Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
It was late September 2018 when I along with some friends travelled from Lahore to Taunsa Barrage to attend the Sindh Saghar Sath (Indus People’s Tribunal) organised by Sindhu Bachao Tarla (Save Indus Plea), which is a small organisation of local fisherfolk. Sath, as defined by renowned Seraiki intellectual and famous linguist Ahsan Wahga, is a tradition in the Seraiki wasaib (territory, area). It is a form of resistance against injustice, a process of bringing the toilers together and therefore a strength and a weapon in itself.
Upon our arrival in Taunsa Barrage on the night before the Sath, we found out that a planning meeting of the fisherfolk was going on. The meeting was primarily held to discuss the aftermath of the stay order issued by the Lahore High Court against auctioning of the lease for public water in Punjab. There persists an inherently exploitative system of leasing water, which as a result deprives indigenous communities of their traditional right to fish in public water. In the lease system the right to fish in the water is sold to the highest bidder without caring about the adivasi (ancient indigenous) communities whose survival is contingent upon the fishing rights to the river water being sold to contractors.
Ashu Laal, a widely revered Seraiki poet, in his ode to the Indus says:
O River, deep is your water, we are the children and you, our guardian.
From all aspects it is true that the river is a guardian. These indigenous people who literally worship it do have the knowledge and historically accumulated experience how to protect it as well as its creatures, but it is a great tragedy that the river has been snatched from the people it once belonged to.
In the ongoing meeting that night, the fisherfolk were sharing their experiences of having been able to fish freely since the time the Lahore High Court had issued the stay order and thus hampered the process of auctioning in the crucial months of August and September. Members of the Sindhu Bachao Tarla would narrate some events in which they went into direct confrontation with the people hired by contractors when they discovered that the fishermen were catching fish freely. This aroused a sense of insecurity in the local contractors that they had lost their influence and monopoly. In order to reassert their power over the poor fisherfolk, the contractor’s men started threatening them with dire consequences.
The local contractors have power over these fisherfolk because once the water is leased out to these rich and powerful men, the fisherfolk are left with no option except labouring for them. Such is the system of leasing that it traps the fishermen in debt slavery. According to the founder of Sindhu Bachao Tarla, Khadim Hussain, there are around 600,000 fisherfolk in Punjab and about 80 percent of them are trapped in debt bondage.
Fazal Lund, another member of Sindhu Bachao Tarla was also present in that meeting, noting that in the Taunsa Barrage area, most of the fisherfolk are in debt bondage. Many of them are those who migrated from Sindh to the Seraiki wasaib. He further said that the policy makers don’t think of marginalised people such as fisherfolk when devising policies. The reason these people from Sindh have come to the Seraiki wasaib is that the water is dammed upstream and not reaching the lower riparian areas and these people travel with the water wherever it can be found.
Quoting Ashu Laal once again:
The charming Indus, you are the beloved, and the master
We are the Faqirs, living along you, the charming Indus.
These lines stand true so far as the case of the Sindhi fisherfolk inhabiting the Taunsa Barrage area is concerned because they will starve, die or fall into the debt slavery of the contractors but nonetheless they cannot be separated from the river’s water, their sustenance and life giver.
The next morning, around 11:00 am, the Sindh Saghar Sath started with Pathanay Khan’s Kaafi of Khwaja Ghulam Farid: “Meda deen vi toon, meda ishq vi toon” (You are my faith, my love).
Large numbers of fisherfolk from far flung areas of Punjab, journalists and local political activists were present at the venue and formed a large circle, as is the tradition of Sath. Khadim Hussain, the founder of Sindhu Bachao Tarla, introduces their organisation. He tells the audience about its journey, the campaigns it has led, and paid homage to Zafar Lund who helped the adivasis to form their own organisation, Sindhu Bachao Tarla (Zafar Lund was a Kot Adu-based environmental activist and was assassinated by religious extremists in 2016).
Syed Ghazanfar, the lawyer representing the petitioners in the Lahore High Court explained the legal aspects to the fisherfolk. He told them that keeping someone in bonded labour is a serious crime in Pakistani law. He added that given the situation of the fisherfolk in the Taunsa Barrage area who were in debt bondage, this serious crime had been committed by the contractors.
The fisherfolk are facing a crisis of survival, the consequence of imposing a system that is strange to these traditional communities. They cannot conform to the system that is fundamentally against their right to livelihood and impedes their progress towards a better life. It is a great humanitarian crisis that more than 500,000 fishermen in Punjab are in debt bondage while the ruling elite does not give two hoots for these poor people living in the periphery.
Muhammad Ali Shah, the leader of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, delineated the problems that the Sindhi fisherfolk communities endure. The Indus is a living river and hundreds of thousands of people’s lives are associated with it, said Shah. He added that around two million people have been affected over the years because the river water doesn’t reach them. Three districts comprising 3.5 million acres of Sindh’s agricultural land have been eroded by intruding sea water. The only reason for this is that the river water is dammed in huge reservoirs built upstream. In his concluding remarks, Shah warned the audience that River Indus will die soon if the river engineering continues unabated.
These experiences tell us that it is extremely necessary to take into account the knowledge of the people who actually grew up depending on the river water and whose survival is conditional to it, while developing a discourse vis-a-vis the rivers and the natives’ lives because at the end of the day it is the indigenous people who have to bear the brunt of deprivation of water if the imposition of an exploitative lease system of public water or building mega structures continues. It has been decades since these poor indigenous communities have been suffering these losses while none from the power brokers batted an eyelid.