Another Koliwada

May 18, 2008

The Koli community is scattered in a number of villages and hamlets all along Mumbai city and the western coast. Like Koliwada Dharavi, there are others too. This piece is based on an exploration of the Koliwada in Worli, in central Mumbai in 2004. A trio of 9th graders – Neha Zope, Harshil Karia and Rishit Temkar – from the Dhirbhai Ambani International School, Mumbai, parthered with the PUKAR Neighbourhood Project, and explored Worli Koliwada – ‘a community on the edge’ of the city.

Excerpts from their field notes -

‘In the race to achieve global recognition, is Mumbai leaving its Kolis behind? Living in Mumbai, we didn’t know of the rich culture that existed so close to our homes. In collaboration with the PUKAR Neighbourhood Project and as part of our IB CAS programme, we attempted to study, document and archive aspects of The Worli Fishing Village. Through this community service project we aim to challenge our awareness of the communities surrounding us and raised questions on issues crucial to their survival.’

‘Koliwada means the village of fishermen. The Worli Koliwada has been around for more than five hundred years, before the Portuguese came to India. A fort built by Shivaji’s predecessor is present in the village. Worli Koliwada has a very interesting history. The whole village, when it began, had a very small population. Its original inhabitants were the 9 Patil brothers. They were the founders of the village. Since the village did not have as many people as it could actually sustain, the Patil brothers invited other people to live in the village. These people converted and became Kolis. Today Maharashtrian Hindus and Catholics, Muslims, Biharis, Bhaiyyas (people from U.P.); all of them live there together.’

‘The contemporary issue affecting the village is the foreign trawlers who are taking up almost 75% of the fisherman’s original catch. The Kolis have a sense of deep hatred towards these “boats that can look into the sea and catch the fish” as a fisherman puts it.

Worli Koliwada is a village right in the centre of the city and the moment you enter it, you are immediately consumed by the villages’ friendly atmosphere.’

‘According to Mr. Agaskar, one of the village headmen, “Our fishermen are returning empty handed…they are not catching any fish. The Worli – Bandra sea link (a bridge project that dominates the landscape from Bandra to Worli and has affected the lives of the Koliwadas in Dharavi as well as Worli) is not the only thing causing a decline. The company trawlers that catch all the fish in the sea are an even more serious reason for a reduced catch. They even kill the baby fish and because of that, the number of fish that are in the sea is decreasing’.

He is clearly very disappointed with the way that the government is dealing with the Kolis. According to him, the Kolis never get their say in Mumbai’s choices even though they are arguably the first community that inhabited the city. New jobs for the people in the village are needed as the numbers of fish caught per fisherman are decreasing. Mr. Agaskar also seemed disappointed by the fact that the licenses of the `foreign trawlers who were “eating up” their fish have not been cancelled in spite of repeated protests and ironically, this year (2004), more licenses have been issued to these “monster boats”. The government even plans to start a hovercraft service from Marine Drive to Gorai beach, they want space 30 – 40 yards wide, and they want that the fishermen should not cross that space. This is unacceptable as the fishermen will be confined to a limited amount of space.’

‘Cando Vickey, 26 yrs old has been in the fishing business since the age of 9. He was studying in the Sacred Heart English Medium School when a family disaster forced him to give up his education in the 5th standard and start earning money. Cando had to go thorough a lot of struggle to earn money for those 5 years when his fishing skills were just in their infancy. But after that Cando progressed very fast and now he fishes in his brother in law’s boat and earns a good salary.

Though Cando earns a decent living he isn’t quite happy with his job. In the recent times mechanically operated trawlers are coming into their waters and fishing out most of
the fish. This leaves the traditional fishermen struggling. Cando believes that in 30 years time the worli fishing village will have lost all its fishermen. These boats that can “see inside the water” are taking away their livelihood. The government gives the trawlers fishing licences that have been denied to many Kolis, but in Cando’s mind these are licences to snatch away the fishing legacy that the Kolis have been following for decades.’

Excerpts from the report:

All of us have been living in Mumbai since the last few years and we never realized that a few minutes away from our homes there exists a community that has existed even before ‘Bombay’ and our affluent homes were built. The Kolis in the Worli Koliwada truly intrigued all of us. Everything about them from their dressing sense, mentality, way of life, and their homes were very fascinating. The fact that we knew hardly anything about this community that forms the culture of this city is very ironic.

We truly believe that this micro culture right in the center of the city has great potential to become a tourist destination. The place has a friendly atmosphere and no matter what time of the day it is, a visitor to the village is always cheerfully (especially Caucasians as we noticed with Mr. McInerney when he accompanied us on our expeditions into the village). The fort built by Shivaji’s predecessors takes u back almost five hundred years in time and is worth visiting. The view that one gets from the shore of the Worli fishing villages’ coast is comparable to any in the city of Mumbai. The people in the village do not want to be troubled by tourists and maybe this just shows that they are not ready to become rarefied in a city where they were the original inhabitants.
In the Worli Koliwada, people come from different religious and cultural backgrounds and live together. This village is the perfect example for the people of India at this hour because the country has been plagued by religious riots and communal disharmony.

We were disappointed with the reaction that the government gave to the Kolis when they failed to cancel the licenses of foreign trawlers and in fact issued more licenses to them. This seems to us like a very unsustainable way to develop an economy because with the entry of these foreign trawlers into Indian sea, virtually all of India’s fishing resources are being depleted.

We would like to end on an optimistic note because we believe that the village as a whole, stands a chance of fighting all its social, political and economic battles and also winning them. The key soldiers in the Koliwada are the younger generation. According to the community heads, 95% of the children in the Koliwada today go to school and are educated. In another 10 years, these children will take the place of their parents. Thus we can see a potential growth in economic activity and a change in the mindset of the Kolis. There may not be as many fishermen as there are today but the village will become more efficient and the Koli culture certainly will not die out because our impression was that the youngsters in the village are proud of it.

Posing the question whether the Kolis are living on the edge invites us to consider not only the village through time and constrained by space, but also the way in which the fishing village dovetails with the Mumbai metropolis it lies within.

Koli history traces the passage of many eras. The village retains echoes of India’s mercantilist past, contains reminders of a military age in the shape of the Shivaji Fort, remnants of colonialism and glimpses of the nationalist reaction to the latest epoch of globalisation. All this in a space that once spread out through the seven islands of Mumbai but is now squeezed between high-rises and the waters edge.

One of the key issues shaping the present and the future of the community is the Bandra-Worli Sea-link road. Although this is seen as a lesser evil than the pressing problem of overfishing, it acts as a visual boundary, limiting the once limitless space. It is evidence that the development of Bombay is at odds with the relative sustainability of the Kolis. The Koliwada is one of the few places in Mumbai that you can breathe fresh air, away from noise and traffic pollution. The road is set to change that. It will also further reduce their catch, already dwindling from the depletion of fish stocks by trawlers. Their fight to prevent this reveals both the systematic and arbitrary workings of Indian democracy. They filed petition after petition of their grievances, over several years, yet still feel that their needs have not been considered.

Having met the demands of the sea for generations, the Koli way of life is under threat from a rising tide of unsustainable development. While bringing material prosperity to some, this process seems set to submerge the vulnerable and make the insecure weaker.

This reveals only half of the story, however. The Kolis, like the rest of the metropolitian population of Bombay, embody the resilience that is borne of necessity. Living peaceably in close quarters, evolving a different relationship with the space that surrounds them; personal space; defensible space; shared space; working space; fishing space; living space; breathing space. The Kolis are more fortunate than most for they carry with them the sense of belonging that is often missing from a disparate urban population. Whether fisher-folk or not, they have the cultural esteem that gives them the confidence to forge their own relationship with the rest of Bombay (their city) and negotiate it, as far as they can, on their terms. As more and more children aspire to join the increasing numbers working on the outside they seem to retain their sense of place in a way that is denied to Mumbai’s millions of migrant workers.

The edge is an exciting, enticing place to be. The Koli’s seem to be appreciated and celebrated for their contribution to Bombay’s identity. For the more comfortable and secure sections of Mumbai society the uncompromising lives of the Koli fishermen of Worli and elsewhere can take on an exotic quality. There may be a lesson in the Taj Hotel’s recent celebration of Koli cuisine. This suggests that the rarer the Koli lifestyle, the more rarefied it becomes. Maybe it is only when there are no more fisher-people in Worli and elsewhere that they will be truly appreciated as the vibrant cultural entity they once were. It would be the whole city’s loss if they were allowed to slip over the edge…

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