30 Uran fisherfolk arrested for opposing Uran Bypass bridge
Mumbai: Thirty fisherfolk from Uran Koliwada have been arrested and remanded to judicial custody for opposing the construction of the Uran Bypass Bridge, which they say will affect the livelihoods of at least 137 fishermen and allied workers
Mumbai: Thirty fisherfolk from Uran Koliwada have been arrested and remanded to judicial custody for opposing the construction of the Uran Bypass Bridge, which they say will affect the livelihoods of at least 137 fishermen and allied workers. The bridge is being built by the by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO).
The Uran judicial magistrate emphasised that the project is one of “national interest”, and that the accused have been arrested for “creating danger to the nation.”
An FIR has been filed against 20 men and 10 women, under sections 353, 341, 143, 141, 186, 109, and 506 (read with) 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The fisherfolk were produced before the JMFC Court, Uran, and remanded to judicial custody until February 20. Their bail hearing will be held on Monday, February 13, at the District and Sessions Court at Panvel.
The arrests were made after several hundred residents of Uran Koliwada gathered peacefully at the project site on the morning of February 7, to protest the Uran Bypass Bridge as well as the larger destruction of their customary fishing grounds by multiple land-owning agencies (primarily CIDCO, JNPA and NMSEZ) over decades.
Mohit Koli, who lives in Uran Koliwada, said, “Work on the bridge had slowed down after the Bombay High Court put a stay on the project in July last year. But on the night of February 6, CIDCO’s contractor started reclaiming land from the Uran Creek at a very fast pace. This is a violation of the HC order, which is why we started our protest on February 7.”
Seven of Koli’s relatives, who were also present at the site, are currently in custody. His uncle Dilip Koli, who has filed a writ petition against the project in the Bombay High Court, is the first accused named in the FIR and remand order.
“This is a clear misuse of power by the state to suppress the voices of marginalised communities. Section 353 of IPC is a draconian charge relating to the assault of a police officer, and has not been substantiated in the FIR at all. The fishers have not once tried to stop the work by force. We support national progress, but are yet to benefit from it despite sacrificing our ancestral fishing grounds for development,” said Nandakumar Pawar, chairman, Maharashtra Small Scale Traditional Fishworker’s Union.
Investigating officer Sunil Chavan, from Uran police station, did not directly answer questions about the events of the day, or the charges invoked. “The accused have been arrested because the project is one of national interest and they were not allowing it to proceed. There is no stay on construction. CIDCO has the right to do the work. The men among the accused are in Taloja jail, while the women are in Aadharwadi Jail in Kalyan,” he said.
Chavan’s statement runs contrary to a Bombay High Court order from July 29, 2022, which directed that “no further work should be carried out on the project for a limited period.” Chavan declined to clarify his statement when HT pointed this out. This stand is also reflected in the subsequent remand order issued by the judicial magistrate.
“CIDCO should first approach the high court to clarify whether or not they are allowed to proceed with the work. They cannot interpret the court’s July 2022 order to their own end. Their strategy seems to be: complete the work by force, and then make a fait accompli argument before the High Court. We have seen it several times,” said Devendra Tandel, president, Akhil Maharashtra Machimaar Kruti Samiti.
The remand order notes that “CIDCO is constructing... bypass road for carrying live ammunition by I N S. Tunir and N A D Karanja. Thus, it is important road to be constructed in national interest and security of India. However, these accused are obstructing the construction of road for compensation. These persons are obstructing public officers from carrying out their legal duties, thereby creating danger to the nation.”
To be sure, while the project affected persons (PAPs) have been assured compensation by the state government, the modalities of relief and the monetary amount are yet to be decided.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties issued a statement in support of the fisherfolk on Friday, strongly condemning the arrests and demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the accused.
PUCL Maharashtra strongly condemns the destruction of the fishing areas and the reign of terror unleashed on the affected fisherfolk, who are merely asserting their customary rights and their right to a decent livelihood. PUCL Maharashtra demands that they be allowed to fish in the area, including the Uran Creek, unhindered and the areas that have been illegally reclaimed be restored immediately,” it said.
Lara Jesani, general secretary, PUCL (Maharashtra), told HT, “This criminalisation of protests and misuse of section 353 has to stop. It has been invoked in the persecution of a community exercising their constitutional right to protest, without any allegation to justify it.”
Senior officials in CIDCO declined to speak to HT, directing inquiries to CIDCO’s public relations office. The office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Friday.
The Bombay High Court had, in July last year, imposed a temporary stay on the project, stating, “Simply throwing money at people is not an answer to what is evidently a displacement problem, a question involving the livelihood of the poor and the marginalised, and essentially a question about the human condition of persons who depend on fishing for their daily earnings.”
The HC also said at the time, “We do not believe that the Koli fishermen have ever been consulted nor have their objections or suggestions been invited... They are simply supposed to quietly accept a complete eradication of their centuries-old traditional fishing landing sites and are supposed to somehow manage for the rest of their lives and through future generations. No principle of development planning or environmental law allows us to accept such a stand.”