Ancient Bombay Feels the Hook

Under threat of urbanization and environmental degradation, Bombay's Koli fishing community may be forced to give up a centuries-old way of life

Just a few minutes' walk from Bombay's business district, with its gleaming skyscrapers rising from some of the most expensive real estate in the world, is the distinctly low-rise village of Macchi Nagar.

A cluster of thatched huts, piles of fishing nets, and brightly painted boats, Macchi Nagar clings tenaciously to a narrow strip of land along Cuffe Parade, its lifestyle and character little changed in centuries.

Bombay, India's fast-growing financial center and capital of Maharashtra state, was once just a series of seven islands joined at low tide by mudflats and mangroves.

For almost a millennium these islands and their fishing grounds were the home of the Kolis, a fishing people who later gave India and the world the term "coolie" to describe any manual laborer.

Today Koli villages remain in places like Cuffe Parade and the posh suburbs of Mahim and Bandra. But if real estate developers and the Maharashtra government have their way, these pockets of tradition and the livelihoods of their inhabitants are under threat.

"Less or more, somehow we manage," says Kishore Dhanu, hauling the day's meager catch from a 10-foot wooden canoe. "It's hard work, but my family has been here since my grandfather's time. How can I think of leaving?"

New housing or old ways

On the drawing board is a plan to relocate the Kolis and Bombay's other slum-dwellers, who constitute nearly half of the city's population of 14 million. In return for constructing homes for the city's poor, builders would be free to develop vacated land for up-market commercial and residential complexes.

"We cannot live in blocks of flats," protests the secretary of the Maharashtra Fishworkers Committee, N.D. Koli. (Like some Indians, he uses his caste name as his surname.) "Our fishermen have to stay on the ground. We need room for drying our nets, fixing our gear, and leaving our boats."

Eight Koli villages in the Bombay metropolitan area have been earmarked for redevelopment. Their combined population is about 100,000.

"Our traditional rights have been eroded by successive governments," says Rambhau Patil, general secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum, who claims redevelopment would violate Coastal Regulation Zone laws. "Fishermen are always the first victims."

But urbanization is not the only threat facing India's Koli fishing communities.

Sketching a map of the coastline from Bombay around the Gulf of Cambay and as far as the old Portuguese enclave of Diu, Mr. Patil explains the environmental catastrophe he says is just around the corner.

Twenty years ago much of the coastline Patil traces with his finger was lined with mangroves, which act as natural filtration systems and breeding grounds for fish. Now they are being cut down for firewood and land reclamation.

The shallow waters here are turning into a toxic quagmire of pollution from chemical plants, untreated sewage from dozens of large towns, the growth of aquaculture industries that use dangerous pesticides, and spillages from cargo ships and oil rigs.

"There will be another Bhopal here in four or five years," Patil warns, referring to the world's worst industrial accident. As many as 3,000 people died when a Union Carbide plant in central India unleashed a poisonous cloud of gas in 1984.

Bombay's Kolis have joined hands with other fishermen's organizations in India and around the world to organize a World Fisheries Day Nov. 21. Organizers of the global protest, the first of its kind, have asked traditional fishermen to stay ashore on that day to protest damage to the world's coasts from pollution and overfishing by modern deep-sea trawlers.

Foreign capital vs. local interests

Earlier last month, fishermen backed by environmentalists scored a major victory when India's first private-sector port development at Vadhavan, 100 miles north of Bombay, was blocked by the local Environment Protection Authority.

The British shipping giant P&O Ports planned to develop a $950 million container terminal and had the backing of Maharashtra's Hindu nationalist government for the project. It was seen as a test of India's ability to attract scarce foreign capital in the infrastructure sector.

But environmentalists claimed the proposed port violated a Supreme Court order banning development in the ecologically fragile area and would displace thousands of villagers.

The government is now preparing a legal challenge to the ruling blocking the port development. Officials argue that the port is necessary because India faces an acute shortage of berths for ships, which is creating a major impediment to trade growth.

"A port like this is important not only for the state but for the whole country, because no other port location on the western coast has a 15-meter draft available," says B.K. Pandey, chief executive officer of the Maharashtra Maritime Board. "What the environmentalists and fishermen are saying is based on misinformation."

But the Koli fishermen are determined to oppose the port if the government challenges the court ruling against it, saying it will destroy an underwater rock shelf that is a breeding ground for lobsters and fish.

"The spillage of oil and chemicals and the dredging will create havoc," says Bhima Marde, president of the local fishing cooperative, surveying a fleet of small wooden boats flying black protest flags. "It's a do-or-die situation for us."

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