Mumbai coastal road project: Koli fishing port to face permanent closure?
Cleveland Bunder is one of four artisanal fish landing centres in Worli Koliwada, which is one of Mumbai’s earliest fishing villages, in existence since before the Seven Islands of Bombay were merged through successive land reclamation projects in the 19th century. Now, fisherfolk say, the bunder is under serious threat of permanent closure due to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) coastal road project (CRP), arguably the city’s next frontier in land reclamation.
Aaditya Thackeray, cabinet minister for environment and climate change (and MLA representing Worli constituency) did not respond to requests for comment.
As of date, Koli community leaders estimate that Cleveland Bunder supports at least a fourth of around 500 families in Worli Koliwada who still rely entirely on artisanal fishing as a source of income. It provides harbour for a varying fleet of motorised and non-motorised boats, which range between 45 to 60 on any given day, and also employs several migrant fish workers in addition to the Kolis.
Those operating from the bunder – locals estimate it to be at least 100 years old – may soon find themselves unable to access their customary fishing grounds. A barrier to their movement, in the form of an interchange bridge to connect the CRP with the Bandra-Worli Sea Link (BWSL) is on the anvil. MCGM recently began preparing to construct this segment of the controversial infra project, prompting nearly 200 boats from across the Worli fishing zone to gherao a temporary jetty at the CRP construction site on October 14.
The plan and problems faced by fisherfolk
The civic body plans to construct two connecting bridges between the south-end of the BWSL and the north end of the CRP, as part of a link that will allow traffic to flow seamlessly between the two. Like BWSL before it, fisherfolk said this interchange will run parallel to Cleveland Bunder and severely constrict the only navigational route available to boats venturing out to open seas.
As fishing boats leave the harbour, they traverse a narrow, zig-zag path to their fishing grounds which extend from the north near Mot Mauli (or Mount Mary) in Bandra to Walkeshwar in south Mumbai. The boats pass between two pillars (about 30 metres apart) that support the Bandra-Worli Sea Link overhead.
Both the inter-tidal and sub-tidal areas of the beach are extremely rocky, and this route needs to be manoeuvred with great skill to prevent accidents. “We have been using the same navigation route for generations. After the Bandra Worli Sea Link came up, the route has become narrower and we have to be very careful,” says Rupesh Patil, member of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Vyavsay Sahakari Society.
Unlike cars on the road, steering a boat in open water is more complicated, with the wind and waves playing a major role in the safety of the vessel and its passengers. “One strong gust of wind can send our boats crashing against the pillars. It happened to many boats when BWSL was being constructed. Also, more than one boat cannot pass through the span at a given time. The pillars have slowed us down and made it an everyday risk just to reach our fishing grounds,” explains Deepak Vasudev, a fourth-generation artisanal fisherman from Worli Koliwada.
As per the design plans for phase 2 of CRP — from Baroda Palace at Haji Ali to BWSL — another four pillars are to be erected directly within this precarious navigation route, which is used by fishermen every day. BMC has proposed to leave a gap of 60 metres between these pillars, which fisherfolk say is simply too little.
“We require a span of at least 200 metres between the pillars to ensure safe passage. There is no doubt that if BMC continues as per their original plans, we will have to shut down Cleveland Bunder entirely. There will be no use for the boats because we won’t be able to take them out,” says Nitesh Patil, director of the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Vyavsay Sahakari Society (WKNVSS). Patil emphasised that they have appealed to multiple authorities to consider redesigning the interchange.
Not a recent demand
The first time that fisherfolk at Worli Koliwada raised the issue of their navigational channel dates back to at least October 2016, followed by representations sent to MCGM, fisheries department and various other arms of the state government in April 2017, November and December 2018.
In yet another, dated October 2020, Vijay Kishor Patil (WKNVSS chairman), wrote, “The construction of two additional bridges in front of Cleveland Bunder... will completely cut off our access to the sea and nearshore areas which comprise our fishing zone.”
“It is therefore imperative that the design is changed and that the distance (between the proposed pillars for the CR-BWSL interchange) is increased to at least 200 metres as we have highlighted in countless representations in the past,” the letter continues.
Over a year and at least two more such representations later, fisherfolk say they have not received any formal acknowledgement of their concerns, from any authority.
“We have met all sorts of officials to discuss this matter many, many times. All we are told is that adequate compensation will be given to project-affected persons. But that is not what we want. We want to continue fishing and there is no way we can do that if these pillars come up. What trade will we teach our children?” questions Marshal Koli, a resident of Worli Koliwada and a spokesperson for the Akhil Maharashtra Machimaar Kruti Samiti, a state-wide fish workers union.
Work in progress
The predicament, which has loomed over Cleveland Bunder for the past several years, is fast coming to a head. On October 14, the Hindustan Construction Company (which is tasked with building Package 2 of the CRP, from Baroda Palace at Haji Ali to BWSL) anchored three buoys in the fishing waters just off Cleveland Bunder, to facilitate the movement of barges and tugboats in the area.
“The anchors are there to support barges that will carry construction materials and machinery from our jetty to the construction site. We are just about to start digging the foundations of the bridge. It is the final arm of the coastal road’s southern stretch and is scheduled for completion by 2023,” an official with the BMC’s coastal roads department confirmed to HT on the day. However, when asked for a comment regarding the fishermen’s navigation route, the official declined to comment — as did two others who are directly involved in the project.
Vijay Nighot, chief engineer in the BMC’s coastal roads department, said, “There will be no redesign of the interchange”.
HT also reached out to officials in the fisheries department but did not receive a response in the matter. Former fisheries minister Aslam Shaikh, whom fisherfolk have written to directly, could not be reached for comment despite attempts. However, an official (formerly occupying the post of district fisheries officer), said while seeking anonymity, “It is up to BMC to take appropriate steps as the coastal road is their project. It is not the fisheries department’s job to intervene in these disputes. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute has already conducted a social impact assessment for the project and a survey has been commissioned by from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to give the fishers proper compensation.”
Demand for a design change to continue
Shweta Wagh, an architect and researcher who has been closely mapping the impact of the CRP on fishing communities in Worli, remarked that reclamation has already grievously affected the livelihood of the community and that their demands can be easily accommodated through a design change. Given that physical works on the bridge have not yet commenced, and that the coastal road itself has been subject to design changes including the addition of 21 hectares of reclaimed land, a modification is certainly possible, Wagh claimed.