As Mumbai's Coastal Reclamation Begins, Artisan Fishers Fight for Their Livelihood

The Coastal Road Project has been criticised for facilitating a small section of private automobile users at great public expense. It could also wipe out the livelihood of those fishing in the shallow waters.

It is fishing season in Mumbai but the artisan fishers of Worli Koliwada have no choice but to stay at home. “They have stopped us from casting our nets,” complains a distraught Nitesh Patil, as we set out in a small boat from Cleveland Bunder in Worli, central Mumbai.

A thirty-three year old from the Koliwada – the village where Kolis, traditional fishermen – live, Nitesh belongs to a community of artisan (shallow water, small-scale) fishers. They have recently been restrained from their livelihood activities since the work on the ambitious 29.2 km Coastal Road Project (CRP) has begun. Residents of the Koliwada have been fishers for generations.

For more than a week now, a large number of policemen have been deployed at Cleveland Bunder to ensure that the fishers remove their nets from the shallow waters along the western coast. After having successfully stopped construction once, the fishing community of Worli has been threatened with arrest if they obstruct the project. They have also been warned that their nets will be torn or destroyed.

These shallow waters off the west coast, from Mount Mary in Bandra to the southern tip of Malabar Hill, have been rich fishing grounds for the traditional fishers of the island city.

As our boat exits Cleveland Bunder, Nitesh Patil ruefully recalls a Coastal Road contractor’s angry remark to the protesting fisherfold: “The ocean does not belong to you.” To which he says, “But we have been fishing along this stretch for a long time. My forefathers lived and worked here.”

Cleveland Bunder near Worli. Credit: Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala

Making land from water

Almost every account of Mumbai begins with a reference to what is seen as a “geographical injustice”: ‘Mumbai was once just a cluster of seven islands.’ In this narrative, Mumbai’s growth into one of the densest urban agglomerations becomes a story of triumph over adversity – a city’s conquest of uninhabitable nature; of visionary acts that transformed and domesticated its watery landscape.

It is a story of a contiguous land mass that was made by filling up ‘pestilential’ marshes, habitable terrain that was shaped by pushing out ‘unruly’ waters, build-able territory that was produced by clearing up ‘wild’ forests.

Also Read: Circumventing the CRZ: Unlocking Mumbai’s Coastal Real Estate

This is an effective story, not simply because of what it tells about the past, but what it justifies in the present. Mumbai, we are told, was cheated of land by an accident of geography; hence we must, as we have always done, ‘reclaim’ it.

More land will give us more homes, more infrastructure, more open space. ‘Reclamation’ after all, in its modern usage, has all the reassuring overtones of growth and progress: ‘bringing waste-land or land under water into useful condition.’ What this definition conceals, however, is the word’s more insightful older usage drawn from Old French, where it was used to mean ‘to make tame’ or ‘subdue, reduce to obedience, make amenable to control.’

The Rs 12,000 crore eight-lane coastal freeway known as the Coastal Road Project (CRP) is supposed to connect the business district of Nariman Point in south Mumbai to Borivali in the north, via the Worli Sealink that passes within a few hundred metres of the Koliwada. A substantial stretch of the freeway is proposed over land that will be reclaimed from the western coast to accommodate a new carriageway and promenade, and the areas between the road and the existing coastal edge will be filled up to create multiple open spaces.

The project has been on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism from transport experts, environmentalists, urban planners, the fishing community and residents associations. All have argued that it is meant to facilitate a small section of private automobile users in the city at great public expense. The project, the groups claim, has little regard for Mumbai’s overall transport problems and the impact on its coastal ecology, the threat to coastal livelihoods, or the larger climate impacts of a car-centric urban development model.

Legal experts have pointed out how the project has cynically bypassed public vetting processes and environmental regulations. There are fears that this will ultimately benefit real estate developers.

Despite all this, construction for the project has commenced and coastal reclamation has begun at an urgent pace.

Navigating a precarious terrain

Artisanal fishing near Worli Koliwada. Credit: Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala

Back in our boat, as we approach the underside of the Bandra Worli Sealink – a car-centric mega-project completed in 2010 despite opposition by the Worli fishers – we watch as five fishermen work in perfect coordination to navigate the shallow waters under the sea bridge. The exposed and submerged rocks could have effortlessly sliced through our vessel. The boat rocks and sways precariously as it passes through the narrow gap between two pillars. Nitesh explains that the distance between the pillars is only 30 meters, and that their wider cylindrical foundations below the surface of the water makes the passage even narrower.

“We have to negotiate this dangerous route every day, and there is a constant fear of an accident.” He points beyond the bridge. “To make matters worse,” he uses his hands to draw what is to come, “the engineers are now planning to build two more bridges in front of this one.”

The two new bridges will connect the proposed reclaimed stretch of the road from Priyadarshini Park to the Sealink, making daily navigation through the forest of columns even more unsafe. “The area has strong sea currents,” he explains forcefully, “and during rough weather it will be impossible for two boats to cross each other in between the pillars of three bridges.”

Remarkably, it was only recently that the fishermen discovered alignment details of the road that poses an existential threat to their livelihood. Always a vocal and organised community, they have desperately voiced their concerns, written to and attempted to reason with the authorities, including the CRP engineers, the municipal commissioner, fisheries officials, and even the mayor. But they feel cheated as the work has commenced and their appeals have been completely ignored.

Reclamation as appropriation

In the last few weeks much of the equipment and machinery required to execute the project seems to have been put in place. Portions of the coastline between Napean Sea Road and Worli have been cordoned off and the pace of work seems to have accelerated. As our boat turns southwards and moves towards towards Priyadarshini park, we see that reclamation work has begun simultaneously along various stretches of the coast, including near Worli Dairy, Haji Ali and Warden Road.

Huge boulders and concrete tetra-pods are being dumped over the rocky seabed and truckloads of debris transported to the site in dumpers is being relentlessly emptied into the shallow seas. The fishermen point out that this activity has been going on at a frenzied pace through the day and even at night. Utterly shocked at what they are seeing, they confess that they had been completely unprepared for anything of this proportion.

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From an ecological perspective, a coastal area is a highly productive zone with diverse ecosystems. Ecologists refer to the intertidal ecosystem as an ecotone – or a zone of transition between two distinct ecological habitats. These interface areas, such as inter-tidal areas and wetlands, provide livelihood opportunities to communities.

‘Reclamation,’ contrary to its constructive connotations, typically appropriates these interface areas by characterising them as unproductive ‘wastelands’ and thereby displace both their ecological benefits and their social functions. What is ‘reclaimed’ is almost never ‘wasteland’ or ‘land under water’, but socio-ecological systems that provide and support a variety of livelihoods such as fishing or salt-making.

A road over our livelihood commons

To build the Coastal Road, the entire inter-tidal zone and a significant part of the permanently inundated shallow seabed of the western coast will be turned into solid ground. The marine habitats that extend over the submerged rocky and muddy seabed, where sunlight penetrates through the shallow waters above it, are conducive to the growth of plants. These areas, that are rich in biodiversity and provide a productive breeding ground for a wide variety of sea fauna, will be lost forever.

Nitesh describes the pre-monsoon arrival of different varieties of fish that swim toward this shallow zone, looking for food and shelter in the fissures and crevices of the sea bed. He divulges an entire catalogue of fish found in this zone at different times of the year: hekru, ravas, ghol, paplet, bangda, bhijle, shingala, makul, tamb, khajra, kot and sakla. He says crustaceans such as shevandi, khekda, kolambi, jawla and jitada are also found.

In the peak fishing season, from August to December, a large number of fish workers from Worli bring their boats out. There is intense competition for water-space and a continuous line of nets is cast along the rocky seabed between Worli and Raj Bhavan at the end of Malabar Hill.

Also Read: Glowing Algae off Mumbai’s Shores Could Be Due to Climate Change

The fishing water commons of each village is determined based on a mutual understanding between adjacent Koliwadas. Within these marine commons, every family is apportioned a specific area of the sea, which the fishers refer to as the saj. The saj are located on the muddy portion of the sea bed, beyond the rocky areas, where the depth of water ranges from 5-8 vav (a unit used by the fishers to measure the depth of water using the high-tide as reference, with one vav being equivalent to a vertical distance of approximately six feet).

The fishing grounds of Worli’s subsistence fishers lie between 1-8 vav, and the sustenance of this community is crucially linked to health of the ocean floor and its fragile ecosystem. But it is this zone that will be most affected by coastal reclamation.

The reclamation process has begun and equipment has been put in place. Credit: Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala

Traditional knowledge and fishing practice

Traditional shallow water fishing is a highly skilled and specialised activity, with a variety of techniques and gear customised to different kinds of conditions and particular types of fish. At the start of the peak fishing season and soon after the monsoons, says Nitesh, the quality of the sea is different, as “rain water mixed with salt-water gives it a slightly sweetish taste”.

Some lobsters are sold for Rs 1,200 a piece. Credit: Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala

During this time, lobsters and ghol arrive in large numbers and remain close to the shore for 17-20 days. He breaks into a smile as he tells us about the copious waters between Worli and Banganga, where sometimes lobsters weighing 1-1.2 kg are found, which he can sell at Rs 1,100 to Rs 1,200 a piece. “Occasionally, we don’t even cast nets,” he boasts, “we simply wade into knee deep water and pick them out with our bare hands.”

As we drift back towards Worli, Nitesh argues that artisanal techniques work with nature to ensure that the productivity of the coast is preserved. He disapproves of trawlers, that scrape the sea bed and destroy its ecology. “Our nets, on the other hand,” he says, “ensure that young hatchlings are spared and if sea turtles and dolphins are accidentally caught, we immediately release them.”

The artisan fishers also have a deep knowledge of the sea and are adept at reading tidal patterns and sea currents. Slight variations in the colour of the water tell them how deep the fish will be. Pointing towards a barely discernable line separating bluish green from murky brown water, he explains that the vertical plane that divides the two waters runs all the way down to the sea bed. “We call it the sandh.”

“We will fight”

Land reclamation was forbidden since the 1990s by the coastal regulation zones (CRZ), but a spate of pro-industry and pro-real estate amendments have weakened it to allow reclamation again. While reclamation schemes in Mumbai for ‘green open spaces’, as currently devised, may not hand over newly manufactured lands to the city’s real estate machine, they might become an underhand way of capturing existing open land.

Dolphins or turtles caught in the nets are immediately released. Credit: Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala

“They don’t yet have environmental clearance for the project” the Kolis point out. “They have have started work without consulting the public or conducting a mandatory public hearing.”

The middle-class residents seem to have woken up from their slumber only after the reclamation work began. Various groups in the city have resolved to challenge the project. Unlike the petitioning class, however, the kolis are resisting not only through the courts, but also on the streets and in the sea. Last week, an army of police were deployed to restrain the kolis. Undeterred, they took out their boats and staged a black flag protest.

“They may try to restrain us, or offer some paltry compensation, but we are clear: ‘we just don’t want this road’.” There is too much at stake. “These shallow water areas have been our traditional fishing grounds for generations.” They also worry about the increasing risk of urban flooding, alteration of tidal patterns and beach erosion. They speak from their experience – having faced the effects of the sealink.

As a community whose life patterns are synchronous with the rhythms and moods of the sea, the kolis are sceptical of the reclamation activity. “The reclamation won’t survive the monsoons,” they claim. “Nobody is a better judge than us of the temper of the sea. We have experienced the force of the tall waves that crash against the shore.”

When the monsoons arrive, the kolis say, “All that mud and debris that they’ve been dumping there for all these days will get washed away, and there will be no road.” But even if the project fails, they fear the worst: “Debris and cement will enter the crevices of the seabed destroying habitats that are vital for our fishing activity.”

Shweta Wagh and Hussain Indorewala are urban researchers and teach at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies in Mumbai.