Fifty-two-year-old Moreshwar Namdeo Koli is a fisherman whose family has been fishing in the Arabian sea off the Mumbai coast for the past three generations. His is among the 15,000 families of the Koli community, considered the original inhabitants of Mumbai, who stay along the coast of western Mumbai and are living with the sword of the upcoming coastal road project hanging over their necks.
The 35-kilometre-long road along Mumbai’s western coast threatens the livelihood of the fishermen as it would block their access to the sea and deplete the fish stock that they have been dependent on for decades.
A temporary relief of sorts for the community, however, came on July 16, when the Bombay High Court passed an order (pdf) to stop the ongoing work on the coastal road with immediate effect as the environment clearances taken were not in accordance with the requisite procedures. The court directed the project authorities to seek appropriate environment clearance along with wildlife clearance. The state government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) have appealed in the Supreme Court against the high court’s order. The case is now pending in the apex court.
“We are happy that the court has stayed the work on this project. Now, we are hoping that proper justice is done to us and our only means of livelihood for generations is not taken away from us,” said Moreshwar Namdeo Koli.
The Koli community is angry and upset, claiming that they were not consulted before the project was started. “There was a clear direction from the fisheries director that fishermen should be taken into confidence before the project starts, but, no one bothered to even come and tell us what was going on,” said Harishchandra Keroba Nakhwa, a fisherman and president of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsya Vyavasaay Sahakari Society.
“We are not against development, but the way it is being planned and built, it is clear that it will destroy the fishing areas in the sea. The access to the sea will be stopped permanently and the natural course of the water will be altered forever,” said 72-year-old Nakhwa while adding that they are ready to cooperate with the government but not at such a high cost to their lives.
The order of the high court was a result of several petitions which were clubbed together. The Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsya Vyavasaay Sahakari Society was one of the petitioners.
The Mumbai coastal road project, which will connect Nariman Point in south Mumbai to Kandivali in northwest Mumbai, will be a 35-km long road and will be built on reclaimed land. It is expected to cost Rs15,000 crore ($2.11 billion) and is expected to be completed by 2022.
Fishermen fear their livelihood is at stake
The main concern of the fishermen community is about their livelihood. Harishchandra Keroba Nakhwa explained that the project would uproot them from their traditional livelihood and even the one-time compensation offered by the government is unacceptable as it is not sufficient.
“How can an entire family and the coming generations survive on a one-time compensation when their only means of earning is being permanently taken away,” Nakhwa questioned.
Nakhwa also complained that when the Bandra-Worli Sea Link was built connecting the western suburb to southern Mumbai, the fishermen community in Worli was not taken into confidence and without their knowledge massive pillars were erected right in the middle of the sea, which massively changed the fishing pattern.
“The pillars were erected in the path of our fishing boats and even the fish which used to come near the shore stopped coming, this resulted in massive losses to the fishermen in Worli area,” Nakhwa said.
Director of Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation working on environmental issues, Stalin D emphasised that there is one segment of the fishing community that has been completely neglected by the government.
“The fishermen that are spoken about are the ones who have boats and those who take their boats in the sea for fishing. However, there is a sizeable number of fishermen, almost 30%, who are the poorest of the poor and don’t have boats. They fish near the shore and depend entirely on the seawater for their livelihood,” said Stalin, who was also of the petitioners.
“These poor fishermen wait for the high tide to bring in fish near the shore and then they lay their nets and catch the fish. And when there is low tide, they scavenge for crabs and shells which are left behind by the receding tide. No one is talking about these fishermen and how will they earn their livelihood after the coastal road is built,” Stalin said.
This is not the first time that the Koli community is facing neglect. In January 2019, the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) came out with the Coastal Regulation Zone notification 2018 (pdf) replacing the 2011 version (pdf). This notification governs and regulates the activities in ecologically sensitive coastal areas. But the 2018 version makes no mention about Koliwadas, which are the fishing settlement areas in Mumbai, and had special protection in the 2011 notification.
Coastal road project threatens marine ecology
With state elections in Maharashtra scheduled within the next two-three months, the issue is bound to stay in focus. In the Lok Sabha e