Modi, a former member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says both BJP and Congress have failed to address the problems facing the fishing community from the region. Each diesel engine-powered boat costs between ₹40 lakh and ₹60 lakh. “Even if Pakistan releases the fishermen, who will compensate them for their boats?" added Modi, who said he left the BJP because he was disillusioned by the fact that none of the leaders addressed the concerns of his community.
M.A. Pandya, the district collector and administrative head of Porbandar district, declines to comment on the number of fishermen in the custody of Pakistani authorities, saying the central government continues to engage with the Pakistan government on this issue.
Fishermen from Porbandar, which is about 250 nautical miles from the Pakistan port of Karachi, often cross into international waters and are caught by the authorities of the neighbouring country. But it’s not always that the fishermen are unaware of the boundary line—environmental pollution, climate change, overfishing and greed are also the reasons why they fish in troubled waters and end up arrested by the Pakistan Navy.
Porbandar, a tiny town on the western tip of Gujarat, is best known as the birthplace of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or the Mahatma as he would later come to be known. In 1915, after he returned from South Africa, Gandhi took the famous train journey from his birthplace to Kolkata to rediscover the country he’d left years earlier. But at the port, memories of the Mahatma are of little help when livelihood is at stake.
Pollution along the coast has depleted schools of fish, and fishermen have to go deeper into the ocean for a good catch.
Overfishing, resulting from the increased number of boats, also forces some fishermen to risk their lives to take their diesel-powered boats deeper into the ocean than they should for a better catch. Finally, greed is another reason that has only increased the number of arrests of Indian fishermen. The Indus, coming from Pakistan, empties into the Arabian Sea, forming Sir Creek, an estuary rich in fish, and one of many contested boundaries between India and Pakistan. Fishermen often get caught along this 100-km marshland as most boats don’t have a GPS system or the men are not trained to use it.
Out on the high seas, the men find themselves in an obstacle course of jagged tackles and heavy stacks of 500-kg fishing nets as their boats seesaw in gale-force winds. Most fishermen are away for up to 16 days at a stretch with a limited supply of drinking water.
Upon their return, their catch is sold to some of the large fish processing firms, which makes payments to these fishermen only after 60 days or 90 days. This ‘work now, pay later’ system means most fishermen are forced to borrow and are easy prey for the local loan sharks.
“We need 2,000 to 2,500 litres of diesel for a two-week trip. All the costs for a fishing expedition, including food, wages and diesel, add up to ₹2 lakh or ₹2.25 lakh for a single trip," said Satish Patil, a fisherman who owns two boats. “Most trips barely cover the costs."
Machimar or the fishing community accounts for a sixth or 42,000 of the city’s 246,119 votes. This seems like a substantial vote bank but for politicians, it’s not large enough. The city of Porbandar, along with six land-locked municipalities that comprise Porbandar district, has a total of 16.6 million voters. The number of fisherfolk votes in the district total about 65,000. This is one reason why the concerns of fishermen are not on the agenda of either the BJP or Congress as the state prepares to vote on 23 April. How does the fishing community plan to address this issue?
“We have many options. One way is to decide as a block that we will not vote. We’ll see what happens. But this issue needs to be addressed immediately," says Modi. A fisherman’s life, even if you own a boat, is no longer a respectable profession, and for this reason, most members of this community do not want their children to get into fishing. The number of fishermen in the district is increasing but it’s because of immigrants from neighbouring districts and states rather than the local communities themselves teaching their children the skills and traditional knowledge of the sea .
I ask Modi if he’ll let his sons get into fishing.
“Not a chance," retorts Modi.
“I have two children. The older one is 17 and the younger one is 11 years old. Both are studying in private schools. With all these hardships we face as a community, none of us fishermen who can afford to offer a better life to our children will let them come into this business."
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