The process of arrest, release and repatriation goes non-stop in case of Indian and Pakistani fishermen. As of now, 392 Indian fishermen or believed to be Indian are in the Malir prison, Karachi. Similarly, 94 Pakistani fishermen or believed to be Pakistani are in Indian jails.
The point ‘believed to be’ Indian or Pakistani is important. Both the countries do not accept arrested fishermen or civilian prisoners as their citizens till their nationality is confirmed even though they carry various documents when they sail into the sea to catch fish. The procedure to confirm arrested persons’ nationality is made too complex. It takes months and sometimes years. At times, the nationality is not confirmed even after completion of sentences. In the absence of nationality, confirming the concerned fishermen or civilian fishermen cannot be released and repatriated to his/her country.
For a long time, I have been of the opinion that there should be a time limit in confirming the nationality of arrested people. With all kind of modern technological instruments, it can be confirmed in a couple of days. But, still we can give reasonable time of three months after consular access is provided. The Agreement on Consular Access signed between the two countries in 2008 says, if someone is arrested by the other country, then consular access must be given within three months of the arrest. The experience shows that it is not always followed by both the countries.
The ground reality is Indian fishermen have no option but to go more and more towards Pakistan’s waters to sustain. This is the compulsion as they do not find enough fish on the Gujarat coast primarily because of massive industrialisation and subsequent discharge of waste into the sea without any treatment. The compulsion of livelihood and survival forces fishermen from Saurashtra region of Gujarat and Diu, a Union Territory, to venture into the mid-sea with knowledge of a possible arrest.
The issue of fishermen arrest is more human than legal. It needs to be seen from that perspective. The fishing community is catching fish in the mid-sea for hundreds of years. They used to greet each other in the sea and occasionally exchange some items between them. The scenario was changed in the early 80s with the business of arrest and confiscation of fishing boats.
The statistics show that Pakistan’s MSA has confiscated more than 1,000 boats of Indian fishermen. For the first time, Pakistan released 57 Indian boats in March 2015 and agreed to release 22 more boats. But, these boats have not been released. They should release these 22 boats and also other boats which can sail the sea. The figure will not be beyond 150 with some repairs. Similarly, India should also release all Pakistani boats which can sail sea with some repair. It will be seen as a confidence-building measure. The fishing industry in Gujarat and Sindh is facing a serious crisis because of the arrest and confiscation.
It is not only the arrested fishermen that suffer, but their entire family faces hardships. The family gets disturbed. Their kids suffer psychologically. The entire issue needs to be seen from the humanitarian angle and a sustainable solution needs to be evolved. There cannot be a better option than adopting ‘No Arrest Policy.’ The fishing community of both the countries are for this policy and also for the ‘Free Fishing Zone’ for the traditional fishing community. The point is Indian and Pakistani government must agree to it.