the enhanced coastal erosion is being noticed. It is difficult to point out if this is due to what is being done to the dunes resulting in erosion or if climate change is contributing. 

“To understand this we need to conduct research but unfortunately, no sociologists are studying this aspect as of now.” 

In the last 10-15 years, industrial development has heavily impacted Gujarat’s coastline. Around 60 percent of Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) projects are located along the coast, including petrochemical units, refineries, power plants, cement factories, rayon plants, and ship-breaking yards. This growth has severely affected fish habitats, significantly declining catches along the Gujarat coastline. 

As a consequence, fishermen are compelled to venture farther out to sea in search of fish. In doing so, some get arrested.

Indian boats sailing through the sea. Photo by Safina Nabi.

184 Indian fishermen are currently held in Pakistani jails because their fishing boats inadvertently crossed the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), according to data from the Indian government. This problem of arrests – often without following the legal protocol – started in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came into power, and continue to date.

Vijay Solanki, a fisherman, stands as a stark example of the perils faced by those who brave the seas. For the past three years, Solanki has languished in a Pakistani jail, leaving his 35-year-old wife, Jasmine Hari Kishan Solanki, in a state of anguish and uncertainty. With no word from her husband since his disappearance, Jasmine is left grappling with the agonizing void of information.

Jasmine Solanki. Photo by Safina Nabi.

“He went fishing and never returned,” Jasmine recounted. “It was only later, through the boat owner, that I learned of his capture along with the boat. Since then, there has been a deafening silence – no phone calls, letters, or messages.”

Left to shoulder the burden alone, Jasmine found herself thrust into the role of sole provider for her family. “I am forced to seek work in various households,” she shared, her words a testament to the resilience born of necessity. “It is a daily struggle, with meager earnings sometimes amounting to just 1,000 rupees [$3.60] a day. Yet, I persevere, for I am the only one to care for our children.”

The plight of Pakistani fishermen mirrors that of their Indian counterparts. In May 2023, it was reported that more than 100 Pakistanis who had been locked in Indian jails in the 2015-2022 period remained incarcerated. Despite provisions under the Foreigner’s Act stipulating their release within three months of confirming their identity and nationality, far too many languish behind bars for extended periods, some exceeding six months or even longer. 

This prolonged incarceration often stems from a glaring absence of adequate legal representation, compounding the already dire circumstances faced by these individuals caught in the complex web of maritime disputes.

Boats at Keti Bandar port, Pakistan. Photo by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid.

A little over 300 kilometers away from India’s Porbandar city in Gujarat, 21-year-old Ramzan Jumon lives in Keti Bandar area of Sindh’s Thatta district in Pakistan. As the eldest son, Jumon took up his family profession at an early age after his father’s leg injury had rendered him incapable of earning a livelihood through fishing. 

In 2016, as a 13-year-old, Jumon ventured deep into Kajhar Creek, looking for a better catch in the waters bordering the disputed Sir Creek. The Indian authorities captured him.

“In jail, I was constantly thinking about my family, my parents, my siblings. I didn’t know when I would get to see them. I was the sole breadwinner. My family had to rely on charity to survive while I was in captivity,” said Jumon.

Ramzan Jumon. Photo by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid.

When Jumon was released in 2018, he immediately returned to fishing and earning a living for his family. His younger brother fears the water and cannot take up the family profession, while the youngest has just turned 10. But even as Jumon has managed to stabilize his family, helping the younger brother take up farming, he sees many stories like his continue to play out on both sides of the border.

“I wish the governments of Pakistan and India could reach some agreement to make the lives of the poor fishermen on both sides easier,” lamented Jumon.

Veteran activist Gulab Shah, who has been fighting for fisher rights for over three decades, maintains that an array of factors has contributed to the plight of the fishing community, pushing them into deeper waters. These include foreign deep-sea trawlers that have been depleting fish stock, which Shah and his fellow activists have been rallying against.

Veteran fisherfolk rights activist Gulab Shah in Keti Bandar. Photo by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid.

“We have fought against the thekaydaari nizaam [contractor system] and illegal nets that impacted fishing across the Sindh coastal belt, and are now raising our voices against these deep sea trawlers. The overfishing pushes fishermen into deeper waters, threatening their wellbeing and livelihoods,” Shah said.

Local activists maintain that infrastructural changes have contributed to climate change, which is aggravating the plight of the fisherfolk. Not only has the water become more polluted, but the areas available for fishing have decreased owing to the construction of dams and barrages.

“When River Indus had proper water, fishermen found their livelihoods in the river and nearby creeks more easily,” added Shah.

Owing to the construction of dams, barrages, and reservoirs, the 148 billion cubic meters of water that flowed annually from the Indus River into the Arabian Sea a century ago, has been reduced to 24 billion cubic meters. The mangroves in the Indus River Delta, the fifth largest river delta in the world, containing the seventh largest mangrove forest, have shrunk from an area encompassing 600,000 hectares to 80,000 hectares. 

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change. Sindh has borne the brunt of the crisis, with the coastal area witnessing the most damage. 

Climate change has not only polluted the waters but also added to their salinity. This, when coupled with saltwater intruding up to 100 kilometers into the Sindh coastal line, has contaminated the groundwater aquifer. These changes have erased the agricultural area in the delta as well, pushing farmers, including livestock farmers, into taking up fishing as well. That further increases competition for a limited supply of fish.

“This man-made crisis is built on the claim that Indus River water is going to waste in the Arabian Sea. How is it going to waste? The sea needs freshwater; maritime life needs fresh water. The lack of freshwater flow, and increase in pollution is decreasing the fish count, which is pushing fishermen into all kinds of dangers,” claimed Shah.

A Fishermen Cooperative Society rescue boat. Photo by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, highlighted that India and Pakistan share a strange relationship refracted through the lens of power politics and political rivalry. As a result, they overlook the human elements – including the plight of fisherfolk. Kugelman said that in order to ease the deleterious impact on common people, the Indian and Pakistani governments need to try and focus more on confidence-building measures and dialogue.

“We are living in an era where some of the biggest global threats are inherently cross border and transnational. Climate change, pandemics, and this is a time when the world most needs its fraught relations to improve because essentially we are all in this together,” Kugelman said. 

“This is not only in terms of regional rivalries of India and Pakistan but also the global rivalries like the U.S. and China. It will be much easier for the world to tackle these huge global cross-border threats if the two most powerful countries in the world are working more together to cooperate to tackle these threats.”

The Indo-Pak fishermen that end up in Sir Creek, the disputed water strip between Gujarat and Sindh, are often those captured by the maritime authorities from across the border. The 96-kilometer strip is a high tide zone, and hence many fishermen inadvertently cross over to the other side. 

According to the latest data compiled by the Fishermen’s Cooperative Society (FCS), there are 103 Pakistani fishermen currently in Indian custody. Twelve of them have been arrested over the past five months alone.

FCS Welfare Officer Ghulam Rasool Sheikh said the fisherfolk are grappling with multi-pronged disasters as it is. Sheikh urged both Islamabad and New Delhi to address the challenges faced by the locals on both sides of the border. 

“They face high tides, storms, and winds, and the economic situation means that they fight these with limited resources. These limitations are further aggravated by the impacts of climate change on the region,” insisted Sheikh. “The least both [Pakistan and India] governments can do is accommodate the fishermen from both sides.”

Boats docked at the seaside in Sindh. Photo by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid.

Kugelman believes that both India and Pakistan have a common interest in working together to address pressing issues of climate change and keep the politics aside. But so far the governments have shown little interest in doing so.

“Over the last few years, there have been attempts by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to bring the countries in the region together, including India and Pakistan, to talk about joint responses to the pandemic, but India and Pakistan essentially did not agree,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult to expect these two countries to find common ground on the issue of climate change.”

Sheikh agreed that it remains a challenge for both New Delhi and Islamabad to find common ground, but insisted that looking at the plight of the fishermen through a humanitarian lens, and not as a geopolitical fault line, could help the two countries craft fisheries agreements, and correlated international policies, that allow the cross-border fisherfolk to pursue their livelihoods, without further endangering their lives.

“Any captured fishermen should be given any due punishment that the law mandates and then be released as soon as possible,” Sheikh said. “The issue has been heavily politicized, but fundamentally it is a matter of fundamental human rights, and should be looked at through the humanitarian lens. 

“The governments need to understand that when you are in the waters you don’t see any line dividing the two countries – all you see is your need to earn a living.”