In focus Mumbai: In koliwadas’s oldest dwellings, Kolis struggle for livelihood, political representation

Proposed coastal road will add to the fishermen’s woes by reducing catch; some gaothans prepare to field local residents in polls

Written by Arita Sarkar | Mumbai | Updated: December 22, 2016 4:09 am
Maharashtra news, koliwadas dwellings, Juhu Gaothans Group, Latest news, Versova Koliwada, Coastal Road project, India news, latest news, National news, India news, Versova Koliwada is the second largest fishing village in the state. Amit Chakravarty

A coastal highway offering high-speed connectivity between South Mumbai and the western suburbs, a showcase project to be built by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, will be one of the biggest poll planks of the ruling Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party over the next weeks as the city readies for elections to the municipality. In Juhu, residents of Moragaon, a small village of families whose main occupation continues to be fishing, are however not impressed.

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Rajesh Mangela, a Moragaon resident, points where the Coastal Road project will bifurcate the village when it makes landing at Juhu. They fear their livelihood, consisting mainly of small and medium fishing operations, will be lost entirely. “According to the current alignment of the coastal road project, we will lose all the space we have for our drying yards and the space to store our boats and nets,” says Rajesh. Somehow, that an entire electoral constituency is in fear of losing their livelihood does not seem to have unnerved local politicians.

Moragaon is part of Ward 63, represented by the BJP’s Dilip Patel. Previously reserved for OBC candidates, the ward is now reserved for women after delimitation. Residents are irritated that in the din about a shiny new development for Mumbai that could forever change the way the city’s motorists drive to South Mumbai’s commercial landmarks, their protests have been put on mute.

Moragaon and two other gaothans in Juhu are now unwilling to be taken in by the political parties’ pre-poll promises. “The Sena and the BJP have been in power for 20 years in Mumbai and there hasn’t been much of a difference. For the first time, we have decided to put up our candidate with the support of the three gaothans in Juhu,” says Paul Creado, a member of the Juhu Gaothans Group. Moragaon’s fisherfolk are finalising plans to field one of the local residents as a candidate. “We have several issues which cannot be solved without political support and our representative needs to take up our problems in the corporation. We want to approach all the parties to consider our candidate. If that fails, we are planning to field an independent candidate,” says Mangela.

In Koliwadas across Mumbai, it’s a similar tale. The Kolis, considered one of Mumbai’s ‘original’ inhabitants, have been politically a declining force for decades. Of the 227 electoral wards in the BMC, just about 20 are dominated by fisherfolk. Another 25 or 30 are dominated by ‘gaothans’, the quaint former East Indian or fishing villages. The Koli community itself does not have a strong representation among the current 227 corporators, nor is any of the multiple fishermen’s unions politically powerful across these wards.

Leaders in the fishing communities concede that it’s an odd situation — the Kolis reside in villages dotting the city and suburbs, in Versova, Worli, Madh, Khar Danda, Trombay and Mulund among others, but though their issues are similar across these villages, they lack a single unified political platform.

Whether in the Versova Koliwada or the one at Moragaon in Juhu or even in Worli, fishermen across Mumbai have shared concerns of the critically dropping quantity and quality of their catch. The reasons for their livelihood concerns are shared too — pollution, loss of the mangrove habitats, the consequent changing tidal patterns. “Our catch has reduced by 60 per cent in the past decade mainly due to polluted water. Earlier, a boat would bring in 3 tonnes of fish in a span of 10 days. Even the quality of fish has deteriorated, which is visible in the smaller sizes of Pomfret,” says Rajhans Tapke, general secretary of the Koli Mahasangh and a resident of the Versova Koliwada.

A few kilometres away, in Moragaon, 57-year-old Shankar Mangela echoes that worry. There’s a significant drop in the quantity of fish. In addition, some varieties of fish that could be easily caught have all but disappeared. “Until five years ago, we used to catch around 100-200 kg of a local variety of fish called Torli, even in just waist-deep waters. But we haven’t seen that fish, along with at least 12 other varieties, for years now,” he says, standing barely 15 metres from where a sludge of untreated sewage generated from the city’s suburban homes snakes its way across the beach into the sea.

The community’s fears have never been as urgent. The proposed coastal road, the Development Plan that views these colonies as little more than slums, more construction off the coast in the form of the Shivaji statue and memorial, the continuing slow pace of developing sewage treatment plants — these are now issues the community plans to look at closely when they cast their vote.

Hence, to ensure representation of their community in the next general body of the corporation, some Koliwadas are hoping to get a village member to contest under the banner of a major political party, others plan to field independent candidates,

Having spent decades out in the sea, 65-year-old Vasudev Shivkar, a fisherman in Worli Koliwada, says untreated sewage being dumped in the sea dissuades fish from swimming close to the coast. “We have small boats that don’t have a very powerful engine and we can only go so far into the sea. However, if we return with a small quantity of fish, we suffer financial losses as we have to pay for the labour as well as for the diesel,” he says. Shivkar adds that the falling incomes from the profession have led several fishermen in Worli Koliwada to sell their boats and take up alternative jobs.

Other Koliwadas with a smaller population such as Chimbai in Bandra have found other ways of coping with the meagre catch. Thirty-eight-year-old Vaishal Balasathi says, “We go to Sassoon docks to bring more fish so that we can get a decent income for the day.”

The writing on the wall is clear. Quietly, this community’s traditional livelihood is in question.

In addition, their identity, their land and their lifestyle in the gaothans and koliwadas are rapidly declining too. “The BMC refuses to give us permissions to carry out repairs to our homes. We have been demanding a single clearance window for our applications but the BMC does not agree,” says Creado. Gaothan members mutually share an anger against the state government for treating slum residents better.

“Despite being native people of this city, we are struggling to get permissions for building repairs while people in slums are being relocated to towers. They get the voter ID cards while the government refuses to give us Scheduled Tribe certificates. They want to ensure that we don’t survive so that we are systematically wiped out,” says Jagdish Bhikru, a fisherman and resident of Versova Koliwada.

Similar concerns are raised around the Shivaji Memorial and the 300 acres of coast-side land to be reclaimed for a garden at Cuffe Parade. Shivkar says, “The Shivaji Memorial will not allow us to take our boats out and the reclamation will erode our beach in Worli.”

Rajesh Mangela says the coastal road planners can adopt an inclusive approach and give the fishermen an alternative source of income.

“The BMC is planning to have sports such as jet-skiing and parasailing on the beach, which will further scare the fish away. We have proposed that the BMC allow us to take the tourists into the sea on fishing trips or even boat rides which will be a good experience to get to know the fishing community as well as give us a livelihood,” he says.

And to get these concerns addressed, fishermen feel they need direct representation in the general body of the BMC. “In the current scenario, the political parties are not giving any weight to the fishermen communities or the East Indian communities in gaothans. We need people from our localities to raise issues for the Koli community and the gaothans in the corporation,” says Godfrey Pimenta, a member of Watchdog Foundation and resident of a gaothan in Marol.

In Versova Koliwada, residents will approach political parties to give a ticket to one of their residents. “After delimitation, our Ward 56 is now reserved for Scheduled Tribe women candidates. Around 5-6 women who fit the bill are interested,” says Tapke, adding that Versova Koliwada is the second largest fishing village in the state. Shiv Sena leader Yashodhar Phanse, a senior leader and chairman of the powerful Standing Committee, is currently the local corporator.

Defending his work over the past five in Ward 56, Phanse says the concerns of the Kolis often doesn’t fall within the jurisdiction of the civic body. “The BMC cannot give them ST certificates and neither can we help out with their fishing activities. It is the collector’s job to issue reservation certificates and the Maritime Board’s jurisdiction to provide them with fishing-related facilities. We have our limitations as the area falls within the Coastal Regulation Zone,” he says.

Asked about giving political representation to somebody from the community, Phanse says, “The ward has been reserved for Scheduled Tribe and the fishermen community doesn’t fall within that category even if some of them have ST certificates.” He concedes that Sena workers would naturally get preference for a ticket.

In Ward 63, BJP corporator Dilip Patel says the coastal road alignment is the best possible one that takes the community’s interests into account. On civic issues in the village, Patel says the three Gaothans’ residents don’t want development of the area they live in. “They are not interested in the Development Control Regulations. They don’t want to widen their roads since they want to retain the identity of their village and they simple want water supply and electricity. Despite my best efforts, I’m unable to spend the funds worth Rs 50 lakh since they won’t allow us to help,” he says.

At the other end of the city, steering clear of political parties, residents of Worli Koliwada have decided to simply produce better informed voters. “We have a population of 3 lakh people in our village. Every year political parties come, make promises and leave. This year, however, we will write to all the parties after the nominations have been filed and we will demand that they give their promises in writing to us. We will then create a summary of the promises made by all the parties as well as any independent candidates and will distribute it among our people. They can then make their own decision,” says Shashikant Parker (74), chairman of the Worli Gaon Kalyankari Jagrut Manch.

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