'Don’t sell the sea', cry out Mumbai Kolis as they stare at loss of sustenance

Reclamation of the sea had been harsh on them, affected their livelihood and damaged the coast of Mumbai, complained Koli women as they resolutely protested earlier this month

Koli women sort out the catch their men bring, and take the fish to markets
Koli women sort out the catch their men bring, and take the fish to markets

Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

Slogans of ‘Cancel the Mumbai Coastal Road project’ and ‘Sea belongs to Kolis’ reverberated as a small group of Koli women resolutely protested earlier this month. Reclamation of the sea had been harsh on them, affected their livelihood and damaged the coast of Mumbai, they complained.

Indiscriminate reclamation of the sea had damaged their boats and fishing nets, caused loss of livelihood and destroyed marine species thriving in the inlets. Builders’ interests are being safeguarded even as they, the original inhabitants of the city, are being driven out of the coastal areas and the city, the women explained to the few who had the patience to hear them.

That Koliwadas in the city are shrinking is obvious to everyone, points out Manini Worlikar, Vice President of Akhil Bhartiya Koli Samaj. The community, she claims, is 10 million strong in Maharashtra and is now facing an existential crisis. Not just livelihood but a 500-years-old culture and way of life was on the brink of extinction, she points out.

Women have traditionally been the ‘boss’ in the community, taking all important decisions. It’s the men who do the cooking, take care of children and manage the households. Their ‘work’ for a living got over with going out to the sea and return early morning with their catch.

Thereafter, the women would take over, sort out the catch and take them to wholesale and retails markets. Financial and business decisions would be for the women to take.

The normally assertive women are now at a loss because smart phones and ‘north Indian’ vendors have been increasingly delivering fish to Maharashtrian homes at the time set by the buyers. Online buying and these band of new vendors have put an end to the early morning walks to buy fresh fish.

Says Sushma Bhoir, a fisherwoman from Chendani Koliwada “The business has been badly affected after the influx of North Indian migrants. They migrated to seek a livelihood but have hijacked our livelihood.”

Koli women stage a protest in Mumbai
Koli women stage a protest in Mumbai

She indignantly explains why carrying fish in plastic tubs, as these ‘north Indians’ do, is unhygienic. Fish kept in ice need to be cleaned at regular intervals and the ice replaced as it melts, she explains. Not doing so affects the taste as well as the freshness, she claims.

“We keep sea food in a Topli (basket) to keep them warm and fresh. We also clean the Koyata (a sharp knife) before attending to each customer, which these north Indian vendors don’t,” she explains.

That is the reason why Kolis, she said, are against moving door-to-door with fish. The fish lose freshness if moved. Some get stale faster than others and result in losses. For centuries, the community has developed a business network which, if broken, affects the entire community.

Worlikar also laments the extinction of an old lifestyle. “It is true that the younger generation of Kolis are losing interest in fishing. The women, having to deal with business, continue to wait for buyers in the markets allotted to them.”

The community was classified as a Scheduled Tribe till 1995 when they were put in the category of ‘Special Backward Class’. Successive governments, she says, have allowed builders to take over Koliwadas and gradual encroachment of the coast.

In 1998, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and the then chief minister Manohar Joshi asked the fisherwomen to shift to a new market in Dadar. The BMC has however declared it to be illegal, Worlekar fumes. All the fisherwomen, who have had the license to trade over four to five generations are now selling fish outside the Dadar market. BMC, informs Worlekar, wants them to move to Navi Mumbai.

“The Mayor refused to give us an appointment. We have moved the High Court against the BMC for ousting the fisherwomen before the expiry of 30 years,” says Worlekar, despairing at the raw deal being given to the original inhabitants of the city.

Costs involved in fishing have gone up because fishermen are now forced to go deeper and farther in the sea looking for catch. Ongoing constructions in the sea have driven marine life away from the coast and it now takes much longer to catch fish. More diesel needs to be spent on spending more time in the sea and diesel prices going up has not helped.

“The bigger fishing boats cost approximately one Crore Rupees. But the highest compensation offered after a natural calamity destroys the boat Is a meagre Rs 25,000,” she informs.

The community seems to be fighting a losing battle against time and technology.

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