It’s lean time for Pravin Ramji Bamaniya, a 27-year-old fisherman from Saudiwada village in Diu. For the next three months, he won’t be catching any fish as “in the monsoon, the sea becomes unpredictable and the water level rises”. To make ends meet, he has borrowed Rs 50,000 from his employer. “The money is needed for my family’s survival. Once the fishing season returns, I will repay the amount,” he says, sitting in his freshly plastered five-bedroom home where he stays with his three brothers and their families.
To repay the loans taken from their employers, he and other fishermen like him grow bajra. Dependent on the rain, he regularly walks down to a tiny piece of land in his backyard to check if it has enough moisture for sowing the crop. Since it hasn’t rained yet, Bamaniya has little to do.
For the past 15 days, since the fishing season ended, he has been whiling away his time picking up twigs and dried leaves of date palms at the farm. He also grows coconut palm, the dried leaves of which he uses as charcoal.
Bamaniya’s slow and carefree days of farming are a stark contrast to his demanding, and often dreadful, days of fishing. Demanding, because of the pressure to catch enough fish for his employer, and the 20-odd days in a month spent at sea. Dreadful, because of the constant fear of accidentally treading into Pakistani waters, facing arrest and languishing in jail for years in a foreign land.
Last week, the Pakistan government released 150 Indian fishermen as a goodwill gesture ahead of prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India. Many of those released were from Diu.
The first time Bamaniya was arrested by the Pakistanis was when he was 14, and had just started his fishing career. “I began fishing when I was 12. My grandfather and father were fishermen. Since my father was a drunkard, I dropped out of school and learnt fishing from my brother-in-law. My mother, who wanted me to study, was upset and beat me up.” Two years later, Bamaniya was arrested. “I was with my brother-in-law in the sea after fishing for several hours. I fell asleep in the night on the boat and in the morning, I was woken up by a Pakistani security personnel for trespassing into their waters. From their shore, I was taken to the nearest police station and then lodged at Landhi jail in Karachi,” he recalls.
He spent two years and two months in jail. “They didn’t beat me up much since I was a kid. They would usually beat senior members. They made us work very hard and would feed us only rotis with dal and vegetables. I remember on Tuesdays, we used to get rice. They would give us biryani at times,” he says.
Bamaniya was arrested again when he was 19 for straying into Pakistani waters and spent a year in jail in Karachi.
However, for Bamaniya and the other fishermen, the thought of giving up the profession never crosses their minds, despite the routine arrests from here. Even the stints in Pakistani jails are laughed off.
Describing preparations for a fishing trip, Bamaniya says, six of them set sail in a group. “We start sailing at sunset and after three to four hours, throw in our nets. We keep moving into the Arabian Sea for another 12 to 15 hours. At this point, our GPS-equipped boats warn us that Pakistani waters are close. We keep an eye on Pakistani boats while fishing. When we see their boats sailing towards us, we start turn around into our territory. Sometimes, I think they chase us for fun too,” he says.
Before GPS was installed in boats four-five years ago, fishermen would count the number of hours to figure out the border. “If you spent 15 hours at sea, you were in danger. That was our benchmark,” he says.
Explaining why they went that far, Bamaniya says the water there is less polluted. “It also has more and better quality fish. The river Sindhu meets the sea at that point, and the water is sweet and salty.”
Bamaniya catches between 40 and 500 kg of fish, mostly the makul variety, in a week and earns Rs 12,000 a month. “Sometimes our boat gets full in a week, and we have to return to offload the fish and quickly go back to the sea again,” he says.
According to Bamaniya, most often, the fishermen stray into Pakistani waters while sleeping. On both occasions when Bamaniya was arrested, for example, he was asleep. “There is no clear division of Indian or Pakistani waters. The GPS does indicate routes and borders, but after sailing for 15 hours, we often drift towards Pakistan in the night.”
Bamaniya’s mother Kariben, 60, has seen three of her four sons getting caught in Pakistan. A member of the BJP, Kariben took her case to Delhi through a party MP. “I wait for a week or 10 days and if there is no news of my sons, I believe they have been caught,” she says. So the first thing Bamaniya does when he reaches the shore is call his mother.
“The division of water really bothers us,” he says. “It should be free for all like it is for fish.”