Print edition : May 04, 2007

The dreams of urban planners are turning into a nightmare for the city's fisherfolk.


Boats off Worli, with the Worli-Bandra sea link, which is under construction, in the background. Since the construction of the bridge began, fish catch close to the shore has fallen.-

AS the tide brought in fewer fish at the Gorai fishing village in north Mumbai, Regina Vasaikar's dreams were ebbing away. This 22-year-old has been selling her family's meagre catch ever since she dropped out of school in the seventh grade. "My father didn't have money to pay our fees. So my brother and I quit school and started helping him. What we earn is only enough to pay for our food and for diesel. Some days, we sleep on an empty stomach," says Regina. "I dreamed of working in a hospital and helping other poor people like us. But I didn't make it to college."

Her ambition now is as elusive as the dwindling fish in the ocean, pushing her family further into poverty. "Earlier, fishing expeditions of my father and brothers would fill two or three baskets. Now, we get one small basket and that, too, of tiny fish. The sea is now full of pollution; there are no fish," says Regina. Starting out at dawn, Regina returns home at sunset with Rs.300, of which Rs.200 is kept aside for diesel for the next trip. The family has to survive on Rs.100 until then.

Mumbai was named after Mumbadevi, the Koli stone goddess whose temple stands tall amid the chaotic bustle of Babulnath market in south Mumbai. The Kolis are a traditional fishing community whose links with Mumbai date back to the time when it was an archipelago of seven islands with lush palm trees, protected by mangroves and reefs. The names of some islands still endure. For example, Colaba (Kol-aba), which means Koli estate, and Mazagaon, which is apparently derived from Machcha gaun, meaning fish village. Koli villages still exist in these areas and all along the coast, holding out amidst the traffic and skyscrapers. But the Kolis are in crisis.

A fisherman empties his catch at Gorai beach.-

The sea has been encroached upon. Large parts of it have been reclaimed. Mumbai's prime commercial real estate - Backbay Reclamation and the Bandra-Kurla complex - have been built on reclaimed land. Mangroves, the breeding ground for fish, have also been hacked to make way for swanky apartments and offices. Mumbai's 15 million inhabitants dump their sewage into the sea with minimal treatment. The water is also polluted by chemical manufacturing units, oil slicks and garbage. To top it all, the government plans to build more bridges and introduce recreational boating. That may be the last straw for fishermen.

"We have always been hardy people. Unlike farmers, we don't commit suicide. But it doesn't mean that our plight is any better. We, too, are in debt and barely manage to survive. But the government doesn't take notice. It does not announce any schemes for us. In fact, its projects make things worse for us," says Kishori Nakwa, who runs the Mahila Mandal at the fishing colony in Worli.

Koli women, who sell the fish and deal with the market, can be identified easily by the unique way in which they wear their saris - reaching just below the knees and drawn up tightly between the legs. While the rest of the city sleeps, they are at the market buying fish from large trawlers, haggling with the agents. Then, they take their baskets into the streets and bargain with customers for a good deal. With the catch declining rapidly, many households survive solely on the business acumen of the women.

"There's no fish and no jobs. What are our young people going to do? My daughter is studying law. But who will give her a job?" asks Kishori Nakwa. Her fishing colony at Worli in central Mumbai is home to 40,000 people, 25,000 of them Kolis. Only around 60 per cent of them still fish. The contrast of then and now is striking: old temples and new churches, an old fort that houses a new gymnasium, small boats bobbing near the shoreline with a huge bridge under construction in the backdrop.

Sewage and garbage at Gorai creek.-

The meeting point in every fishing village is the cooperative society, where old men shoot the breeze, fishermen buy diesel and take loans. Sameer Chandu (21) is still in college and does not want to get into fishing. But he knows it may be inevitable. "I shall look for a job. But if I don't find one, I will join my family in fishing. At least it will save them a worker's wage. Only one in five graduates here gets a proper job. The others go back to the boats," he says.

"For one month, my father and brother have been sitting at home. There's no catch. In Vasai [a northern suburb people have sold their boats and are working as musicians in wedding bands. What will happen to us?" Sameer asks. "After the construction of the bridge started, fish don't come close to the shore. In the last five years, our family's income has dropped by 80 per cent."

They sold their wooden boat, which needed nine people to work it, and bought a smaller fibreglass one, which needs only five and is more fuel efficient. "Now, we cut costs by employing fewer people and using less diesel by not going far out. Like farmers, we too are in debt. We take an advance from traders and have to sell at the price they dictate," says Sameer.

At Sassoon dock, the largest fish market in Mumbai, trawlers unload their catch. In the background is a changed landscape, where run-down textile mills gave way to swank high-rise apartment complexes.-

Worli village occupies prime real estate with an amazing view of the shoreline - a builder's paradise. Its residents are under pressure to sell. "If we live in buildings, how will we fish? Where will we put our nets, our baskets, our boats?" asks Sameer. It is a perpetual dilemma between modernity and heritage.

"Pollution, coastal development, mangrove degradation, surveys by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation [ONGC], overfishing and foreign trawlers are all leading to a fall in fish catch. Because of pollution there is no fish near the shore. Fishermen have to invest in bigger vessels, use more diesel and go further out into the sea," says Gorekh Megh, Commissioner of Fisheries. "Ours is the only government to provide them a complete waiver on VAT [Value Added Tax] for diesel worth Rs.135 crore. That makes the fuel 34 per cent cheaper for them." But subsidies are not enough to tackle the root of the problem. What is the government doing to address pollution, mangrove destruction, and so on? "We do our best to advise the other Ministries on the effects that different projects have on fishermen. But the final decision rests with the Chief Minister. He has to decide what is best for the State."

The fisherfolk in Mumbai number 50,075 (0.33 per cent of the city's population), according to the Marine Fisheries Census 2005, conducted by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI). Fish species such as sand lobster, silver pomfret, unicorn cod and rawas were once abundant but are now reaching what is called `fishing extinction'. Even the catch of the famous Bombil (Bombay Duck) is a third of what it was 20 years ago. Fishermen are at a loss because the catch per boat has declined because of overfishing. Maharashtra has 4,500 trawlers as against the permissible limit of 2,500, says the CMFRI. Small fishermen suffer because big trawlers deplete fish stock in the deep seas. They are also the worst affected by pollution and mangrove destruction.

In Gorai creek, north Mumbai, one of the few large stretches of mangrove, plastic bags are strewn amongst the leaves. The mud is green with sewage and pollution. A five-minute trip across the creek takes you to another world - sleepy fishing villages unperturbed by the chaos of Mumbai. But here, too, fishermen face the aftershocks of urban ruin.

Mending nets at home in a Worli fishing colony.-

"The water is polluted up to 20 km, further out the ONGC is doing a survey and won't let us fish, so where do we go?" asks Anthony Valis, who owns a small mechanised boat. "Boats are just lying on the shore. People have sent migrant workers who work on the boats back to their villages. We share the catch with them. But they get only Rs.25, so it's not worth it for them."

Around one-fifth of the boats here are lying idle. "I used to fish 12 days in a month. Now it's only two or three. Ten years back, I could earn around Rs.80,000-90,000 a year, now it's down to Rs.60,000. The earnings of our workers are half of what they were," says Anthony.

After encroaching on their fishing grounds, the government wanted to capture the villages. It had plans to acquire land from five fishing/agricultural villages for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which would be an amusement park run by the Essel group.

At Gorai, fish hung out to dry.-

"The rich are becoming richer by grabbing our lands but we are going to starve. They have no right to take our village, however poor we might be," says Stella Murzello, an elderly vegetable farmer from Gorai.

Amusement parks, high-speed bridges, pollution - it is life in the fast lane for Mumbai's elite. Its repercussions are being felt by the Kolis. The dreams of Mumbai's urban planners are turning into a nightmare for Mumbai's fishermen and other deprived communities.

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