The Last of the Koli?

Story and Photography by Rhett Kleine

By some accounts, the Koli bloodlines on the seven islands of Mumbai stretch as far back as the stone age. Their people fished the waters of Maharashtra long before Alexander’s armies reached the tip of India or Asoka’s empire swept across the subcontinent. 

Generation after generation, the Koli have mended nets and hauled in their catch as the world around them changed. Great empires rose and fell around them like the ebb and flow of the tides. The Marata kings fought to keep the Mughals at bay, and the Portuguese traded the seven isles to the British as dowry for a princess. 

These ancient mariners may have endured all this and more, but a century after the behemoth British land reclamation project that connected the islands into a single city, Mumbai’s Koli are now hemmed in by a towering metropolis that has corralled them into just 42 Koliwadas – a term that literally means ‘a home that opens to the sea.”  The Kolis, like the ocean around them, are struggling to survive on the edge of an ever-expanding metropolis. 

Rivers choking with pollutants dribble into the sea on their doorstep, adding more plastic to the debris already floating on the surface of nearby bays and river-mouths once abundant with fish. The Kolis can only watch with trepidation, as precious fish breeding grounds disappear as wetland mangrove forests are cut down like weeds in a field all in the name of development.

Yet, with their ancient gods by their side, the Koli remain resilient and are confident in their ability to weather this latest storm. 

tWS: THE fishermen using creative techniques in peak hour at Sassoon Docks

Mahim Koliwada greets visitors with the sight of bundles upon bundles of fishing nets, and it takes a while to see the wooden boats underneath the tangle. Nestled among a mountain of these nets, an old man sits puffing the last bit of a beedi-cigar as he rhythmically untangles he threads to mend them. For a moment, it looks like the perfect fishing village. But not all is well. 

The beach is covered with  plastic waste. Beyond it, against the backdrop of the towering Worli Sea Link in the distance, boats gently rock back and forth upon the glassy surface of the dying bay. 

Santosh Nijap has spent most of his life on this beach, like his father before him and his father before him, stretching back generation upon generation of Mahim Kolis.

With a Sai Baba pendant resting on his chest at the end of heavy gold chain, neatly dressed Santosh projects the very image of a local businessman. 

He points to a few of his boats bobbing around in the bay and it’s clear he’s done quite well for himself. But even he is struggling to make a profit fishing near the bay since the newly built Worli Sea Link effectively cut off the flow of fish.

“A lot has changed in Mahim Bay because of the infrastructure in the ocean,” he says, explaining how the mammoth structure has altered the current that used to bring fish into the shallower waters. 

“There is a barrier (blocking) the easy flow of fish to the shores, because of the multiple pillars and concrete structures,” he says.

The six kilometre sea link that connects Mumbai’s western and central suburbs to the old town in the south, may have been a panacea for traffic congestion in Mumbai but Santosh says it has done little for the Mahim Koliwada.

Santosh says the Kolis now have to venture even further out, past the Sea Link into rougher waters. He says some of the smaller boats struggle to handle the waves and many Koli have lost their lives. The only choice now is to use larger trawlers that can withstand the open sea, but that requires increased manpower.

Affordible labour for fishing is hard to come by in the ever-expanding metropolis that offers an array of employment opportunities. 

“Since fishing is not very profitable now, the youth are not ready for that kind of physical labour, so we need to get workers from villages which are 120-140kms away from Mumbai like Palgarh, Poisar, and Dahanu.”  That too comes at a heavy cost.

“We have to give them huge amounts of money which is a problem given the state of our income,” Santosh says

He says swapping Koli labour for outsiders is not profitable in the longer term. Santosh says what was profitable when it was family business, where the money stayed within the community, now struggles with wage labour pressures.

Even with the higher wages on offer, it’s still a struggle to find reliable workers. 

“When the workers go home for festivals like Diwali and Holi, sometimes (they) don’t return back, and the boat owner has to go and bring back the workers from their villages,” Santosh says. 

“Every time that happens you have to pay them an advance of almost 25-30 thousand rupees. So, one single trip to get these workers would cost an average boat owner almost 1lakh, given that even a small boat would need at least four workers to cover all the aspects of fishing successfully.”

Santosh says even that trickle of itinerant workers is fast drying up as new factories open in rural areas.

“These industries have more benefits and more income for the workers which they choose over toiling at sea on a boat in an industry with a bleak future.”

In the fading light of the afternoon sun Santosh points to dozens of boats that have remained unused for months – their flags fluttering in the wind in one last act of defiance. 

He says sometimes owners hang on to the vessels for two or three years before finally deciding to sell them off.  He says most of his boats have been sitting in the bay, unworked, for months. 

Santosh believes Mahim as a fishing village has perhaps five to six years left. It is a bleak fate for the the Koli of Mahim but Santosh seems resigned to the change in the wind. 

“We fear that fishing as a community business in Mumbai will die in the next decade, once this generation – who have seen their parents and grandparents fish like it’s their religion – grow up and leave.”  

The Rangaon Koliwada on the northern end of Mumbai seems a breath of fresh air after Mahim. Yet the even along this stretch of ocean with its empty beach fringed by lush mangroves, seemingly untouched by humanity, the sea’s resources are under pressure.

In Rangaon, more than an hour’s drive north of Mumbai Central, fishermen are facing the familiar difficulties of dwindling catches and increasing pollution. 

A fisherman, hauling the last of his nets in for the day says it is getting harder and harder to make a living even this far out from the city. He laments the impending loss of his lifestyle as he deftly plucks fish from his nets. It is clear to see he has done this his whole life. His hands, with a hurried yet expert motion untangles each fish and once untangled, not one fish slips from his grasp. 

Behind him among the dunes are empty wooden shacks nestled in the high grass. They will become more inhabited as the fishing season advances, but for now, rotting in the elements, they are a portrait of yet another declining koliwada. 

The now familiar story continues a short way down the road in the Vasai Koliwada. But there is more activity on Vasai beach. Massive boats are propped up by bamboo scaffolding, standing like silent sentinels, all along yet another shore strewn with plastic waste.

Shiva owns a couple of these boats, one of which is halfway through a fresh paint job in preparation for the annual pilgrimage to islands off the coast there the Koli believe their gods dwell. Behind Shiva, fishermen wend their way through the towering hulls on scaffolds, while others work on readying the great decks for the start of the fishing season.

“The waters are dying,” he says, echoing a familiar lament. And he claims the biggest problem is overfishing. 

“There were fifteen fishermen in the Koliwada when I started fishing about thirty years ago, now there are fifty,” he says.

The Koli are a people moulded by the sea, like clay by a sculptor. Their reverence for the ocean is absolute. They understand the fragile balance between the ocean’s capacity to give and sustain life, and its ability to rip life away. 

Yet necessity, the desperate need to make a living and support their families, is pushing them to overfish and take more and more risks.

They have fished the seas for as long as their history is recorded. In that time, they have come to understand the power of the sea so when Shiva says goodbye to his family before a trip, he does not say he will come back, he simply says that should he return in eighteen hours, he is theirs again, if not, he belongs to the ocean.

Shiva is hesitant to say it outright, but he says he doesn’t believe his children will continue the Koli way of life. His brothers’ sons are already working on oil tankers. He expects his children will do much the same. 

“It is all right if they go to work on the oil tankers, because for as long as they are near the ocean… as long as they are connected in some way with the waters of their ancestors. They will always be Koli”.

The narrow rambling streets of the Worli Koliwada are packed with hawkers in late January for the temple celebration marking Golphadevi’s birth. The music reaches fever pitch as night falls and each household in the Koliwada brings their offerings to the goddess. Dozens of small processions wend their way through the alleys accompanied by bands playing traditional instruments.

Inside the marble temple, people crowd into a small altar room to pay homage to their patron goddess. Golphadevi’s statue at the end of the room, flanked by her reincarnations, Karmadevi and Singhadevi are covered in garlands of marigolds as the Kolis pray to her for a safe fishing season.

Golphadevi temple’s chairman Vilas Worlikav is eager to talk about the community’s ancient goddess and explains how faith in the goddess is growing. Perhaps it is because the Koli are facing tough times or that the goddess’ reputation has transcended the Koli community, but the crammed alleyways of Worli are a testament to her growing popularity.

The Koli have looked to deities like Golphadevi and her reincarnations for hundreds of years to protect them at sea and safeguard their way of life. 

According to Worlikav, she is hardly a passive or aloof goddess who merely listens to prayer in silence, she is an active entity.

It is soon clear what he means. Up the front of the temple priests place two tiny silver coloured balls on the shoulder of the goddess before devotees ask her questions. If the ball on the left shoulder falls first then the answer is a ‘no’ but if the right one falls it is ‘yes’. The Kolis make life and death decisions based on her advice. 

In Mahim Koliwada, on the other side of the bay from her temple in Worli, Santosh Nijap explains how the Koli dedicate their first catch of the year to Golphadevi, presenting it to her at her temple and asking her blessing for the year ahead.

“We usually go the temples when the fishing year starts and pray for a good productive year ahead, some people also make a wish or a vow of certain offerings they would give once their wish is fulfilled,” he says. 

But Golphadevi’s blessings are not the only spiritual guidance the Koli receive, nor are prayers limited to fishing.

“People make vows for a range of reasons – for wanting or having a child, to a getting a job or a large catch of fish,” Santosh explains.

The Koli deities are woven into every aspect of Koli life and there are almost as many ways to worship as there are deities themselves.

In Vasai, the Koli believe their deities live on two islands just off the coast, so the fisherfolk travel to both islands to pay homage and seek favour. But before they set sail to the islands at the start of the fishing season, they pull their boats ashore and repaint them. 

On one of the islands, they sail to the shore and feast all day before returning, and on the other isle, they anchor the boats offshore and swim to the beach with their offerings, fearing that sailing too close might anger the gods.

And if you speak with Jitender Koli, who lives in the Dharavi Koliwada he will tell you of a local nature goddess who cannot be contained within a shrine. 

“If you put a roof over her,” he says laughing “she will break it!” 

Which explains why there is no shrine for her inside Dharavi homes. 

Davendra Kale is the village leader of Versova Koliwada. There has not been a single day where he hasn’t smelt the sea air in his nostrils or set his eyes upon the waters of the Arabian Sea. He would rather die than watch his ancestral seafaring culture disappear.

“We are Koli and we fish,” he says. “Fishing for the Kolis is something that they have done from the beginning of time.”

Versova sits on the edge of a small bay. It provides calm waters perfect for docking boats and more importantly calmer waters fishable even during the rainy season.

“We used to call this bay a lifesaver because its close proximity to the village and small size made it possible for us to fish even in the monsoons,” he says. 

“It was enough to keep the income flowing in those difficult times.”

But Kale says life on Versova has changed in the last decade because of the industries on the other side of the bay and the increasing pollution and untreated water they release into the ocean. “It is becoming impossible to fish here today.”

“The biggest and most prevalent threat we have to fishing is the pollution and plastic we find in the ocean today… the fish which would come to shore in the past are not visible today,” he says.

“Even if we do get fishes near to the shore, we know that it is not the right kind or healthy kind that we would be able to sell.”

Davendra Kale and his fellow fishermen form the Koliwada have been trying to do what they can to clear plastic and clean up the waterways, but for every piece of plastic they recover, ten more pieces flow downstream or are discarded into the ocean. 

There have been massive clean-up efforts made but every effort seems to be a drop in an endless ocean of plastic returning with each high tide.

“Back in 1996 when I started, we would go out for a day, or two-to-three maximum and come back with a catch that was sufficient for a week, but to get the same catch today we have to go much deeper into the sea and spend much more time on the boat sometimes even up to a week to ten days”.

Versova is a much larger Koliwada than most, it is much more commercialised which in turn brings a plethora of new problems. 

Most of the boats docked on the busy port are multi-day trawlers, that go out for days and weeks at a time to fish in the deeper ocean. It is a financial necessity that has upturned the fragile balance of the community.

“If one boat takes away the fish equivalent for ten boats, then it is putting ten families out of business,” Kale says. 

Kale might yearn for a simpler time, but the reality of fishing now is pulling the Koli in the opposite direction, demanding bigger boats that can catch more fish. As well as the problem of overfishing, these multi-day trawlers come with higher operational costs.

Kale says back in the seventies the government supported the Koliwadas by subsidising diesel and giving out loans to encourage Koli to buy trawlers. He says many people became reliant on the subsidies which have since dried up. 

“The diesel prices when I started was about 8.50 rupees per litre, today the it is almost 64,” he says.

Despite the difficulties, fishing remains Versova’s lifeblood – at least for now. 

The Koliwada turns into a bustling fish market for about two hours every day after the boats arrive in the late afternoon. Koli women in brightly coloured sarees line up behind upturned crates filled with fish and crustaceans, hauled in by the village’s men.

Davendra Kale wishes the enthusiasm of the fish markets were reflected in the aspirations of the Koliwada’s young people.

“They don’t see the profits anymore and they know it’s dying,” he says, but like many other Koli along the Mumbai foreshore he’s hoping the youngsters will at least find a way to hold on to their identity. 

“We are obviously connected deeply to the sea because before anything else she is our sole source of income and we can’t think of staying alive without her,” he says. 

“We cannot imagine a life without seeing the ocean every single day because that is what we have always done, that is the only way of living that Koli people know, with the sea in front of us.”

Dharavi is a concrete jungle, a labyrinth of urbanisation and overpopulation, and it has been Jitender Koli’s home his entire life.

As his name suggests he is indeed a Koli, but like many of the Koli of Dharavi, he has never made a living fishing the ocean. 

“Fishing has completely stopped here and has been for some time now,” Jitender explains in crisp English. 

“The nearest sea area to Dharavi koliwada has dried up and now acts as drainage channels for the industries nearby… hence its not the best environment for the fish to grow.” 

Jitender says his parents’ generation were the last to fish from the Dharavi Koliwada, and that was back in the seventies. Gesturing towards his mother sitting next to him inside the tiled living-room, Jitender explains how she remembers seeing the rivers and the water ways of Dharavi dry up making way for industrial channels. 

He says all the Koli ever needed were their boats, their houses and the water, but with the water gone and the boats no longer needed, the Koli of Dharavi were left with just their land. 

“So, they began to do what they could and rented out their Koliwadas,” he says

The fishermen became landlords, and subsequently the homes that once looked out to the water soon only opened to concrete and bricks and steel. There was no shortage of willing tenants, with Dharavi slum already bursting at the seams all around them.

“If the sea was to be cleaned today, we would go back to fishing happily,” Jitender says imagining a life he has only heard from his father. 

He readily recalls stories of his father’s life, fishing on the rivers, taking only what was needed, and he firmly believes the yearning for unsteady footing on a boat is in every Koli’s blood. But in an urban jungle where the rivers have all but dried up, Jitender also knows it’s a yearning for a bygone era, for a history long past.

The chaotic Sassoon docks on the southern tip of Mumbai are perhaps one of the best indicators of the health of fishing off the Maharashtra coast. Bathed in the early morning light, the dock is bursting with life long before the rest of Mumbai has stirred. 

Ganesh Nakwa is the Chairman of the Welfare Association of the Fishermen of Maharashtra. He is also involved in various other advocacy and associative roles as well as his own responsible fishing-consumption start-up. Overall Ganesh speaks for more than 1800 boats in Maharashtra.

His conversations follow a familiar thread, a long list of problems plaguing the state’s fishing industry.  He says they are facing problems undreamt of by countless generations of Koli, from the mass destruction of habitat, pollution and climate change, to overfishing.

He believes nature has turned against the Koli, noting the increase in storm activity as proof.

“Usually a big storm like a cyclone would come around every three or four years,” he says,and even then he claims it would cause only minor disruptions to the fish population. 

But in 2018 alone there were four cyclonic storms, a trend continuing from the previous year.  He attributes the increase to climate change. 

Sassoon, represents the height of Mumbai’s commercial fishing industry. It makes no pretence of venerating and caring for the ocean. It is as far as one gets from traditional fishing, where the Koli fish to sustain themselves and their community. 

The boats that come to the Sassoon docks trawl the bottom of the ocean and take whatever they can. The nets are so small you can’t even poke a finger through the holes which means even the tiniest of fingerlings are scooped up to cater to Mumbai’s ever growing hunger for seafood.

“The demand for fish is always on the rise, as more people come to Mumbai. The greater the demand the greater the incentive for the Koli to fish,” Nakwa says. 

But over-fishing depletes the fish stocks and make fishing even more costly, so now stuck in a vicious cycle, the Koli continue to fish even more aggressively for shrinking profit margins.

“It is a completely unsustainable cycle,” Nakwa says. 

He says the fishermen know it’s a problem but the stakes are so high that none of them want to be the one to stop net fishing and risk losing the profit. 

“We were always self-sustainable, that was our life for thousands of years. But now because of all this development in our fishing areas we are losing this.”

“Half the boats in Sassoon have already stopped fishing. Half of the remaining half are fishing at a loss,” he says. 

Nakwa claims at the current rate there will be no more fish at all for the Koli in five to ten years. 

“Time to suicide basically then, huh.”

Rhett is a third year Documentary Photography student. He has documented stories across India for the Water Story project. These stories have ranged from the effect that contemporary Hindu festivals have had on Bangalore’s waterways in the south, to the Koli, further north, who are stone-age fishermen indigenous to the Maharashtra coast. Then to the Changpa Nomad’s in India’s northern peaks. Recently Rhett has covered how lockdown exacerbated Australia’s already high rates of domestic violence. His work ultimately aims to strike a deeper chord with audiences in how we understand the human condition and how we relate to the environment around us. See Instagram @rhettdoesphoto