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Mumbai coastal road project work leaves fisherfolk in uncharted waters

Despite two Covid-related lockdowns in the last year, work on the city’s Coastal Road has continued at a swift pace
By Prayag Arora-Desai
PUBLISHED ON MAY 03, 2021 12:41 AM IST

Despite two Covid-related lockdowns in the last year, work on the city’s Coastal Road has continued at a swift pace. At least 217 acres of land has so far been reclaimed from the Arabian Sea for the project, with an additional 50-odd acres yet to be created. Officials estimate that about 30 percent of the work has been completed. The ‘Mavala’ underground tunnel boring machine (TBM) also continues to excavate earth from under Malabar Hill, at a pace of 7 metres (m) every day. About 330m of tunnelling has been finished presently.

While the project is at least two years away from completion, land reclamation along the Worli coast has already begun impacting the livelihoods of fisherfolk, with women and small fishermen’s incomes being the first to be hit. For decades, these groups within the broader fishing community have conducted their trade almost entirely along the rocky shore between Nepean Sea Road and Worli.

They largely include the Kolis, but also consist of members of the Agri and Christian communities who practice artisanal fishing. Boat owners, labourers, migrant workers, daily-wage or subsistence fishers, net-menders, oyster pickers and other vocations tied to the artisanal fishing trade have all been affected by the loss of these coastal commons, HT learnt through interviews and ground reporting.

Since construction work on the coastal road began in late 2018, about 5-6km of the rocky intertidal zone between Priyadarshini Park and Worli sea face have been reclaimed, two officials involved with the project estimated. As a result, productive fishing grounds near Priyadarshini Park, Amarsons Garden, Breach Candy, Shree Mahalaxmi Temple, Worli Dairy and a significant portion of Haji Ali have been completely wiped out, fisherfolk said.

Crucially, the space for women, who pick oysters and shellfish by hand, as well as small-scale fishermen who use non-motorised ‘tony’ boats, gill nets, cast nets, drift nets or simple fishing rods in shallow waters, has been reduced to a small patch of rocky shore outside Haji Ali. This area, popularly called Lotus Jetty, is set to shrink further once a connecting bridge is built across the waterfront.

‘Dol ka dhandha’, or the more lucrative practice of fishing in deeper waters at depths of over 20-25 feet, with larger ‘dol (bag nets)’, is reserved for certain families or groups of fishermen from Worli Koliwada. As per a March 2019 report by advocacy group Collective for Spatial Alternatives (CSA), their customary fishing grounds extend from Malabar Hill to Mount Mary.

“For small fishermen, many of whom do not even have boats or official IDs, the shore is where you make a living. I have myself been doing it for decades. My family does not have permission to do dol fishing,” said 48-year-old fisherman Lawrence Fernandes, from Worli.

During low tide, if one peers across the Lotus Jetty pier, one can see dozens of women, hunched over jagged rocks with tochas (ice pick) in hand, picking oysters, or scraping for shellfish in the muddy substrate with khupris (spade). They speak without pausing work, attempting to gather as much as possible before the tide returns.

“There are more women coming here now. Earlier, we used to pick shellfish and oysters, even crabs, all the way from Worli Dairy to Priyadarshini Park. Now there is no more business along that shore, only Haji Ali is left,” said Turbherkar.

“Marginal fishermen and women were always going to be the first, and hardest, hit by this project. They should have been given compensation before reclamation work started. Almost all indigenous land use has been completely erased along this coast. Most of the reclamation work was done during lockdown. Poor fishermen who were badly hit by the pandemic were left with no way to recoup their losses,” said Debi Goenka, founder of the Conservation Action Trust, one of several legal petitioners against the CRP.

At Haji Ali too, shellfish and crab are getting scarce, fisherwomen say, pointing to the once gravelly part – that has now been reclaimed – where one could find them in large quantities – of the beach. But a small bucketful of oysters, which can be harvested even 200m away from the shore during low tide, will fetch them about 400-500 in the market.

“Before the pandemic, if we were lucky, we could sell it for 800 also. But prices have been down for a while, and it takes a lot longer to gather enough money. I don’t know if there are more women or fewer oysters,” Turbhekar said.

Multiple groups of women from Cuffe Parade, Colaba, Wadala, Trombay, Mahul, Sewri and Worli, expressed similar concerns.

“Sometimes, one could find really big lobsters and crabs in front of Mahalaxmi temple. At Worli Dairy, I have picked up stingrays and other big fish that used to get washed up at low tide. Everything was gone after lockdown,” said Shubangi Tanel, 44, from Machhimar Nagar in Badhwar Park, Colaba, who has been foraging along this coast for over 20 years.

Most women HT spoke to had fishermen husbands who ventured into deeper seas, either on their own boats or as labourers.

“But this haath ka kaam (work by hand) has always been done by us. We sometimes go to Nariman Point or Marine Drive, but have to wait for the lowest low tide, which comes once every eight or nine days. And the tetra pods make it hard to enter the water. Mahalaxmi temple, Amarsons Gardens, Breach Candy and Worli Dairy were the best places to find shellfish and oysters on most days, until the reclamation,” says Madhuri Tandel, 36, from Colaba.

Some, like Pratibha Patil, 40, from Cuffe Parade Koliwada, rely on this trade as the sole bread-winners in their family. Patil’s husband, Jayant, a fisherman, lost his legs in an accident at sea in 2016, after which she has relied solely on oyster and shellfish picking to make ends meet for her family of four. She sells her wares at Sassoon Dock.

Out of at least 15 women HT spoke to over multiple visits to the area, four said this was the sole source of income for them and their immediate relatives. Three of their husbands had been in debilitating accidents, while one had passed away over a decade ago. Several others were unable to pay off existing debts, incurred largely due to medical expenses in the family.

“Once they finish building the road, even what’s left at Haji Ali will be wiped out. Where will we go after that,” said Patil.

Still others did not have any family history of fishing and had learnt the trade purely out of necessity.

“Anyone who wants to make some money in a day can come here and do this work. No one will stop you,” said one of two women from Wadala, declining to give her name.

Unlike their male counterparts, who are represented by unions such as the Worli Machhimaar Sarvoday Sahakari Society and Worli Koliwada Nakhwa Matsyavevsay Sahakari Society, these women, who hail from several localities other than Worli, are not organised into similar interest groups.

This also seemed to be the case for fishermen like Mahesh Waghela, a 30-something resident of Worli Naka who now works as a security marshal, guarding an access road to the coastal road project construction site near Lotus Jetty.

Waghela’s family, from Gujarat, has not been historically associated with fishing. But having lived his whole life around the Worli fishing zone, he picked up the trade growing up.

“I’ve spent days at a stretch out at sea. During the August to December season, there is a need for labour on boats. When there is a job squeeze, during the off season, one could throw a net close to the shore and fend for themselves. Ghar ki kadhi toh ban jaati thi (you could catch enough to make a curry at home). Now we can’t even manage that much,” Waghela said.

A Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute “rapid-report” from 2019 had stated that this particular segment of the seashore is a rich oyster bed, and that “livelihoods of oyster pickers, particularly fisherwomen,” is likely to be impacted by reclamation of the coastal road. The report also notes multiple instances of artisanal fishing across the shore from Haji Ali and Worli Dairy, at a distance of about 300m, recording catches of prawns, stingray, Ghol, seabass, moonfish, ribbonfish, acetetes and pomfret running into dozens of kilos in a single day.

Even in deeper waters, Worli Koliwada’s fishermen say, they are anticipating tough times ahead. A range of commercially important species – pomfret, khaira, Ghol, barramundi, catfish, halwa, rawas (Salmon), hekru – are becoming harder to catch in viable quantities.

“There is sedimentation in the water due to construction work and a lot of noise pollution. Fish are very sensitive and run away to deeper areas on slightest of disturbance. This reclamation is clearing out water even faster than the sea link did,” said Deepak Vasudev, an artisanal fisherman from Worli Koliwada.

In their March 2019 report, experts at the Collective for Spatial Alternatives had noted, “Based on the past experience of Bandra-Worli sea link project, which caused siltation in Worli (affecting access to the sea), reduced fish catch, and affected navigation (due to sea link columns), it is inevitable that reclamation and construction activity for the coastal road will adversely impact fishing and livelihoods in the area. Except that the impacts are likely to be much worse.”

Anand Pendharkar, a naturalist who has closely studied the area, said, “These predictions are now beginning to manifest themselves. Over the years, community dependence along this coast has come to include many stakeholders across categories of jobs, class and caste. The scale of dislocation is massive.”

Officials in the civic body’s coastal road department did not directly respond to a detailed questionnaire seeking a comment for the story. However, a spokesperson for the department said that civic body is currently in the process of appointing a third-party agency to assess the nature and extent of the project’s impact on fisherfolk.

“We have already floated a tender for a thorough rehabilitation assessment. A third-party organisation will take stock of the situation and work out a compensation plan for affected fishermen. We can give more details only after this has been done,” said the official.

As per the tender floated by the civic body last December, the entire rehabilitation process for project-affected people (PAP) is slated to take about three years, which the fisherfolk said is far too long.

HT also reached out to Ashwini Bhide, chairman of the civic body-appointed Fisherfolk Rehabilitation Assessment Committee (FRAC) for a comment, but did not receive a response.

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