June 28, 2006

Poor Pakistani children head to sea for a living

By Waheed Khan

KHARO CHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - A year in an Indian jail
hasn't put 13-year-old Rasool Baksh off returning to Pakistan's
Arabian sea coast and going back to sea.

Baksh was arrested in 2004 for fishing in Indian
territorial waters near the disputed Sir Creek, between India's
Gujarat state and Pakistan's Sindh province.

Released last year as part of a hesitant peace process
between the nuclear-armed neighbors, life for Baksh has not

"It was hard in the Indian jail but fishing is our
business. It has been passed to us down the generations. We
can't do any other job so we take the risk," Baksh says.

He and his relatives stock up their wooden boat with food,
fuel and ice and set sail from their village in Thatta district
100 km (60 miles) east of the city of Karachi.

They hope for a good catch but all of them know they could
end up in jail.

Baksh, dressed in a worn-out shalwar kameez baggy tunic and
trousers, is a member of an estimated 50,000-strong force of
children working in the fishing industry along Pakistan's 1,125
km (700 miles) coastline.

"I can't read or write. From childhood I have only seen my
father, uncles and brothers catching fish. I like following
them," says Baksh, his teeth stained from chewing a betel nut
and tobacco concoction known as gutka.

Child labor is widespread in Pakistan. A government survey
in 1997 counted 3.3 million children working in different
industries. No survey has been done since.

For many fishing families, children are essential workers
in an industry that is being increasingly squeezed by foreign

Children go out to sea with their older relatives in small,
slow boats where they have to compete with big, deep-sea

The government has given permits to trawlers from South
Korea, Japan and China to fish off Pakistan, but not within 35
nautical miles of the coast.

But Mumtaz Mandhrio, an official at the Pakistan
fishermen's forum, says trawlers come well inside that limit
and devour fish stocks.


Amjad Baloch, 12, says he sometimes has to stay out at sea
for 40 days to ensure a good catch.

"I'm not scared of doing it," says Baloch, who lives in
Mubarak, a village near Karachi of 7,500 people with no power,
gas, or source of clean drinking water.

It has a primary school but no teacher.

One-room village houses are built out of mud and straw.

Despite the grim conditions, Baloch laughs and plays pranks
in a cool breeze on a beach where he sorts out nets in
preparation for his next voyage.

Dada Ibrahim, 14, dressed in a dirty blue shalwar kameez,
says he loves fishing as it brings him money, and that means

"If we don't go out and help our families we would starve,"
says Ibrahim, chewing gutka.

If he is lucky, Ibrahim says he can earn 1,000 to 1,300
rupees ($16 to $18) on a trip to sea that might last two weeks.

In Keti Bandar, one of Pakistan's oldest ports, brothers
Mohammad and Imran Ibrahim sort out a fresh catch. Aged 8 and
10, they are the third generation in a fishing family and say
they wouldn't do anything else.

"My father wasn't happy taking me out but I love the sea
and the breeze. I feel free," says Imran, his skinny frame clad
in rags.

Their father, Mohammad Yaqoob, says he sent Imran to school
for three years but the boy wasn't keen on studying.

The fishermen's forum says many fishermen can't afford to
send their children to school because they are locked in a
cycle of debt to boat owners.

Saifullah Chaudhary, an official with the U.N.
International Labour Organization, says the government is
trying to eliminate child labor and is focusing on the fishing

The ILO has started projects in fishing villages to teach
children to read and write, improve health and try and provide
alternative employment.

But Chaudhary says it will take time before children stop
heading out to sea for a living.