“Koliwadas are Mumbai’s living heritage and must be conserved”

As infrastructure projects engulf the coastline, Mumbai’s fishermen are finding themselves erased and sidelined from the city.

When fishermen at Worli Koliwada tried to take their boats out to sea in the last week of August, soon after Narali Poornima – a festival that marks the onset of the fishing season – they found that reclamation work had affected the coastline used for docking boats. “They have left us with no space to dock our boats in the shallow waters,” says Sanjay Baikar, secretary of the Vanchit Machimar Worli Haji Ali Sahkari Sansthan Maryadit, an organisation of fishermen. “Where earlier 35 boats would stand, today even 19 boats are finding it difficult to find space in the waters leading to fights and friction within the community,”

An estimated ten lakh fishermen reside in Mumbai and there are about 108 fish markets in the city, and their problems are expected to escalate once the controversial coastal road is joined to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. “Once the Coastal Road is connected to the Sea Link, the columns of the link could block the navigation route of the fishermen and make it difficult for their boats to enter the sea,” says Hussain Indorewalla, co-founder of the Collective of Spatial Alternatives, an advocacy group that has been fighting for the rights of the fishing community.

Mumbai’s fisherfolk have been protesting developmental projects consistently, especially in light of recent projects like the Coastal Road and even the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link that will inevitably leave an impact on their livelihood.

What is the history of the Kolis?

The Kolis are the city’s earliest inhabitants, and have existed here since it was Heptanesia (seven islands) – before each island was joined to create Bombay by the British, whose development reclaimed and relocated the community.

Read more: Co-existing with leopards in our backyard

A systematic eviction

These days most  fishermen stay in the 30-odd koliwadas spread across the coastal parts of the city – from Cuffe Parade to Worli and Versova – who fish with small boats in small quantities and sell in the local markets nearby. Largely, the community’s ancient tradition of artisanal fishing – a sustainable fishing method that could sustain the ocean’s natural environment – has been replaced by commercial fishing practices.

Kolis now struggle to compete with rapid urban development in the city. The recent demolition of fish markets at Crawford and Dadar, citing traffic and hazardous building conditions, replaces indigenous communities with industries. Fish vendors at both markets were asked to relocate to Airoli, but were opposed by established vendors in the area who saw this as a competition for survival.

“The sea, equivalent to fields for us, is here in Mumbai. Our farm is here, our clientele is here, what will we do out of the city? Is it even practical to carry the fish all the way from Worli to Navi Mumbai? Not only will our ice melt but even our transportation and labour costs will increase multifold,” says Sanjay.

The koliwadas are also dealing with callous decisions by the government. Many of them were defined as slums and pushed into slum rehabilitation programs. The scheme itself failed to take off due to corruption and other factors.  Allauddin Niyaz Khan, chairman of the fishermen’s group, had been staying in the Haji Ali koliwada and found his house demolished without proper notice and was rendered homeless. Allauddin is now staying in a rented house and finds himself struggling for space on the coast to dock his boats; he owns four.

“Most of the Koliwadas are located in prime locations with beautiful open spaces and hence would command huge real estate rates. Hence, they could have been at the receiving end from interested groups of the city,” says Anita Yewale, who conducts walking tours in the  koliwadas of Mumbai, particularly Worli Koliwada, is an active member of the Mumbai Maritime Museum Society.

What are the challenges facing the community?

Kolis have navigated a challenging year on many fronts. Earlier it was outsiders who entered their fish vending business, exclusive to the kolis, that disturbed their businesses significantly. With increasing amounts of sewage in the Arabian Sea, there is more pollution that forces fishermen to traverse deeper into the waters for their catch. These problems together multiply their transportation costs by a lot, and the hike in fuel prices has only added to their woes. Lack of research on the social impact of infrastructure projects executed along the coast has resulted doubtful earning opportunities for the Kolis.

Has the city failed its original inhabitants?

The emergence of Mumbai could explain the current treatment of Kolis. “Most of Mumbai is made up of migrants, who come from the hinterlands and have no relationship with the sea. Hence, this land-based perspective reflects in their city policies. As the city grew the fishing community kept on getting pushed towards the sidelines. Unlike Mumbai, in many countries abroad, where the sea is part of the city, there is an engagement with the sea and its coastal or fishing communities,” says Anita.

A Koli community fishermen tends to his boat
Artisanal fishing is historic to the Koli community. Photo: Abhi

What is the way out for the Kolis?

The solution is simple: hear their woes and engage with the community – its history and indigenous wisdom. “A small change in the design of the Coastal Link, to increase the gap between the columns, will help facilitate navigation of fishing boats to the shallow fishing area. However, the sad part is that the fishing community is never consulted before initiating projects impacting their livelihoods,” says Hussain Indorewalla. 

Fishermen claim that they failed to get proper details even after approaching the courts. “As far as the coastal road was concerned, the government did not even know that active fishing was happening on these coasts. The fishermen have found it very difficult to talk to the government about their basic grievances despite multiple petitions and letters. This is a simple issue of governance to merely engage with the affected community,” says Hussain.

In March 2019, the Bombay High Court stated that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) should have planned for the rehabilitation of the Kolis who would be affected as a result of the construction. While BMC’s claim that no Kolis would suffer the impact of the project has stayed, the reality is far from this, and damage has already been done. Demands for reparation and a decent compensation have not been responded to.

Anita proposes that efforts must be made by the city to develop an active relationship with the sea and the fishermen. “The koliwadas are our city’s living heritage and must be conserved. It could be made viable and sustainable too by developing it for tourism. Since they are such spectacular, vibrant and colourful spaces, the koliwadas could be our cultural showpiece on the tourist map of Mumbai. It could also help generate income for the community from within,” she says.

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