May 1, 2009

Victims of 'development'

The fishermen of Gwadar are at the receiving end of the policies of both the government and the Baloch nationalists
By Yousuf Aziz
Balochistan is facing a fresh wave of street protests and armed resistance in the wake of the recent kidnapping and murder of three Baloch nationalist leaders. In the din and clamour of the ongoing conflict between the Baloch nationalists and the Pakistani state, it is easy to forget the plight of poorer segments of the Baloch society, who are weary of both the Pakistani state and the traditional elites of their areas.
The extraordinary violence tends to dwarf and hide from public view the everyday struggles for land and livelihood that characterise the fate of the majority of Balochs today. The struggle for the form of Baloch identity, nationhood and sovereignty overshadows its contents; namely, the many small struggles for livelihood, right to land and provision of civic amenities. The movement of the fishermen of Gwadar against dispossession from their ancestral lands and fishing waters is a case
in point.
The fishermen of Gwadar and nearby coastal communities hail from med (fishermen) and wado (boat-makers) kinship groups, and occupy a lower status position in the local social hierarchy. Some of them are of mixed African-Baloch descent whose ancestors were brought to Gwadar as part of the Indian Ocean slave trade and did not have any formal title to the land that belonged to the more powerful kahodas (local
'big men').
Historically, there were three distinct classes or status groups in the Mekran region: 1) the minority ruling elites from Gichki and Kalmati tribes called hakum; 2) the large menial labouring class derogatively called hizmatgars (servants, slave-born or slaves); and 3) a broad layer of society comprising nomads and independent agriculturists that stood mid-way between the elite and the subaltern classes called Balochs.
However, as a result of socioeconomic changes and a nationalist awakening since the 1960s, in which the working class and Balochs of African descent actively participated, older tribal identities and status divisions were abandoned in favour of a common Baloch identity. This also resulted in the elevation of the status of fishermen and hizmatgars as social and political equals in the local society. However, material inequalities and vestiges of social prejudice towards them, especially from upper class Balochs, remain to this day.
Before Gwadar's development as a port city, the land near the sea was a sandy waste of no value for anyone but the fishermen. Because the fishermen had been living there for centuries and had moral claims to livelihood, it would have been inconceivable for the kahodas to push them out despite possessing formal title to the land. This, however, changed with the initiation of the permanent settlement, execution of the master plan and construction of the Gwadar deep seaport, because the Pakistani government's vision and notion of trusteeship, and of rights and benefits of fishermen, was different from the local one.
The land near the beach where fishermen lived as well as the traditional fishing grounds were taken over by the state for the purposes of the port's construction. Moreover, the waters around the port were declared as a commercial and security zone. Nako Khuda Baksh, a retired boat captain, gets agitated and his eyes become misty when he recalls the brutal manner in which they were beaten by personnel of the Marine Security Agency (MSA).
"When the construction of the Gwadar port started in 2003, we launched a protest movement against it, because this venture limited our access to the fishing waters. But our people were beaten and humiliated by personnel of the MSA. Later, when we were having a meeting with the district nazim and Gwadar port officials on this issue, our people were fired at by personnel of the MSA, resulting in injuries to three of them. When we returned from the meeting, our people said what was the point in holding talks when they were being fired at. On the other hand, police and intelligence agencies dubbed us as traitors who wanted the Gwadar port project to fail," he informs.
The prospect of making big money through sale of land to outsiders on behalf of the wealthy locals (such as mirs, kahodas and motabars) appears to have overridden the traditional concern of respecting the moral claims of tenants, squatters and fishermen. As if this was not enough, other places along the beach, where the fishermen and their families could have moved to for continuing fishing activities, were also converted into commercial and industrial real estate.
Instead, the government has been trying to resettle the people living close to the Gwadar port to another fishing village, which is about 25 km away from the centre of the city where they currently live. The Gwadar Development Authority (GDA) is building a fishermen's colony and a fishing jetty there, and officials believe that the fishermen will be better off living there. However, Khudadad Waju, a leader of the Med Ittehad (Fishermen's Alliance), disagrees, and rejects official claims of adequate compensation and resettlement of fishermen.
He says fishermen need to be close to the sea to plan their fishing activities accordingly. "If you travel along the Mekran coastal highway, you will see that fishermen build their huts right on the beach in a horizontal arrangement, rather than the circular or rectangular arrangement common in the plains. If a fisherman sets out with his net and other implements and finds out that the sea is rough, his entire trip is wasted. If he is close to the sea, he can find out immediately whether or not to set out for fishing," Waju explains.
Unfortunately, the focus of the GDA, the official agency responsible for urban planning, has been exclusively on the development of new areas on the periphery of the existing localities. In short, the government has neglected the needs of the existing inhabitants of Gwadar. This makes the city a contradiction of sorts: on the one hand, there is the majority of people, mostly local Balochs, whose streets and neighbourhoods lack proper sanitation, safe drinking water and other civic amenities; while, on the other hand, there are dual carriage roads, shopping malls and bungalows at the edge of the city awaiting the future denizens of Gwadar.
The fishermen believe that the government is neglecting their needs on purpose to force them to abandon their ancestral lands and relocate to the periphery of the city near Surbandar. Surprisingly, despite lofty claims, Baloch nationalist parties have devoted little time and attention to the concerns of the fishermen. The nationalist opposition to Gwadar revolves mainly around the fear of the future influx of non-Baloch migrants; land encroachments, misbehaviour by security forces and the looming threat of dispossession facing the fishermen rarely finds mention in their speeches.
It is high time that the federal and provincial government takes notice of the plight of the fishermen of Gwadar, and plans development activities in the city around their needs and not at their cost. As concerns Baloch nationalist parties, they should also take up the cause of the fishermen of Gwadar as an explicit part of their political agenda, rather than trying to feed them on a diet of nationalist rhetoric alone.

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