Mumbai’s Coastal Road Project, or Why Small Fishworkers are Boycotting Elections. Part Two.

  • April 24, 2019

One of the main peoples to be directly impacted by the fallout of Mumbai’s Coastal Road Project are the Koli fishing communities in the city. In an earlier report we spoke mainly about the effects of this on the city’s coastline and marine ecosystems. Here we focus on the impact on livelihoods of the Koli fishing communities in the city, and their resistance to the project. While the latest interim court order temporarily stalls the construction work, the fishworkers of Mumbai are demanding complete scrapping of the project while calling for a boycott of the elections in protest. A GroundXero report. You can read Part One of the coverage here.



No public hearing was held by the MoEF before approving the Coastal Road project that is going to displace thousands of fishing families along the city’s coast. The families that comprise the Koli community found out about the Government’s plans only when news flashed about construction companies being awarded tenders for the project. The full project has been divvied up among various big construction companies: the stretch from Priyadarshini to Haji Ali has been awarded to L&T, from Haji Ali to Bandra to HCC (the ones who also got the contract for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link project), and the part beyond Bandra has been handed over to the state-owned Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC).


Soon after this, in the name of “surveying the area,” the BMC and the aforementioned companies started filling up a 10km-long stretch of the sea, from the Worli Sea Link to Priyadarshini Park, with boulders and mud. Extensive work has begun: dumping debris, pulverizing rock surfaces with machines, and building stone bunds in the sea. Large parts of the earth dug out for the ongoing metro construction works in the city, are being dumped, despite the High Court order directing the BMC to halt the filling up of the sea. However, the dumping of rocks and mud has continued in blatant violation of the court order. When a group of fishermen went to ask the HCC officials to halt the project, they were told that the BMC hadn’t officially informed the company of the court order. Next day when they went back with a letter drafted by their lawyer, the company (which allegedly has close ties with the BMC) called the police who came to the site with prison vans in order to intimidate the people. Within 24 hours of the court order, according to local residents, at least as many as 178 trucks and dumpers offloaded boulders and soil into the sea. HCC officials have meanwhile declared the “reclaimed” part of the sea as “BMC’s area”, and have barred them from accessing it.


“We direct the concerned respondents [State Government, BMC] to maintain status quo in respect of the reclamation work,” said Tuesday’s court order. The Government had argued earlier that it would incur a daily loss of Rs. 10 crore in case a stay on the project was ordered. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had similarly stayed the Rs. 3,600-crore Shivaji Statue project of the Maharashtra Government, off the coast of South Mumbai. The project, if it takes place, is estimated to affect 16,000 fisherpeople by declaring the entire area as a ‘No Fishing Zone’. Despite such court orders and similar grave concerns raised, not only has the BJP-ruled state government not backed down in principle from any of its “coastal development” plans, but in fact the party’s Manifesto for the General Elections promises to replicate the same policy across the country’s entire coastline if voted back to power.




This is not the first time: the Bandra-Worli Sea Link

The fisherpeople of Mumbai had earlier risen up in protest in 2007, when the Bandra-Worli Sea Link construction began. The administration responded by declaring the entire area under Section 144. All meetings and gatherings were banned and the fisherpeople were prevented from fishing for 45 days at a stretch. “We were not even allowed to touch our boats, or do the regular repair and maintenance works,” one of the fishermen told GX. Although they were promised monetary compensation for the loss of business, even after 12 years most of the affected people are yet to receive this compensation, except a few families who were allegedly compensated for the wear and tear of their nets caused by the construction project. The government, it should be noted, does not even have a clear policy for compensating the loss of livelihood in cases like this, citing the “impossibility of estimating an average catch”. Owing to the lack of support from any major political organisation or civil society movements at that time, the protest was contained by the government, and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link came up in time only to become one of the newest iconic landmarks of the city.


History is now repeating itself. The protesting families alleged that the sitting Shiv Sena ward member from the area has not responded to any of their calls for stalling the disastrous project. While the BMC keeps at its usual delay tactics, the construction companies, on the other hand, have been given a free hand to keep filling up the coast.


Impact on the Fishing Community

Parts of the Worli coast have already been filled up. This was a traditional spot where the Koli fisherpeople would catch oysters, shells and several varieties of fish that are typical of rocky sea floors. Now this entire area has been sealed off.


The BMC has instead suggested that the fisherpeople to go deeper into the sea for their catch. However, only those with large enough boats or trawlers can venture that deep into the ocean – something that is impossible for the small trawlers. Big trawlers are not just expensive in terms of the capital investment required, they also need a larger crew and other expensive machines such as those for freezing large amounts of fish for days together while the trawler is at sea. A typical deep-sea trawler has to spend 6 to 8 days at a stretch in the ocean, in order for it to be economically viable activity. The minimum requirements for a typical 8-day trip include around 1200 litres of diesel, large quantities of ice or other refrigeration mechanisms, and around 8 crew members, their food, water, etc.


Worli Koliwada with the Bandra Sea Link in the horizon. Photo: GX


Moreover, the availability of fish in deeper waters has gone down drastically over the years because of predatory fishing practices engaged in by big trawlers. According to a 2013 study by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, the populations of several varieties of fish, such as the Bombay duck (aka Bombil), pomfret, prawns, sharks, and ray fish, has gone down significantly due to predatory fishing. The Fisheries department was in fact forced to issue lower limits on the mesh size of fishing nets so that the young fish are allowed to stay in the ocean. However, such rules are regularly violated in large scale fishing enterprises, and entire schools of fish – including the young ones – get scooped up en masse.


Most of the Koli fisherpeople, on the other hand, are “daily fishers” – they go into the sea early in the morning, and come back by mid-day with the day’s catch. For centuries, the Kolis have practised their traditional ways of fishing that are more sensitive to the balance of the marine ecosystem. For most of them, deep sea fishing is not even an option – economically, physically and also culturally.


The Worli Koliwada alone runs around 150 engine boats, and as many manual ones. Most of these boats have been bought on loans, and the boat owners still have to pay monthly interests. The total number of families in Worli that depend on these boats for their sustenance – as catchers, sorters, and small traders in the local markets and other subsidiary works, comes to around 2500. According to estimates, 2578 tonne of fish was procured in Worli alone in 2017-18. The fishing season begins in August, after the monsoons. “On an average we get 40-50 kgs of catch per day per boat. During the peak of the season, you won’t even find space here for an extra net – that’s how crowded these parts get with fishing boats,” said the protesting fishworkers. The catch has gone down drastically since the Bandra-Worli Sea Link was constructed. According to some fishermen whom GX spoke to, the amount of fish has gone down by as much as half since the Sea Link came up. Constant vibrations generated from heavy traffic on the elevated highway, together with the air and noise pollution from the traffic cutting across the sea, has resulted in marine wildlife leaving the area in en masse.


Fishing and the Coastal Environment

“The rocky sea floors along the coast of Mumbai are home to various kinds of fish like the pomfret and the gold fish, and other species such as prawns, oysters, lobsters, etc. They live inside the cracks and crevices of these rocks. Each species has its specific area. You won’t find the same variety of fish if you shift your fishing spot by even a few meters. These rocky shores are also the breeding grounds for fish. You can see the young ones grow up in these homes. We don’t catch the young ones, we only look for the grown ups,” said one of the fishermen. The Koli fishing tradition is built on an acute understanding of the sensitive marine ecosystem that includes, for instance, the practice of letting the baby fish – those that still get caught – back into the water after every catch.


Industrial and highly mechanised fishing trawlers that go into the deep seas have on the other hand normalized a completely predatory model of fishing. Huge nets are dropped into the waters, all the way down to the sea floor. For 4-5 hours, the trawler sweeps around the waters – covering expansive stretches, such as at times from Colaba to Alibaug – catching everything that moves. A second round of trawling happens again, on the way back. Usually these trawlers go in big formations, often comprising of 15-20 boats, over time emptying the entire area of fish.


More recently, other forms of mechanised fishing have emerged – those involving sonar devices called “fish finders” to track the hordes of fish under water by using radio waves, and by using powerful LED lights to light up huge areas of the sea in order to attract fish. Both methods are known to be extremely harmful to the marine ecosystem, and have drawn severe criticisms from environmentalists. The fisheries department has since banned the practice of lighting up the sea for attracting fish, though such orders are allegedly routinely violated in practice.


Instead of chasing through the waters, the Koli fisherpeople let the waters determine the catch. Fishing nets are hung in the sea facing the currents, and then the fisherpeople wait for the tides to come in. As the sea currents flow out their natural course, the fish get caught in the nets. The only way small-scale fishing practiced by the Kolis of Worli Gaao can survive is to demarcate a separate small fishing zone for themselves near the coast. Now, however, their fishing spots are about to be snatched away by the powerful Government-Corporate nexus. With concrete constructions coming up on the sea bed for coastal roads, the force of the water current has gone down progressively, bringing down the volumes of the catch.



The ruling-business elite of Mumbai – one of the fortresses of predatory financial capitalism in Asia – has launched an ecocidal attack on its coastlines, marine ecosystems, forests and all other “commons” in the city. Such attacks are only a flip side of the simultaneous brutal attack on the city’s working class population by dispossessing them off their livelihoods (as in the case of Worli Koliwada), or from their homes (as in the case of millions of slum residents across the city).


In the Worli Koliwada, 91 hectares of the coast have already been filled up by the BMC and real estate companies. That’s 91 hectares of fishing area that has been already destroyed, and can possibly never be restored again. The Koli fishing families have a simple demand: they want at least what is still left of their fishing habitat to be left alone.



Featured image: Graphic illustration of the proposed Coastal Road Plan. Source: Internet.

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