No IPL angst for this dolphin

Beena Sarwar

Out on a fishing boat under a clear blue early morning sky to go dolphin watching, the violence, squabbles and tensions that mark daily life fade into irrelevance - including the recent tensions arising from the Indian Premier League's refusal to bid for Pakistani cricketers.

We cruise the sparkling azure waters of the Arabian Sea parallel to the lengthy sand spit (called Sandspit) along the Karachi coast. About five kilometres out to sea, we can clearly see the recreational 'huts' that dot Sandspit beach. As we pass another fishing boat, the crews exchange greetings - just as highway truckers and bus drivers do.

An hour later, our first sight of dolphins in the wild is pure magic. They rise out of the water, their fluid movements making them at one with the ocean. True harmony. The magic continues as they dance around our boat, emerging sometimes on one side and sometimes on another, keeping their distance for the most part but turning up occasionally just five metres away. A baby dolphin cavorts with its mother. Bettina, an anthropologist from Kenya who teaches at UC Davis, notices a dolphin with a white spot on its fin.

Five species of these intelligent, playful mammals have been identified off the Karachi coast - all called 'malhar' by the local fishermen (I wonder if their Indian counterparts have a similar word).

"How do you know where the dolphins will be?" we ask Babar Hussain, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) official with us.
"We monitor and survey them every day," he explains. "We identify at which spot they are likely to appear, and at what time. They come to feed for this one hour. Now they will migrate, and you will not see them until evening."

Our crew, local fishermen, take us to a fishing spot further out from where Sandspit is just a brown line on the horizon. They show us the small buoys they use, bobbing on the water, to mark the spot where they left their nets the previous night. One fisherman grabs a slippery silver fish, limp from struggling in the net, and flings it into a corner. That's dinner, they say, grinning.

The WWF has embarked on this tourist project that allows the local community extra income. The tour must be booked a week or ten days ahead. Once the boat is out on one of its extended fishing trips - they are sometimes out for up to two weeks on sea - it can't be brought back for a three-four hour dolphin-watching tour.

Fishermen going on these extended fishing trips risk not returning. The danger is less from storms, more from the Indian maritime security forces - a risk that Indian fishermen face from Pakistan's maritime security forces.

Going crabbing in Karachi harbour (not that there are crabs anymore to catch, cook and eat on the boat as we used to do), a mass of confiscated Indian fishing boats lie rotting on one side. Lakhs of rupees worth of engines, equipment, nets, and catch unaccounted for, quietly sold. It's probably the same story on the Indian side of the border.

Each boat confiscated represents a crew of a dozen or so men and boys, some barely into their teens. They left their families to go and earn this precarious living, ending up being treated "literally like prisoners of war" as Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum puts it. They are locked up sometimes for years, with no consular or legal access. Occasionally, a fisherman dies in 'enemy' custody.

I am not particularly bothered about whether the IPL bids for Pakistani cricketers or not (they make enough money as it is). What concerns me is what the rejection says about the mentality involved - the need to put each other down, puerile tit for tat actions (you don't take our cricketers, we won't send our kabaddi team), and the continuous assertion of  "we are better than you". Until that changes, arrested fishermen and visa violators - and all their family members - will continue to suffer.

Meanwhile, at least the malhar roam free and majestic, oblivious of man-made borders and man-made tensions.

The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker www.beenasarwar.wordpress.com

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2010