Mumbai has been called the city of dreams, the city of gold, but get a little closer and dig a little deeper, you will find that Mumbai is not unlike a Russian matryoshka doll – take off one layer and you discover seemingly endless layers beneath, separate, fascinating, and sometimes overlapping, worlds within a world. So many different kinds of people from so many different places, races and communities have been drawn here over the centuries, and now all of them call this place home. However, it is the Koli fishing community, who must surely hold the strongest right to the title of Mumbai’s original residents. And Sassoon Dock at sunrise is the place to be to observe their overwhelmingly busy world in action, exploding with all of its energy, power, colour, texture, smell, tradition and magic.

For over 500 years the Koli fishing communities have been living and working along the coastal waters of the seven islands that made up the present day city of Mumbai. Some of Mumbai’s well-known locality names today originate from the Koli community, such as Worli and Dongri. In fact, even the very name ‘Mumbai’ is said to have been used for this place by the Kolis from as far back as the 16th century and was derived from their goddess, and patron deity of the city, Mumbadevi. Around 5,00,000 Kolis are estimated to be living in and around the Mumbai area, most still making their living off the sea despite a very different world rising up all around them on the land, and arguably even more drastic changes taking place below the waters of the sea they depend on. Even today, most of their daily trade is done, as it has been since the late 1800s, at Sassoon Dock, at sunrise.

Ganesh Nakhwa offered to be my guide into this dizzying Koli world of fast moving fish commerce, surrounded by the glistening bodies of a multitude of sea creatures, the muscular bodies of the fishermen, who bring in the catch, and the colourfully clad bodies of the powerful women, who sell the catch. Space is at a premium here, and with 1,800 boats operating out of Sassoon Dock, and an average of 100 boats selling 300-400 tonnes of fish there every day, carried off for the buyers in hundreds of overflowing multi-coloured baskets, precariously balanced on fast moving heads. To say this place is ‘heaving with activity’ is an understatement... But Ganesh has grown up around this micro-world within a world, and he moves confidently through the beautiful madness, knowing its every nook and cranny, as well as being on first name terms with most of the main characters involved in the dramas that play out here on a daily basis.

Ganesh is a seventh generation Koli fisherman, from the fishing village of Karanja, still making his living from the fortunes of the sea. But this is where the stereotype ends. Having obtained his degree in Business Studies and Finance at Edinburgh University, Ganesh spent a few years working in investment banking in the United Kingdom, before returning to India aged 23 to pursue his real life-long passion – fishing. He was adamant that his learnings, together with his passion, and a modern approach, could be applied to the Koli finishing community to bring about much-needed changes, to improve the lives of fishermen, and to help adapt the industry to the dramatically changing conditions it is facing today.

(Above: Squid sorting at the dock)

When asked why he came back Ganesh says: “I wanted to explore the potential and the new possibilities for the fishing industry, but most of all I wanted to make a real difference, to safeguard and improve the lives and the incomes of our fishermen and the communities, which rely on this way of life, and to ensure that future generations of Koli fishermen continue to take up fishing as their chosen livelihood.”

Now 31, Ganesh is well on his way to being in a position to fulfill his ambitions of modernising the industry and bringing about changes for the benefit of the entire fishing community. Currently holding the posts of Director of Karanja Fisheries Cooperative Society and Chairman of the Purse Seine Fishermen Welfare Association, Maharastra, he feels strongly that cooperative structures help the local fishermen run their operations as a business, distributing government subsidies, as well as helping to strengthen and unify them as a community of often competing individuals. By being more organised as a single unified force, Ganesh argues that cooperatives can also help the fishing communities take on the fight with larger government bodies, deal with regulatory issues, as well as being in a position to attempt to simplify the long-established complex supply chains, result in a greater proportion of income from the catch reaching the fishermen directly.

(Above: Ganesh Nakhwa, Chairman of the Purse Seine Fishermen Welfare Association, Maharastra)

However noble his intentions for modernising the fishing industry might be, it has not been plain sailing – not everyone wants change, traditionalists fear it, others are suspicious of it, especially when implementing some of these changes requires investment, which many in the community simply don’t have; and when the consequences of some of the changes he has in mind would mean a loss of earnings for some, for the benefit of others.

One of the areas where Ganesh feels changes are long overdue is that of the long-established and complicated supply chain, which every catch has to go through before it can be sold. His logic being: the more links in this chain, the more money is going into the pockets of people other than the fishermen themselves, who are the ones doing all the hard work. But can long-established traditions be altered?

(Above: A sailfish being carried off after an auction)

Currently, and for many generations past, the chain has looked like this:

Fisherman > Auctioneer > Supplier > Agent > Exporter/Wholesaler > Fish Market > Consumer

What if, with the help of cooperatives, the fishermen could sell directly to the exporters/wholesalers without having to pay out to all the other intermediaries along the way? This would revolutionise the industry, simplify and streamline the selling process, and ensure that the fishermen get notably more income for every catch they bring in.

(Above: Fish is thrown upwards from the boats below, in baskets if small, or individually, as seen here, if big, to be received by the auctioneers above, ready to sell)

In his native village of Karanja, across the water from the famous Sassoon Dock, something is about to happen which might just help this initiative along its way. A new harbour is being built right next to the fishing village. Karanja fishermen have historically sold their catch in Sassoon Dock, where the supply chain described above has long-standing roots, but in two years’ time, they will have their own harbour from where they can then sell their produce. Could this be the perfect opportunity to try this new proposed modus operandi, to use this blank canvas, so to speak, to set up a new set of rules for how things could be done in the future? Clearly, not everyone is going to be a fan of Ganesh’s novel way of thinking, not least those very links in the chain, which he hopes to eliminate. Only time will tell whether the industry is ready to take this leap into the unknown.

Supply chain issues aside, there are many serious problems on a macro level creating very real threats to the survival of the Koli fishing industry. Problems, which, if no action is taken today, will spell disaster in the years to come. “We are reaching a stage where a few bad seasons could be enough to see a complete industrial collapse. With no alternative income, and huge loan commitments for many fishermen, if there is no fish to catch, where is the way out?” asks Ganesh. India has 7,200 kilometers of coastline and four-five crore fishermen making their living from the sea. Given these numbers, it is easy to see how such a collapse would have far-reaching implications.


(Above: Day’s catch being sorted on the boats into baskets, to be sent upwards to the buyers)

Many of the major threats to the stability and to the continuing existence of the Koli way of life are of global proportions, and one of the biggest of these is overfishing. Depleting fish stocks are no longer a market whisper but a very real fact. An article in the Times of India recently reported that 80 percent of Gujarat’s fishermen have had to pack up their boats this season two months before the official end of the season, because there simply isn’t enough fish out there for them to catch, and the cost of fishing trips is not being covered by the insufficient sizes of their catch. And this picture is not only true for the unfortunate fishermen of Gujarat.

As David Attenborough, world-famous conservationist and naturalist, explains in his recent program Our Planet: “Decades of unsustainable fishing have left many fish stocks in serious decline, half have collapsed altogether. Industrial overfishing is by far the main cause for the drastic collapse in fish populations, which threaten the health and stability of the entire oceanic system.” Industrial fishing by bottom trawlers is being blamed as the greatest source of the damage, destroying the ecology of the sea bed by blindly scraping their nets across it, and in doing so destroying reefs and breeding grounds of many fish species, as well as generating unintentional but hugely wasteful by-catch of many critically endangered species. Bottom trawlers account for roughly 60 percent of India’s fishing market, and 40 percent of Maharashtra’s, with approximately 75,000 bottom trawlers currently operating in India.


(Above: Giant blocks of ice being shredded into tiny pieces, ready for delivery to the boats to keep their catch fresh)

Likewise, climate change is no longer something which can be denied and these environmental changes are directly affecting the livelihoods of Indian fishermen by changing the weather patterns and altering fish behaviour. According to the World Economic Forum, India’s coastal water temperatures have risen by half a degree, which has had a devastating knock-on effect for the fishermen: some fish numbers are severely down (anchovies), others are migrating to cooler waters (sardines), while others still are moving into deeper waters (mackerel), where the Indian fishermen don’t have the deep sea fishing equipment to reach them.

Competition threat from foreign large-scale operators is another big issue faced by the Indian fishing community. While by law, foreign boats can only fish in international waters, 200 nautical miles from India’s coasts. However, international waters fishing regulations are also often blatantly flouted, due to the difficulty of regulation enforcement out there in the big blue. They are often also better equipped with 360-degree sonar and deep sea fishing methods, and so pose a very real threat of competition.

(Above: Catch of the day!)

Yet more competition, though for space rather than produce, comes from the oil Industry. Bombay High, or Mumbai High Fields, is an offshore oil field occupying close to 200 square kilometers off the coast of Mumbai. This sea bed area is valuable for fishermen because it acts as the breeding ground for many local fish species, and when damaged by the drilling activities of the oil rigs, has far-reaching implications for future generations of local fish stocks.

Government subsidies are another sensitive subject, which has a powerful effect on the survival of the fishermen in India. Currently, the Indian government has a number of subsidies in place to help Indian fishermen, including fuel cost offsetting, aid with costly investment in new nets and navigational equipment and more. However, the World Trade Organisation is currently considering a proposal by the United States and Australia to put a cap on subsidies offered to fishermen of tier 1 countries, which include China and India, as part of a set of proposed changes to special provisions in international trade. This proposal would affect the least developed countries the most, and the smaller fishermen would be the ones to feel the worst of the brunt of such changes, as they are the ones whose lives depend on these subsidies.

(Above: Koli fisherwomen selling the catch of the day)

Government policies, in general, are a huge concern to fishermen. Lack of regulations, lack of enforcement of those regulations that do exist (for example limiting bottom trawler’s damaging activities), conflicting and confusing regulations at state versus national levels, lack of protection for endangered species, and lack of focus on the fishing industry in general are all criticisms that have been leveled at the government’s involvement in the fishing industry, or lack thereof. Despite the huge numbers of people dependent on this industry, there is as yet no separate Fisheries Ministry in India.

Many of the issues discussed above are macro factors, which affect all the fishermen of India directly or indirectly. However, there is one issue threatening the Kolis’ way of life in particular, which is much closer to home. Much of the Kolis’ traditional coastal lands are now in high demand for redevelopment. The ambitious Mumbai Coastal Road Project, estimated at a cost of 15,000 crores, threatens to take away coastal lands from the Kolis, and so wipe out entire fishing villages along with huge swathes of the western side of Mumbai’s coast. The proposed reclamation of 90 hectares of land for the construction of the 29km freeway and its surrounding developments, which will connect the northern suburbs to South Bombay along the western coast, is a mammoth undertaking, which arguably benefits a tiny proportion of Mumbai’s massive population.

(Above: The boats dock below to unload their wares, while the buyers position themselves directly above waiting for the day’s catch to arrive)

The project has faced stiff opposition from conservationists, naturalists, the fishing community and even Mumbaikars from the very car owning sections of society, who stand to benefit most from the project. In spite of a slew of protests, marches, petitions and the like, reclamation work on phase 1 of the project started at a dizzying pace at Breach Candy. As of 11 April however, the High Court has halted the building works for now, following a petition by a number of NGOs accusing the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) of not obtaining the necessary environmental clearances prior to commencing the works. The NGOs argue that the environmental cost of this project is just too high, with mangrove forests being destroyed, fishing communities displaced, coastal ecology disrupted, tidal circulation patterns affected, as well as the loss of livelihoods for the local fishermen, who have historically been fishing in these shallow coastal waters for their only source of income.

There is no doubt that this is a critical time for the survival of the Koli fishing community. How it adapts to, and evolves from, both the macro and micro factors affecting it in the dramatically changing environment of today will determine its success going forward.

—All photographs by Polina Schapova

Polina Schapova is a Delhi-based Russian-British photographer. Follow her work on Instagram or on her website.