Coastal road threatens livelihood of Mumbai's traditional fishermen

The ambitious project dwindles catch, poses risk to life, say Worli's fishermen.

Credit : Prajakta Joshi

This report was produced under the Indie Journal Partnership Programme. The funds for this report were provided by Mr Ruturaj Sawant.

The coastal road will be the death of us, it will starve us to death, says Dashant Shivdikar, a fisherman from Mumbai’s Worli Koliwada.

As recently as two years ago, Mumbai’s fishermen did not have to venture any deep into the sea to find lobsters, an expensive fish, a prominent delicacy served at high-end restaurants. However, since last year, fishermen have noticed that the lobster catch near the coast has dwindled significantly. This year, come August, the fishermen at Mumbai's Worli Koliwada say they have barely been able to find any lobsters yet.

“This was the period usually, just before we could resume fishing that is halted every year due to monsoon, when we would find lobsters in abundance, right by the coast. We would not have to go deep into the sea. This year, some of us tried but could not find any catch,” Shivdikar reminisces with his eyes staring into the sea, sitting at the Cleaveland Bunder in Worli Koliwada. The jetty is one of the major spots of protest against Mumbai’s coastal road.

As Mumbai expands more and more into the sea, the livelihood of the fishermen community living in Koliwadas (fishermen’s colonies) along the city’s coastline and depending on the waters for their living, continues to be affected adversely. The coastal road project has been the last straw in the series of miseries that have come their way. With the reclamation of the sea and the construction activity along the coast, their catch near the coast has dwindled. Moreover, the pillars of the coastal road, the fishermen say, would also threaten their boats while venturing into and returning from the sea, and in turn, their lives.


Fishing near the shoreline

Not every fisherman in the coastal area undertakes fishing in the deep sea waters all the time. Many do not even have the boats needed to enter the deep fish to catch fish. They mostly catch fish near the coasts, in intertidal zones.

“Many of our fishermen relied on the rocks by the coast, the shallow waters there for their livelihood. The rocks near the shoreline at Worli seaface was a fishing spot for many fishermen and women. The fishermen would also lay their nets here during low tides, so that big fish that came near the shore during the high tide would enter the net. This is known as Devni method of fishing. The fishermen would get them out when the tides turned. If you visit Worli seaface now, you will see that all these rocks, the waters have disappeared now. They have been reclaimed for the coastal road. There is no place left to fish near the shoreline now,” says Nitesh Patil, a fisherman from Worli Koliwada.


Photo: Dashant Shivdikar


The intertidal zone is defined as the area starting at the maximum high-water mark to a point where the water is 2 metres deep at any time. Several fishermen carry out fishing in the intertidal zone using the Devni method.

“Many also cast a net or use a fishing hook. The fishermen recall that the rocks off the shore from the Worli-Bandra Sea Link to Dairy served as an Oyster bed. Many from the Koliwadas, especially women, could fetch oysters, shellfish from this area. The muddy waters ahead were a hotspot for Chimbori (crabs). Fishing like this is not possible anymore with the reclamation and construction activity on the shoreline,” Patil says.

Patil is also one of the main petitioners who has been fighting against the coastal road project. “A friend of mine now had to take a loan and buy a boat as he could no longer sustain by trying to fish near the shore. There is no alternative but to buy a boat now,” he adds.


Shrinking catch

If we do not get access to the sea, we will not be able to carry out fishing, our future generations will not be able to do it. They are reclaiming land on the shorelines.

“We would find lobsters on the coastline from Priyadarshani Park to Mahalakshmi every year, at the beginning of the fishing season post-monsoon. We have not caught sight of any lobster yet this year. This is the first time this has happened. Our boats are just sitting in the waters in search of some catch,” Patil says.


A fisherman from Worli Koliwada showing off his lobster catch. Photo: Dashant Shivdikar


“Around Diwali, we could catch large lobsters near the coast very easily. It’s the period when several valuable fish could be caught at the shore by hand, just by standing in the knee-deep water. Now there is no such place left,” he adds.

The fishermen say that the catch had decreased significantly last year, as the land reclamation in the area had already begun then. This year, they say, the situation has worsened.

“We could find quality fish in the rocky waters. These fish also helped us earn better. Now that the rocky part has been reclaimed, we will not be able to find these fish in the muddy waters. Ghol fish (black-spotted croaker fish), Khajra, Rawal, Pomfret, Khapri Pomfret, Taam were some of the valuable fish we found in this area,” Patil says.

Ghol fish is one of the rarest and most expensive varieties of fish found in the Arabian Sea, that gets auctioned for a high price due to its high demand in East Asia. Earlier this year, a fisherman in Palghar sold a Ghol fish for Rs 1.33 Crore!

“The Ghol fish gets sold for lakhs of rupees at times. Our fishermen would often find them on these shores,” says Ashok Dharmaraj Koli, a resident of Worli Koliwada who makes a living by knitting and selling fishing nets.

“But finding these fish near shore is going to be next to impossible now. We don’t have access to the sea like that anymore. So there is no way for us to fish like we did before,” Patil says.

“Most of the people in the Koliwada have continued the traditional occupation of fishing. Not many of the youngsters here are educated enough to find well-paying jobs, fishing is their sole occupation,” Koli adds.

The traditional fishermen also pride themselves upon the sustainability of their fishing practices. “We are not greedy like the big trawlers out in the sea. If sometimes we catch more than our boat can hold, we release it back into the sea so that the next fisherman can find it. We do not bring it to the jetty for it to get wasted. We understand the sea and its ecosystem,” fisherman Vijay Patil says.


The endangering deep water fishing

While the intertidal fishing is almost over, thanks to the land reclamation due to the coastal road project, the fishermen say that entering deep into the sea is going to become a risky business, once the construction is completed. The discussion here comes down to the debate around the length of navigation span to be allowed between two pillars of the coastal road.

“We have been demanding that the span should be 200 metres, or at least 160 metres, to ensure a safe passage to the fihsemen and their boats in the open sea. However, the government is hell-bent on keeping the span 60 metres, as they say, is approved by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). So they will kill us first by not letting us find any fish on the shore, and then not letting us fish in the deep waters without any danger to our lives,” Patil exasperates.

The design by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) allowed for 60 metres between the pillars for the fishermen to navigate their boats for the extended section of the bridge at Cleveland Bunder.

The fishermen fear that the distance between the pillars could lead to accidents and endanger the lives of the fishermen.



“It’s already challenging to navigate between the pillars of the sea-link. We cannot even imagine when the pillars of the coastal road are added. A boat does not travel straight in the sea, as a car does on the road. It moves according to the direction and intensity of the wind. The span of 60 metres is alright at a harbour, but would it not be risky to have such a narrow span to navigate through the pillars in the open sea, where winds and waves can be unpredictable in harsh weather?” Patil questions.

“When we approached the government with our demand to increase the span, they rejected it saying who were we to propose the length of the span, whether we were any experts in the field. In a video conference meeting on January 6, with the then state environment minister and Worli MLA Aditya Thackeray, we were told that the government will follow the 60 metres span that was allowed as per the NIO report. They said that if we wished to challenge it, we should make and submit an expert report,” Patil says.

However, he says that when such a report was submitted, which said that the span should be at least 160 metres, the government said that the report was created by an unauthorised organisation, and that’s why could not be approved.

The fishermen say that in other parts, especially in sitting MLA Ashish Shelar’s constituency, the fishermen’s demands were heard and the span was expanded to at least some extent. “Our MLA Aditya Thackeray never seemed interested in hearing our demands, he never even came to meet us,” Shivdikar says.

The fishermen continue to fight for their demand to increase the navigation span of the coastal road pillars. However, they wonder what more will they have to lose, paying the price of development in India’s financial capital.

This report was produced under the Indie Journal Partnership Programme. The funds for this report were provided by Mr Ruturaj Sawant.