The Koli (fisher folk) community, Mumbai's true sons-of-soil, is finding itself being thoroughly marginalised even as the city develops. As Mumbai went to polls on Thursday, Kolis said they felt slighted by the successive governments, which had been ignoring their problems—high level of silting in jetties, declining catch (fish), illegal fishing by mechanised trawlers and undeveloped villages.
Mumbai has around 35 koliwadas and 80 gaothans on its 110-km coastline. However, some koliwadas like Dharavi and Sion have lost their identity due to reclamation.
Along with communities like Agris, Bhandaris and Prabhus, the Kolis, who comprise sub-communities like Sonkolis, Mangelas and Vaitis, are the original inhabitants of the seven islands of Mumbai.
Kolis now complain that they live a life far removed from the romance of the catchy Marathi Koli geets, and that the metropolis was being developed at their expense.
Sitting in his modest dwelling at Macchimar Nagar in Colaba, a place now more famous as the site where Ajmal Kasab and his band of Pakistani terrorists landed on 26/11, Damodar Tandel is livid.
"We don't expect any positive outcome from the elections. Whoever comes to power, we Kolis will get nothing," said Tandel, adding that the community had also been politically neglected with no Koli MP or MLA.
"We have been staying here for centuries... even before the British set foot here, but today, rules like CRZ and the lack of provisions in the development control regulations (DCR) make it tough for us to construct better houses. However, people from UP and Bihar are allowed to stay in pre-2000 slums," said Tandel.
"The state of the 34 jetties in Mumbai is horrifying," said Tandel. "All except Sassoon docks and Bhau cha Dhakka, have huge amount of silt. There aren't much fish near the coastline now, as mangroves, which are breeding ground for aquatic life, are being destroyed, and discharge of waste and effluents and dumping of plastic have affected fish near the coastline. This has forced fishermen to venture deeper into the sea for better catch, increasing expenditure and affecting profits," he added.
Tandel, a director at Central Institute of Fisheries Education, complained that authorities were also neglecting the use of purse sein nets, which literally scrape the sea-bed affecting breeding as they net young fish.
According to him, most of the educated Koli youth were now averse to taking up fishing due to the risks involved, and preferred white-collar jobs. And as a result, those from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and even Bangladesh, were entering the trade. Illegal cross-border migrants posed a security risk, he added.
"What did we get in the 66 years after Independence? Today, we are not allowed to put up a shed over our place of work, forcing us to stand in the scorching sun," said Jagdish Tandel, a net-maker in Sassoon docks, listing out demands like cold storages, hike in diesel subsidy and insurance scheme (destruction of fish and boats) to preserve their trade. "However, politicians neglect us after polls," he complained.
Bhalchandra Meher had another kind of complaint. He seemed unable to comprehend the concept of 'vegetarian societies' where non-vegetarians weren't allowed to stay, and whose residents objected to fish markets operating in the vicinity.
"There isn't any fishing taking place during the four monsoon months. Fishermen should be compensated for the loss of livelihood during this period," demanded Ganesh Tandel.
"While Mumbai develops in leaps and bounds, we are regressing," said Prashant Vaidya. It looks like Kolis, who consider themselves the 'daryache raje' (kings of the seas) are fighting a losing battle.
Of the around Rs 8,000-crore worth fish exported from India, Maharashtra accounts for about Rs 2,000 crore. The state's annual catch is around 2.5 to 3.5 lakh metric tons. However, despite the rise in the number of boats and trawlers, the catch has remained stagnant. Maharashtra has around 23,000 boats, including 13,000 mechanised ones.