Online exhibition archives oral histories of the Kolis, degradation of Mumbai’s coastal ecology

Mumbai’s coastal ecosystem just a few decades ago consisted of lush vegetation and dense mangroves, mostly clean water, and healthy sandy beaches. Kolis boats dotted the sea, bringing in abundant fish to support themselves, which they dried and cut along the coast. Today, their chatter and restlessness has been greatly affected by climate change, development and the resulting ecological destruction. Mangroves are being cut indiscriminately under the guise of development. Plastic covers beaches and bodies of water, polluting the environment and disrupting a long-standing ecological balance. And the coves, where fresh river water meets the sea, which were once breeding grounds for fish, are now witnessing an alarming loss of marine life from pollution.


Image credit: Wilson Koli (1990)
The vast expanse of sea where boats ventured to fish at Worli Koliwada before the construction of the Bandra-Worli Sea link.


Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (2005)
The 2005 Mumbai floods were a nightmare for those living on the shore. The high tide and the rains had caused destruction, more than could be imagined. All the houses built on the shore and the small boats were destroyed.
Lately, climate change and global warming have contributed to the increase in storms, cyclones and floods, making disasters the “new normal”.

In Mumbai, the loss of marine life has a huge impact on the coastal community of Koli. “The sea is collected everywhere, the mangroves are cut down, the pollution increases”, explains Rajhans Tapke, member of the Versova koliwada. “As a result, over the past 20 years there has been a shortage of fish. So the fishermen are disappearing. Like indigenous peoples elsewhere, the Kolis also face the challenge of loss of land, resulting in a rapid loss of their traditional way of life. “The Kolis are the original inhabitants of Mumbai. You will tell the children that they used to live there and live like this. We will become a story. The fishing community will not survive, that is the situation we find ourselves in.


Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1982)
This fishing community has been practicing this profession for more than seven to eight generations. With increasing urbanization, younger generations are stepping out into the world for better opportunities.
The photo shares a heartwarming relationship between grandfather and grandson, where the youngest goes out of his way to discover their traditional family work values ​​without any fear.


Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1975)
The activity of drying fish involves a lot of techniques and processes to follow. One of them turns the fish over after one side has been dried, which is called “ghata”.
The women were the ones who mainly took care of all these activities, while having their children with them so that they knew even the smallest details of the processes. The adults of the time ensured that traditional skills and knowledge were passed on to the younger generations.

Over the generations, the Kolis have observed firsthand how ecology has been disrupted and, given how closely their life is linked to nature, they have had to adapt to these changes. All of this is evident in their photos, displayed in the online exhibition. Through the eyes of the Kolis: a reflection on the past, present and future of Mumbai, created by experimental think tank Bombay61 Studio, with The Heritage Lab and Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic (MMM). The exhibition archives photos taken by the Kolis between the 1950s and 2010s, and records the narratives and oral histories that surround them, which speak of environmental degradation, address the changing lifestyle of the Kolis and discuss the shifting boundaries of koliwadas, in the sections Community and Their Livelihoods, Altering “Borders”, Coastal Ecosystems and Mapping Stories.


Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1975)
The dried fish trade has always occupied an important place in the life of the Kolis. The fish drying areas have been strategically located along the seaside so as not to affect the fresh fish market routes.
The image represents the scenario where the fish drying platforms could be seen before the construction of the police station which was set up as a hindrance to fishing activities. The area is now populated with densely populated buildings with virtually no space left for drying fish.


Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1958)
Mr Raje shares this image of the Dol net boats moored in the fishing port of Versova which he said were “an inexpensive and most efficient means of fishing”. The Dol net was a more sustainable traditional form of fishing.
The introduction of mechanized fishing boats in the late 1980s made fishing easier and fishermen could venture out to the high seas to fish. The industry prospered briefly but led to overfishing. Overfishing has also proven to be one of the main contributors to the decline in fish catches.

(Also read on Firstpost: The Kolis, one of Mumbai’s oldest fishing communities, faces an uncertain future)

“There were incredible stories told by all generations of Kolis. Their voices are never heard by the people or the city in general. These had to be heard, ”Bombay61 Studio co-founder Jai Bhadgaonkar said of the creation of the exhibition. As well as being an archive for photos of the Koli community and recording their way of life, the exhibit also serves as a trace of the evolution of Mumbai’s coastal biodiversity, as the Kolis recall. For example, Bombay61 Studio co-founder Ketaki Tare explains how Mogra nallah in Lokhandwala is recognized by the Kolis as Amboli khadi, a stream, and how it is degrading to refer to a body of water as a nallah. “We treat them like sewers just because we call them nallahs,” Tare explains. Urban youth also generally normalize such environmental degradation. “We tend to normalize what we see around us, which is already degraded,” she adds. By communicating these ideas through the exhibition, they hope to remind viewers that what we see today is not normal and can be reversed.


Image credit: Sadashiv Raje (1958)
Versova Koliwada has become home to different communities over time. The image shows women from the Jafrabadi community in Gujarat, who at the time dominated the dried fish trade in Versova Koliwada.
Whether it is the local Koli women or the Jafrabadi women, the women of the fishing community dominate the fish trade. Women have always been at the forefront of the fishing industry.


Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
There was no development near the seaside until the 1990s. You could still see a row of coconut trees in the village. The vegetation cover of the village has considerably diminished.

Arpita Bhagat from MMM also points out the lack of understanding of the role of the community in the city, especially with the younger generations. “People generally understand that they are the fishing community, but not the kind of issues the community faces in terms of losing access to land, of not having a say in the process. policy making, (and) not to be recognized for its historical roots within the city… The goal is for people to understand how land rights relate to climate justice, ”Bhagat explains.

Another example highlighted by Tare concerns how we depend on the weather center to know if a cyclone or storm is coming. But the traditional knowledge of the Kolis means they are looking for loose Bombay ducks to indicate that a storm is approaching. This endangered way of life is closely linked to the natural world. The Kolis pray to the sea, depend on it for their food and livelihood, and celebrate it in their songs and traditions. “Culturally, we are completely dependent on nature,” says Tapke. He adds that when farmers are in distress, when the crop burns or drowns, it is clearly visible, and the government provides assistance. But the slow poisoning of the sea is not immediately evident. “The impact is not obvious in front of your eyes. We have to reconcile the situation of fishermen 15 years ago with what it is today. But no one is ready to do it.


Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
Until the end of the 1980s, the entire port of Versova was a natural seaside. The jetty did not exist, so all fish transactions, diesel loadings, and ice loads worked synchronously. Parts of the coastal edge of the Koliwada are now concreted to create piers and fish landings.


Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
The boats were easily accessible on the ground before the construction of the jetty. The tide levels have changed after this alteration of the “edges”.

Although awareness of the role of the Kolis is important, the most important thing for them is to be included in local governing bodies and to have their say. “(If) it’s the development of the sea, we should be represented in the decision-making process, we should be involved in any development along the coast,” Tapke adds. These connections are what the exhibition hopes to highlight by providing a platform for the Kolis to express their stories and concerns.


Image credit: Prithviraj Chandi (1990)
Even though the seaside turned out to be a large port, over time it was necessary to build a concrete platform surface. During high tide, the water would penetrate high up to the seashore. This would not only harm the boats, but even the fish catches that flew away with the waves, causing enormous losses to the kolis.
Suggestions were made from the Koli jamat on how to withstand high tide. Prithviraj Chandi devised the plan to separate the existing sand into several parts and stack them on top of each other to increase the height of the pier harbor. Finally, after much discussion, the decision was made, and so the 10 to 12 foot high pier was built.


Image credit: Denis Patil (2000)
Worli Koliwada was an island until around the 19th century. The canal seen in the image was used to navigate to the koliwada from the main city of Mumbai.
As the development progressed, the land was reclaimed, a vehicular bridge was built for better accessibility and the edges of the canal were made concrete. Once an important and wide water channel used for navigation, it is now referred to as a smelly nullah (drain).


Image credit: Denis Patil (2000)
Due to the decline of the fishing industry, the aspirations of the community have changed dramatically. The younger generation does not want to continue fishing.
In an attempt to keep their traditional knowledge alive, we see few Kolis like Patil trying to pass the knowledge on to his son from an early age.

See the exhibition Through the Eyes of the Kolis: A Reflection of Mumbai’s Past, Present, and Future here.

– Characteristic image: Image by Sadashiv Raje (1980). The Dol net boat is converted to a trolling net during the initial adoption of the trolling net process. Raje has captured the technological advancements of his own boat.

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