On a sultry March afternoon, a couple of hours before her baby shower ceremony, Monica Bamania (20) walks for a kilometre to reach Demu Vijay’s home on this tiny island of Diu in the Arabian Sea. As she joins 25 other women from the neighbourhood, Demu starts reading aloud a letter sent by her husband from a jail in Pakistan.
“I am fine here. Do not worry about me and eat properly,” writes Demu’s husband Vijay, raising hope among the women about their husband, son or father arrested by Pakistani authorities for allegedly crossing the maritime boundary while fishing in the Gulf of Kutch.
But much to the disappointment of Monica, the letter has no mention of her husband Suresh. She has not heard from him since February 20 when he left from Okha port for fishing on a boat registered in Gujarat. Days later, local authorities informed her about his arrest off the Jakhau coast in Kutch by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency.
“Will Suresh return before the delivery of our first baby, which is due around May 26?” wonders Monica. A year into married life, the seven-month pregnant woman is unsure about her and ageing in-laws’ future with the lone breadwinner of the family in jail.
Monica’s story is just one of many such tales at Saudiwadi village in the Union Territory of Diu, adjoining Gujarat, where the economy runs on fishing and some tourism. And Saudiwadi is a microcosm of this coastal belt which sustains the lives of three lakh fishermen in Gujarat and Diu. Theirs is a three-decade-old plight, which has gone from bad to worse. Faced with depleting fish stocks, fishermen looking for a better catch often drift to the Sindhu river delta that forms the maritime border between India and Pakistan.
“Adjoining villages in Gujarat like Tad and Kotda have similar stories. Villages have been pushed to poverty with frequent arrest of fishermen,” says Velji Masani, the secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum.
Forty-five-year-old Ramji Harji says he spent two years in jail after he was arrested twice between 2000 and 2010. Last month, his son Ilyesh was also arrested.
No one knows the plight of such people better than 50-year-old Kunkadi Ramji who became a daily wager after her husband was arrested for the first time in 1990. Since then, her three sons and son-in-law, all have been to jails in Pakistan.
She recalls that in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi promised to stop the practice of arresting fishermen if became the Prime Minister. “Now that he is the PM, Modi should fulfil his promise.”
Pakistan Supreme Court’s retired justice Naseer Aslam Zahid, a member of the India-Pakistan Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners, says, “They are fishermen and not criminals. Both countries should do a fast-track identification of prisoners and release them soon.”
The panel, formed in 2008, however, has not met for more than two years. Under a United Nation convention, countries should release arrested fishermen within six months.
“But their release always depends on the fluctuating relationship between the two neighbours. There seems to be no change in their stand even if a jailed fisherman dies of illness,” says rights activist Jatin Desai. According to Gujarat Fisheries commissioner MA Narmawal, since 2009, they have been paying daily aid of `150 each to the families of arrested fishermen.