In Worli Koliwada, the weather forecast is the most-watched part of the daily news bulletin. This is especially true during the fishermen’s two-month monsoon off-season, when it is illegal to venture into the sea. For this is a village of fishermen. They keep a close tab on the weather map for the symbol showing a zigzag emerging from a dark cloud. Having found this symbol, which signifies an electrical storm, absent, Sandeep Koli took his trawler out surreptitiously the previous night and, along with a few other fishermen, went fishing. After sailing beyond the pillars of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, he switched off his boat light and engine so as to not raise suspicion. He spread his net as far and wide as possible under the luminous clouds reflecting the lights of the city, and waited till the crack of dawn for his net to fill up with fish.
The Kolis, the original fisherfolk inhabitants of Mumbai, consider the two-month restriction imposed on them during the monsoon by the Coast Guard “a senseless act”. “We are not idiots,” says Moses Koli, 60. “Most of us here started fishing before we became teenagers. We know when a storm is coming.” The Coast Guard brought in this temporary suspension of fishing through a legislative act in 1981-82. The Act states that fishermen will have to stay away from the sea from June 15 to August 15 every year and that in case of violation of the law they will be fined Rs 1,500.
“With this restriction, it becomes very difficult for a small-time fisherman, with a minimum of four family members at home, to maintain a good living,” says Koli. That’s why some fishermen risk arrest and the fine and sail out in the small hours. Some fishermen say that what they do is “stationary fishing”, meaning that they anchor their boats at a fixed point in the sea to fish; there is no moving about, as law-enforcement agencies might fear, to chase a catch.
A majority of the fishermen do comply with the the enforced two-month hiatus. They go out into water no deeper than chest-high, to catch baby crabs and prawns. Until a few years ago, they used to earn from this about Rs 20,000 a month. Half of the money was kept for repairing their boats — a must in the off-season — and the rest for spending on the family. But now, with the state government turning a blind eye to the wealthy fishermen from Karanja, in Raigad district, and Gujarat, who use their monstrous trawlers and their 3 km-long nets on the high seas, the Koliwada villagers’ catch during the fishing season, as well as the off-season, has almost halved.
The nets of these mechanised trawlers, the fishermen at Koliwada believe, devour even baby fish, leaving no stock for breeding. Six-cylinder trawlers earn their owners up to Rs 1 lakh a day, compared to the smaller fishermen’s incomes of Rs 2,000-5,000. A single trawler is capable of doing the work of 200 small boats like those owned by the people of Worli Koliwada. There are about 600 privately owned massive trawlers out in the sea, directly affecting livelihoods in this village.
Last Thursday the Akhil Bhartiya Machhimar Kriti Samiti (ABMKS) held a protest march from Girgaum Chowpatty to Azad Maidan. Among other things, the ABMKS protested the use of precision landing nets and illegal fishing by private boats. “This is only happening in Maharashtra, everywhere else these nets are banned,” said Damodar Tandel, president of ABMKS. The samiti also demanded the Rs 8 crore that was promised to the fishermen as compensation by the government when the MSC Chitra spilled oil on the coast in August last year and “we were stopped from fishing for several days”.
Koli says that the fishermen’s community isn’t much different from farmers’ communities in India. Just as farmers prepare their land and pray for rain, he says, “we mend our nets, sails and boats during the off-season” — which costs them Rs 25,000-1.5 lakh, and “pray that the next season will bring us bigger catches”.
Some fishermen, though, cannot afford this fatalistic attitude. They go out under cover of darkness to hunt the evasive marlin.