Mumbai’s coastal ecosystem, just a few decades ago, consisted of lush greenery and dense mangroves, clean water for the most part, and sandy and healthy beaches. The Kolis’ boats dotted the sea as they brought back abundant fish to sustain themselves, which they dried and cut along the coast. Today, their chatter and bustle have been greatly affected by climate change, development, and the resultant ecological destruction. Mangroves are being indiscriminately cut down under the guise of development. Plastic blankets beaches and water bodies, polluting the environment and throwing off a long-sustained ecological balance. And creeks, where fresh water from the rivers meets the sea, which were once breeding grounds for fishes, today witness an alarming loss of marine life due to pollution.

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Image credit: Wilson Koli (1990)
The vast expanse of the sea where the boats used to venture out for fishing at the Worli Koliwada before the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea link.

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Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (2005)
2005 Mumbai floods were nothing but a nightmare to the ones living by the shore. The high tide and the rains had caused destruction, much more than one could imagine. All the houses built on the shore and the small boats got destroyed.
Lately, climate change and global warming have contributed to the increase in the phenomena of storms, cyclones and floods, making disasters the ‘new normal’.

In Mumbai, the loss of marine life impacts the coastal Koli community most starkly. “The sea is being reclaimed everywhere, mangroves are being cut down, pollution is increasing,” says Rajhans Tapke, a member of the Versova koliwada. “As a result, in the last 20 years, there’s a lack of fish. So fishermen are disappearing.” Like indigenous peoples elsewhere, the Kolis also face the challenge of loss of land, which results in rapid loss of their traditional way of life. “Kolis are the original inhabitants of Mumbai. You’ll tell children that once they used to there and live like this. We’ll become a story. The fishing community won’t survive, that’s the situation we’re in.”

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Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1982)
This fishermen community has been practicing this occupation for more than seven to eight generations. With the growing urbanisation, the younger generations are setting their feet out in the world for better opportunities.
The photo shares a heart warming relation between the grandfather and the grandson, where the younger one is putting in all efforts to learn about their traditional family occupational values without any fear.

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Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1975)
The fish drying activity involves a lot of technique and process to be followed. One of them is turning the fish upside down after one side has been dried off, which is called ‘ghata.'
Women were the one who majorly looked after all these activities, while having their children around so even they get to know the minute details of the processes. The adults at the time made sure that the traditional skills and knowledge are passed on to the younger generations.

Through generations, the Kolis have observed firsthand how the ecology has been disturbed, and given how closely intertwined their lives are with nature, have had to adapt to these changes. All this is evident in their photos, displayed at the online exhibition Through the Eyes of the Kolis: A Reflection of Mumbai’s Past, Present, and Future, created by the experimental think tank Bombay61 Studio, with The Heritage Lab and Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic (MMM). The exhibit archives photos taken by the Kolis between the 1950s and 2010s, and records the narratives and oral histories around them, which speak of witnessing environmental degradation, address the changing way of life for the Kolis, and discuss the altering borders of the koliwadas, under the sections The Community and their Livelihood, Alteration of the ‘Edges,’ The Coastal Ecosystems, and Mapping the Histories.

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Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1975)
The dried fish business has always been a huge part of the lives of the Kolis. The fish drying yards were strategically set up all along the sea shore so that it would not affect the fresh fish market routes.
The picture depicts the scenario where one could see the fish drying platforms before the construction of the police station that was set up as a hindrance to the fishing activities. The area is now populated with densely packed buildings with hardly any space left for fish drying.

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Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1958)
Mr Raje shares this image of the Dol net boats docked at the Versova fishing harbour which he says were ‘an inexpensive and most efficient way of fishing’. Dol net was a traditional way of fishing that was more sustainable.
The introduction of mechanised fishing boats in the late 1980s made fishing easier, and the fishermen could venture out in deep seas for the fish catch. The industry flourished briefly but led to overfishing. Overfishing has also proven to be one of the major contributors to the decline in fish catch.

(Also read on Firstpost: The Kolis, one of the oldest fishing communities of Mumbai, face an uncertain future)

“There used to be amazing stories narrated by all generations of the Kolis. Their voices are never heard by the people or city at large. These needed to be heard,” says Bombay61 Studio cofounder Jai Bhadgaonkar about creating the exhibit. While being an archive for the Koli community’s photos and recording their way of life, the exhibit also serves as a record of Mumbai’s changing coastal biodiversity, as reminisced by the Kolis. For instance, Bombay61 Studio cofounder Ketaki Tare talks about how Mogra nallah at Lokhandwala is recognised by the Kolis as Amboli khadi, a creek, and how its degrading to refer to a water body as a nallah. “We treat them like sewage drains just because we’re calling them nallahs,” says Tare. The urban youth also generally normalises such environmental degradation. “We tend to normalise what we see around us, which is degraded already,” she adds. By communicating these ideas through the exhibit, they hope to remind viewers that what we see today is not normal, and can be reversed.

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Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1958)
Versova Koliwada became home to different communities over a period of time. The image shows the women from the Jafrabadi community of Gujarat, who dominated the dried fish business at Versova Koliwada at the time.
Be the local Koli women or the Jafrabadi women, the women of the fishing community dominate the trading of the fish. Women have always been at the forefront of the fishing business.

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Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
There was no development close to the seashore till the 1990s. One could still spot a line of coconut trees in the village. The vegetation cover in the village has gone down considerably.

MMM’s Arpita Bhagat also points out the gap in understanding of the community’s role in the city, especially with the younger generations. “People understand by and large that they are the fishermen community, but not the kind of issues the community faces in terms of losing access to land, not having a say in the policy making process, (and) not being recognised for their historical roots within the city… The goal is for people to understand how land rights are tied with climate justice,” says Bhagat.

Another instance Tare highlights is about how we depend on the meteorological centre to know if a cyclone or storm is arriving. But the Kolis’ traditional knowledge means they look for Bombay ducks in bulk as an indication that a storm is close. This fast-disappearing way of life is closely connected to the natural world. The Kolis pray to the sea, depend on it for food and livelihood, and celebrate it in their songs and traditions. “Culturally, we depend completely on nature,” says Tapke. He adds that when farmers are in distress, when crop burns or drowns, its clearly visible, and the government provides aid. But the slow poisoning of the sea is not immediately evident. “The impact isn’t obvious in front of your eyes. You have to tally the situation of fishermen from 15 years ago with what it is now. But no one’s ready to do that.”

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Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
Until the late '80s, the whole of the Versova Harbour was a natural seashore. The jetty did not exist, hence all the fish dealings, diesel loadings, and ice loadings worked synchronously. Parts of the coastal edge of the Koliwada are now concretised to create jetties and fish landings.

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Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
The boats were easily accessible on ground before the construction of the jetty. The tidal levels changed after this alteration in the ‘edges.'

While awareness about the role of the Kolis is important, most vital for them is being integrated with local governing bodies and having a say. “(If) it’s the sea’s development, we should have representation in the decision-making process, we should have involvement in any development along the coasts,” adds Tapke. These connections are what the exhibit hopes to highlight by providing a platform for the Kolis to voice their stories and concerns.

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Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
Even though the seashore proved to be a great harbor, with time it was necessary for a concreted platform surface to be built. During the high tide, the water would enter high on to the seashore. This would not only cause harm to the boats but even the fish catch used to wash off with the waves, causing a huge loss to the kolis.
Suggestions were made from the Koli jamat about how the high tide water could be resisted. Prithviraj Chandi devised the plan of separating the existing sand into parts and piling them one upon another to increase the height of the jetty harbor. Finally, after a huge round of discussion, the decision was taken, and thus the 10-12 feet high jetty was built.

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Image credit: Denis Patil (2000)
Worli Koliwada was an island till about the 19th century. The canal seen in the image was used to navigate to the koliwada from the main town of Mumbai.
In due course of development the land was reclaimed, a vehicular bridge was built for better accessibility, and the edges of the canal were concretised. Once an important and wide water channel used for navigation, it is now referred to as a smelly nullah (drain).

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Image credit: Denis Patil (2000)
Due to the decline in the fishing industry, the aspirations of the community have changed considerably. The younger generation does not wish to continue with fishing.
In an attempt of keeping their traditional knowledge alive, we see few Kolis like Patil trying to pass on the knowledge to his son beginning from a young age.

View the exhibition Through the Eyes of the Kolis: A Reflection of Mumbai’s Past, Present, and Future here.

— Feature image: Image by Sadashiv Raje (1980). The Dol net boat getting converted into troll net at the initial adoption of troll net process. Raje captured the technological advancements of his own boat.