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Story Publication logo February 19, 2024

The Fishermen in Arabian Sea Ensnared by India-Pakistan Rivalry: ‘Our Families Suffer the Most’


This project aims to put a spotlight on the plight of hundreds of poor fishermen who are presently...

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  • Every year, poor fishermen in coastal India and Pakistan are arrested for venturing into the other nation’s maritime boundary lines while looking for better catch
  • Many languish in jail long after their sentences end, leaving their families destitute and despondent amid the lack of political will by the rival nations to address the issue

For seven years, Indian fisherman Ravibhai Babubhai Bariya, 30, made his living taking his trawler out into the Arabian Sea and selling his catch in his village in western Gujarat state.

His work brought in an average income of 18,000 Indian rupees (US$220) per month, which his parents relied upon completely.

But one fateful day in 2018, he and his crew of seven were apprehended by Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency for allegedly engaging in illegal fishing within the country’s waters, and then jailed – an incident so shocking, his ailing father took a turn for the worse and later died of a heart attack.

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“Ravi was our sole breadwinner,” said Bhanuben, Bariya’s 65-year-old mother. “After his arrest, managing day-to-day expenses and paying for his father’s treatment became very challenging. Each visit to the hospital would cost us 2,000 Indian rupees (US$24), making it financially difficult for us.”

Fisherman Ravibhai Babubhai Bariya, from India’s Gujarat state, shows a photo of him in Karachi jail on the day he was arrested. Image by Kanika Gupta.

Every year, fishermen from India and Pakistan venture into the other nation’s maritime boundary lines and end up getting arrested. As they serve out their prison sentences, their relatives are left grappling with economic hardship.

Official records from both countries indicated that as of January 1, there were 184 Indian fishermen in Pakistani custody, while around 81 Pakistani fishermen were held in Indian jails. Like Bariya, many of the Indian fishermen incarcerated in Pakistan come from Gujarat, which boasts India’s longest coastline at 1,600km.

Various reasons prompt fishermen from both countries to enter their neighbour’s waters. The depletion of fish stocks within the Indian portion of the International Maritime Boundary is a major driver, alongside a variety of seasonal considerations.

However, when asked why there are more Indian fishermen in Pakistan than Pakistani fishermen in India, Veljibhai Masani, president of Akhil Bhartiya Fishermen Association, explained that changes in ocean conditions caused by global warming had affected fish migration patterns and their quantities around Gujarat.

“The seawater from Kutch to Sindh is favourable for [Indian] fishermen because it is deep, and there are fewer big ships in that region. Due to this, the area has a lot of fish. Fishermen go there for better catches, sometimes getting too close to the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL),” he said.

Masani, who has dedicated many years to facilitating the release of Indian fishermen detained in Pakistan, said a humanitarian approach was needed to deal with fishermen from both sides, who were mostly poor and illiterate.

Fishing trawlers docked at Diu port in India. Image by Kanika Gupta.

On top of the stress and productive years lost from being incarcerated, the fishermen were also losing their investments on their boats. According to India’s fisheries department in Veraval district of Gujarat, Pakistan currently holds more than 1,169 boats, each of which is estimated to cost at least 6 million Indian rupees (US$72,000).

“At the time of the arrest, they not only capture the fishermen but also seize their boat and the catch. However, upon release, only the fishermen are set free,” said Nayan Makwana, assistant superintendent of fisheries and deputy director of the fisheries office in Veraval.

“We have repeatedly pressured the Pakistani government to release the boats as well, because losing their boats means losing a source of livelihood,” he added.

According to Makwana, Pakistan returned 57 boats as a goodwill gesture five years ago, but there had been no such release since then.

"What is the point in arresting a poor fisherman? You shouldn’t play with the lives of poor fishermen and their families."

—Jatin Desai, activist in Mumbai

Jatin Desai, a journalist and activist from Mumbai who campaigns for the release of fishermen on both sides, said Pakistan’s uncommon release of Indian boats in 2019 could be attributed to political climate at the time.

After winning his second term, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited regional leaders to New Delhi, including Pakistan’s then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Modi repaid the gesture with a historic trip to Pakistan the following year, making him the first Indian leader to visit the rival nation in decades, spawning hope of a thaw in ties. Several positive gestures came out of that visit, including the release of fishermen from both countries, as well as of Indian fishing boats.

Desai said it was important for both governments not to view this issue through a political lens, and urged for the adoption of a “no-arrest policy”.

“What is the point in arresting a poor fisherman? If we see a [Pakistani] boat, why don’t we send them back? Why don’t we seize their catch or release it in the sea?” Desai questioned. “More than 1,000 Indian boats are confiscated in Pakistan. Imagine the financial loss. You shouldn’t play with the lives of poor fishermen and their families.”

Desai blamed the communications embargo between the countries for further complicating the matter. The move was enacted around when the pandemic ended, as diplomatic ties between the rival neighbours again soured, resulting in a lack of political will to free the fishermen.

Both countries prohibit any form of engagement between the arrested people and their families. Therefore, they only receive news about their loved ones when there is an update on their release – or in the worst-case scenario – their demise.

The latter tragically befell Maniben Bhupatbhai Vala, whose husband died just weeks before his scheduled release with a group of fishermen set to be repatriated back to India in time for the Diwali festival.

“We had no communication with him during his time in Pakistan. His last letter came to us with prisoners who were released from there,” Vala said. “In that letter, he assured us he was well and would be home soon. But only his body arrived. They said he died of a heart attack. We knew nothing about his medical condition.”

After her husband’s death, Vala said she sought help from her relatives and neighbours in Gujarat’s Dudana village to sustain herself and her family. But the aid and handouts are barely enough to make ends meet, let alone allow her to make repayments for the debts she incurred when her husband was behind bars.

“While my husband was in prison, we received 300 Indian rupees per day from the government. But a monthly income of 8,500 rupees is not enough to survive these days. So we borrowed a lot of money that I promised to pay back once my husband came home,” Vala said. “But with his passing, we don’t know what to do. My daughter also quit her studies after the 10th grade due to financial problems. It is very difficult to manage things without him.”

Over in Pakistan, the relatives of jailed fishermen also suffered, Desai said. For example, their children often had to stop attending school. If a family had a son and a daughter, they might choose to only educate the boy. This traps girls into a cycle of poverty they have few options to break out of.

According to Pakistan’s Foreigners Act, the sentence for illegal fishing should not be more than six months, Desai said. However, authorities can take a long time to verify the identities of fishermen before they are released – and even after a fisherman’s nationality is established and he has completed his sentence, it does not always mean he will be let go.

“Many of the Indian fishermen currently in prison in Karachi have already been verified and served their sentences. Out of the total 186, around 154 individuals have no valid reason to be kept in jail,” Desai said. “Additionally, there are 100 people who were supposed to be released, but for unknown reasons, they were not. All the necessary procedures for their release were completed. So, why are they still in jail?”

Anil, 46, returned home on Diwali last year after spending seven years jailed in Pakistan. He said he had spent many a sleepless night in a dingy cell thinking about his family, yearning to be home.

“Our families suffer the most in our absence. There is no one to raise a voice for our cause,” he said. “A rich man’s son will have a dozen people rallying for him. Whom do we have?”


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