Carefree under the sheltering sky
people are the victims of quarrels over exhausted resources that are
resulting in a more aggressive assertion of national, religious and
ethnic identities, writes Jeremy Seabrook
Oceans have always played an ambiguous role in the life of maritime
states. They mark the farthest boundaries of a country, but are also the
gateway to the world - starting point for journeys of discovery, trade
and connection with distant places. They can equally be a threat - a
route for invaders and colonizers.
People who live in coastal areas are marginal people. Occupying the
extreme limits of the landmass, their eyes have always been turned
seawards since a large proportion have made their livelihood from the
sea, as fishing-people, sailors, harvesters of what is washed up on the
shore, including, sometimes, the wreckage of vessels laden with
Fisherfolk traditionally regard themselves as people of the sea.
It is estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations that the number of people worldwide dependent on fishing
or fishing-related occupations is over 200 million. Fish has
traditionally been a major source of protein for the poor. But
over-fishing, industrialized trawling and growth in demand have raised
the price of fish so that now it is increasingly beyond the reach of
those for whom it was once a vital source of nourishment.
Fishing communities defy boundaries that countries have sought to
extend from their lands into the oceans of the world. Fish, like birds,
are indifferent to territorial (or marine or aerial) limits; and fishing
people have regarded themselves as similarly free from such constraints.
Their sphere of activity has encompassed the wide and open sea; they
have culled the produce of the waters for centuries, if not millennia,
and no one has interfered with their ability to roam wherever their
fragile boats, currents and prevailing winds have taken them in search
of a livelihood.
Mobile and fluid as the element with which the fishing people work,
these liberties are now being curtailed. And they, always in the
precarious spaces between earth and water, now find themselves marginal
in quite different ways.
The first factor in this change is pressure on resources. The
increase in mechanized fishing, the presence in fishing grounds of craft
that can stay at sea for weeks at a time, with refrigeration plants on
board and small-mesh nets that drag the seabed, have depleted fish
The small fry - tomorrow's fish - are also caught in the relentless
nets of big boats, and, unfit for consumption, go to make fertilizer or
feedstock for fish-farms.
These transform fishing from an activity that respects the natural
resource-base into an extractive industry, creating 'marine products'.
Secondly, its profitability has intensified the rate of fishing,
which further diminishes the capacity of the oceans to replenish
themselves naturally. There has been a systematic impoverishment of
traditional fishing communities, those who operated within a day or
night's journey from the shore.
Many formerly self-reliant fishworkers now serve as labourers on the
boats of others, or have left the coast to find refuge in the expanding
and inhospitable slum communities of the cities of the interior.
The second factor - one detailed with passion and clarity in
'Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia', a
new book by Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma - is the attempt by
nation-states, particularly in south Asia, to enforce their jurisdiction
over the seas that surround them.
Perhaps because they feel the limits of their land to be uncertain -
these were, after all, arbitrary lines drawn on the map of the
subcontinent by former overlords - they feel they will gain stability by
extending their control onto the waters.
As a consequence, fishing-people are now at the mercy of the policing
of seas over which they had sailed unhindered for generations. Those who
have disregarded claims that the seas are extensions of territory, now
find themselves, contrary to the provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on
the Law of the Sea, arrested, imprisoned and mistreated by coast-guards,
border security forces and maritime enforcers of their neighbours.
The book contains scores of case-histories, including the memorable
story of a man from Karnataka who spent 21 years in a Pakistani jail
after being arrested for fishing in the troubled waters near the
disputed Sir Creek channel.
Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - all regularly capture
people who have been merely pursuing an ancestral calling. Fishing
people have been injured, killed or left to languish for years in
foreign jails. Their families, destitute and without news of their loved
ones, depend upon charity, loans and such work as women and children can
find in impoverished coastal areas.
Fishermen are turned into criminals by the enforcement of boundaries
and limits they have never before been compelled to recognize. Not only
They are used as what have been called 'prisoners of war' since
whenever tension rises between two countries - notably between India and
Pakistan - the number of captured fishing people increases. And when
there is a relaxation in relations between them, exchange of captives
regularly takes place.
They are victims of a low-intensity conflict which exacerbates
divisions between nations and nationalisms so all-encompassing that they
seek to embrace the trackless oceans as well as the increasingly
fortified borders that demarcate their territory.
Both Sri Lanka - with its fear of terrorists emanating from Tamil
Nadu - and Bangladesh, where every year the shifting coastline swallows
up whole islands and spews out new strips of land from the sea - have
apparently good reasons to halt the temporary short-term migrations of
fishermen between their increasingly fortified territories.
Fisherfolk traditionally regarded themselves not as nationals of this
or that country, but as people of the sea; and this allowed them to
co-exist with their fellow-workers from other countries, without dispute
over what the sea yields. Sometimes groups worked side by side, catching
different fish from the same site.
Fishing people, with their easy mobility and ability to share the
spaces between national entities, might have offered lessons in
flexibility and survival. Instead, they are made to appear in the media
as a symptom of the malaise of the contemporary world - as trespassers
and encroachers, possessed of a restless, migratory spirit that scorns
official demarcations and limits.
It is a profound irony that Gupta's and Sharma's conclusions are that
the governments of south Asia should formally recognize the fluidity and
interdependence of coastal communities across boundaries.
It is ironic because this would represent a restoration of what
fishing people have always known - that attempts to confine the
boundless sea are a delusion.