Gwadar: Displacing the oldest people of the coast

Situated on the shores of the Arabian Sea, the three-berth deep sea port of Gwadar looks mostly deserted. A small distance away from the empty port, several fishermen are going about their business, their boats tied to the harbour which has been merged with the port.

“As you know, we (the fishermen) are [among the] oldest residents of Gwadar; we are the real people of the port town. But despite that, we have been abandoned,” says elderly Khuda Rahim Mallag, who has been fishing in these waters since he was a teenager.

Sitting in the midst of around two dozen fishermen in the Komari Ward of Mulla Band, Mallag, now in his eighties, explains: “For over the last few decades, we have been explaining our interminable woes to the fisheries department and the district commissioners of Gwadar, particularly regarding illegal trawling in the waters of Gwadar that has dwindled [the supply of] fish. But we have not heard back from them.”

It is said that Mulla Band is where the people of Gwadar first lived in and later the town expanded from there.

This area, which now houses three berths of the port, was central to local fishing activity in Gwadar, perhaps because it was also the best breeding point for fish. This changed in the early 2000s when the fishermen of Gwadar were moved to another location to make room for the deep sea port.

“We knew we would be displaced (from Mulla Band) during former president retired General Pervez Musharraf’s rule…and we know we will also be displaced from here (Komari Ward) one day. Because it is true that we do not feature in the country’s logic of development in general and Gwadar in particular,” says Nakhuda (boat captain) Dad Karim Baloch.

Today, the fishermen fear that their displacement from Mulla Band would, in tragic irony, be followed by a slow and gradual displacement of the entire population of Gwadar port town. Because neither the fishermen, nor the people of Gwadar have been able to situate themselves in the country’s race for development, they lament.

“Undoubtedly, the real and genuine ownership of Gwadar lies with the fishermen who have lived here since time immemorial,” says KB Firaq, a Gwadar-based Baloch social activist.

After being removed from Mulla Band, the fishermen were relocated on the other side of the port town in a locality they named New Mulla Band.

“When they (the fishermen) were moved to New Mulla Band, there were, and still are, no facilities available to them — schools, electricity, water, jobs, or colleges. When you displace a population, you have to first provide them an alternative,” Firaq adds. To this day, a large segment of the population in New Mulla Band is jobless.

But the officials running the town’s government argue that the fishermen had been paid handsomely for their homes in Mulla Band. Furthermore, they were resettled in the port city. The fishermen had sold them their plots of land of their own free will and no one had forced them, they stress.

However, Firaq sheds light on the darker aspect of that deal. Most of the fishermen are illiterate and it was obvious that there was no point in resisting the government at the time they were being resettled in New Mulla Band, he says.

“Yes, they were paid, and some of them thought that they would live a good life with that money…but once they settled in New Mulla Band, their woes compounded.”

He explains that the fisher folk of Gwadar have their distinct culture and way of rationalising things. They prefer a leisurely life and tend to do things in a collective fashion. Once they left their homes in Mulla Band, many fishermen were reluctant to fish elsewhere.

“That is why they now live hand to mouth in the New Mulla Band area, where they were resettled a long ago,” Firaq says.

One of the most adverse fallouts of development in the area was the rise in illegal trawling of fish — a trend which has badly affected the local fishing business.

“It is true and unfortunate that local fishermen are left at the mercy of hundreds of national and international illegal trawlers operating in the waters of Gwadar. Even the fisheries department is complicit in this,” Firaq alleges.

There was an incident, a while back, from the Pasni tehsil of Gwadar, in which local fishermen had managed to catch two trawlers after engaging in a lengthy fight. Firaq recalls, “Yes. They were caught and handed over to the fisheries department by the local fishermen themselves. After that, the trawlers were set free…after being charged with minor offences.”

The fishermen share that sometimes they, too, are not allowed to take their boats out into the sea during official visits because of security issues. One of the fishermen recalls that he was fishing in the sea near the Ormara side when the Navy Force caught up with him and accused him of being a spy.

Because they are not yet officially recognised as labourers, the fisher folk are deprived of facilities such as social security, health, EOBI, etc. “I have 10 children. Most of them study in schools. To tell the truth, I cannot afford their expenses. I earn Rs1,000 a day when I go out to sea from dawn till dusk. With this amount, I am expected to run my family and buy petrol for my boat,” says Nakhuda Dad Karim Baloch angrily. “On the other hand, when anyone of us suffers from a disease, we have to sell our valuables to afford treatment.”

Dr Hafeez Jamali’s thesis titled, The Anxiety of Development: Megaproject and the Politics of Place in Gwadar, Pakistan, had led him to spend a lot of time with the fisher folk of Gwadar.

Speaking to Dawn, he says, “Deep-sea trawlers are supposed to fish in deep sea which is 12 miles away from the coast. But actually, what happens is that they consistently refuse to follow rules pertaining to fishing within the shore. In this way, they snatch the livelihood of local fishermen. Mostly, these are Karachi-based trawlers who, after encroaching on the Sindh coastline and destroying the fishery stock along the Sindh coastline, started doing same along Makran coastline since the 1990s.”

He cautions: “This is a direct threat to the livelihood of Gwadar’s fishermen…and thousands of families depending directly on fishing for livelihood along the Makran coast. Also, these trawlers are owned by influential, powerful people in Karachi.”

Jamali concludes, “As for the international trawlers, they present a different kind of threats because they are like small factories in the sea.” They are huge, and their capacity to catch, process fish is enormous.

“The Korean and Taiwanese trawlers are so massive that even if they did not approach the coastline, and fished outside the 12 mile zone, they pose a huge risk to our stock of fish.”

Dawn