“The contractor even determines who our daughters will get married to!” said Zainab bibi. “That is how much we are in bondage to these contractors. Are we not human? Do our children not have dreams of education? Don’t we have hopes for them? Are only the rich and powerful allowed to dream?” I met Zainab bibi, a co-president of the Sindhu Bachao Tarla (SBT – Save the Indus River Movement) on the shores of the Indus River, just across from the town of Kot Addu in Muzzafargarh district (county), of Pakistan’s Punjab province. She and her neighbors who live in the Taunsa Barrage area – the Taunsa Barrage is one of a series of barrages across the Indus that has impacted the lives and livelihoods of thousands of small fishers and farmers in southern Punjab and the province of Sindh – are riverine fishers. They are also indigenous people, numbering some 40,000, who call themselves Kihals (or Mors). For centuries they’ve lived on the banks of the Indus – their lifeline – fishing from its bountiful waters and eking out a living. The series of dams, barrages, and canals built on the river including proposed new ones like the Kalabagh Dam have displaced them, in some cases repeatedly; and disrupted the local ecology. Zainab and her fellow villagers were forced out when the Taunsa Barrage was built, and are landless. They live on their boats – entire families with children. “We don’t even have national identity cards” Fatima bibi, also co-president of SBT lamented. “Are we not Pakistani? Why don’t we get ration (public distribution system) cards? Don’t we have the same rights as others in our country?” Working with others like them – small fishers, peasant farmers, and pastoralists dependent on the river and the lands bordering it – they formed the SBT to organize and advocate for their rights. SBT works closely with the Parah Development Foundation (a Grassroots International grantee) that provides research and advocacy support to small farmers, fishers, pastoralists and other communities dependent on a natural resource base for their livelihoods. The local communities have organized themselves within movements like SBT, the Rakh Bachao Committee (Save the Rakh i.e. Commons Committee), and the Damaan Bachao Tarla (Save the Damaan i.e. floodplains region of the Indus system Movement). Common land (which is also often State owned or controlled), has been frequently allotted to non-local communities, including retired military members. “We want land,” said Zainab bibi, “so we can build a more permanent dwelling and not live precariously on our boats, and grow our own vegetables and fruits. And the government has more than enough land.” SBT members have also been working with Parah to revive some of their traditional crafts, using produce from the riverine forests such as reeds to weave into baskets, and access to this produce has gotten more difficult over time. Muhammad Ismail, another member of the SBT spoke up. “One of our main campaigns is to end contract fishing in Punjab,” he said, “like they have been able to in Sindh.” In Sindh, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and others led a campaign and won a victory ending contract fishing, whereby the government stopped giving contracts to middlemen who for a long time controlled the artisanal fishing industry, reducing traditional fishers to wage (and almost bonded) labor. The struggle to end this in Punjab still continues, with contractors dominating the economic, political, and even social life of communities like the Kihals. “We are not afraid any longer,” said Zainab bibi in parting. “The SBT is very important for us. It has given us strength and we are making our voices heard.” She proudly showed me her membership card highlighting the fact that while she might not have a national identity card yet, she had this! In fact, one of the first campaigns SBT launched after demanding rehabilitation and compensation was to get national identity and ration cards. SBT members have advocated in Lahore (the provincial capital) and Islamabad (the national capital), and protested the World Bank and other multilateral financial institution-supported power and irrigation schemes that don’t take into account the rights and livelihoods of small fishers and farmers along the Indus.
Photo above courtesy of the Parah Development Foundation