The Lahore High Court on Wednesday asked the Fisheries & Labour Departments to show what measures they were taking to protect Punjab’s fisher folk from debt bondage.The court was hearing an application from the Fisheries Department asking for the vacation of the stay granted against the auction of leases on Punjab’s public waters. The challenge has been rejected pending a further hearing on October 24, 2018. Main case proceedings will begin on November 29.Asking for a vacation of the stay, the assistant advocate general argued that that the stay was against the rules of the Fisheries Department and the interests of the government. He also argued that it would result in a loss of Rs 100 million in revenue. The government lawyer argued that the existing rules of the Fisheries Department provide a complete mechanism for fishing communities. He said that the existing department rules of fishing allow fishing communities to apply for fishing licenses, which they had not done so. He also argued that the petitioners had not used the existing mechanisms of redressal by not applying for fishing licenses and not asking Bonded Labour Vigilance Committees to improve their conditions.The lawyer for the petitioners, Syed Ghazanfer Shah, argued that there were around 600,000 bonded fisher folk in Punjab, who would suffer irrevocable losses if the auction lease system was re-instated. He argued that the fishers had enjoyed their ‘first month of freedom after decades of debt bondage’ fishing for themselves after the LHC granted a stay against the auction of fishing leases on August 18. He argued that this was one of first cases in the world of bonded labour on a public resource. He said that this perverted the fundamental character of public waters as a public trust held by the state for the benefit and welfare of its citizens.He argued that the existing license system was only for recreational fishing, such as angling, but it did not apply to traditional fisher folk who had been fishing for centuries and for whom fishing is a livelihood, requiring the use of larger nets and boats, a point which the government counsel accepted.He said that the petitioners were part of the Sindu Bachao Tarla, which had been campaigning against the lease auction system for over two decades. They had exhausted all avenues of redressal and were now turning to the LHC for relief.The learned counsel also argued that this was a case of bonded labour as a consequence of the Fisheries Department’s leasing policies and according to law, it was the task of the Fisheries Department to prove that this was not the case. It was the task of the state to abolish bonded labour and not aid and abet it, which makes the stay necessary.LHC judge Shujaat Ali Khan asked the Fisheries Department what protections were being offered to traditional fishing communities under the auction system.The government counsel argued that the lease auction system was like landlords, who own land and keep workers who know how to till the land. He argued that just because the tillers work the land it does not give them rights in the land but just in the crop.The learned counsel for the petitions replied that the example fundamentally misunderstands that privately owned land is different to a public resources in waters that are held as a trust for public welfare and benefits. He further argued that historical fishing communities have fishing rights in the public waters, which are being violated.Published in Daily Times, October 11th 2018.