On the island of Bundal, off Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, people gather in their thousands, as they have done for decades, to honour their saint, Baba Yousaf Shah.
As the sun shines on the festivities around the shrine, colourful flags flutter energetically as the air fills with the vibrant clamour of music, singing and feasting.
But this may be the last festival held by the fishermen here. Last month, the federal government issued an order, taking over the twin islands of Bundal and Buddo, locally known as Bhandar and Dingi, which form part of the Indus delta, where the river flows into the Arabian Sea in southern Sindh.
The government plans to build a city to “surpass Dubai”, and attract investment of about $50bn (£37.5m), creating 150,000 jobs, claimed Sindh governor Imran Ismail at a news conference in Pakistan’s capital last month.
Local people do not intend to go without a fight.
Rahila Habib, 56, was among those attending the festival to pray the development is stopped. She blamed Prime Minister Imran Khan for “acting like a king” and selling out Pakistan’s poor. “Khan had promised to provide millions of jobs to the poor. But instead of giving jobs, now he is doing the opposite,” says Habib. “Khan is making our people jobless and also ending the hope to live and pray.”
Khan’s pledges to put the environment at the forefront of his agenda, having championed green projects elsewhere, seem at odds with this project, says local Roshan Ali: “We aren’t against development, but it should benefit fishermen as well. The government is so greedy, they want more, no matter what the cost.”
The foundation of the island city began in 2006 when the government, led by Pervez Musharraf, signed a memorandum with Dubai-based developers to sell 16km of coastline for development. In 2013, Pakistani property tycoon Malik Riaz signed with an Abu Dhabi investor to build the “world’s tallest building” on the island city.
More recent plans revive the same extravagant claims of surpassing Dubai, with properties and projects on the twin islands. The government report notes that policies will be in place to enhance the international competitiveness of tourism and commerce.
Sindhi activists have objected, saying the development benefits only the elite and harms the unique ecology of the delta. Their “save the islands” movement has gathered momentum among the community, which numbers more than 100,000 in the village of IbrahimHyderi alone. According to the Sindh Livestock and Fisheries department, there are six million fishermen in the province.
Muhammad Qasim, 36, and four of his brothers are fishermen. “People tell us the sea won’t vanish so let these developments happen. The sea won’t vanish, but it is being taken away from us by force,” he says. “Our livelihood is being taken from us. We are alive because of the sea. Federal government should be giving jobs to us but instead, they are taking our jobs away.”
Environmentalist Arif Hasan says: “The islands are part of a delicate ecosystem. Mangrove marshes are nurseries for fish. They are home to migratory birds and also a buffer between the city and the ocean. This buffer has saved Karachi city during many cyclones.”
Mohammed Ali Shah, president of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, alleges that the government order was illegal, as it did not have the authority to take over islands that are located in provincial waters.
Additionally, fishermen fear being seen as a “security risk”. In recent months their movement has been restricted, they have been banned from Dingi island, and those caught with their boats too close to the island have been chased off, or even attacked.
In September, Abid Aziz*, 25, was among a group fishing close to Ghizri, a former harbour now developed into the exclusive Marina Club for the wealthy and the military elite, when a patrol boat summoned them to the shore.
Salman Ali* was among those beaten. “It is disheartening that we can’t even do fishing in our own sea. We can’t say anything about it, we are poor people.” He adds: “We are beaten, the development is for the elite, not for us.”
The fishermen claim the attack was by members of the Pakistani military, who provide security for the club and its members. No one was available to respond to the allegations when contacted by the Guardian.