In the 10 weeks leading up to the Independence Day, the coast along Mumbai closes for fishing. It is the breeding season for the fish. And then there are the rains, making seafaring hazardous.
Also Read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns
Fishermen with large fishing boats can probably afford this seasonal break. According to a survey conducted in 2005, there are some 800,000 fishermen in Maharashtra, who have 21,000 large boats. But there are also some 6,000 small fishermen, who have 500 small boats. And they defy the stormy monsoon, and venture out to the sea—they must catch fish—for themselves and their families, and for the market. They are lucky if after a long day they’ve made Rs.200 more than what they have spent.
Their plight has simply not received sufficient attention in the aftermath of the collision between two ships in the city’s harbour in early August. The oil spill is now apparently under control, and the authorities have warned consumers to go easy on their rawas or bombil, saying the fish freshly caught from the harbour could be hazardous. In interviews with television networks, some fishermen have either ignored the warnings, saying that the fish is safe; others have said they know little about toxic contamination. Indeed, as Deepak Apte, assistant director at the Bombay Natural History Society, points out, being cautious is wise: We won’t know the full effects of the spill till the end of the year when the spawns come out, he said in one television interview.
The municipality wants the residents to avoid fish, and the authorities want to enforce the ban. Those may be necessary precautionary steps, and might even be entirely appropriate, but they don’t consider the dire straits in which the marginal fishing communities find themselves. The Maharashtra Fishermen’s Association is right in noting that the spill has been a huge blow for the fishing community, in particular the marginal fishermen. The association’s head, Damodar Tandel, told a news agency that the small fishermen are “virtually threatened with starvation as they work and earn on a daily basis. The oil spillage has spelt doom for their trade.”
The compensation they seek may collectively run into millions of rupees, making it sound huge if it is seen as a burden on the taxpayer. But why not go after the companies owning the ships? When the far worse oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatened the fishing, tourism and other industries in south-eastern US, President Barack Obama was firm in dealing with BP, the company responsible for the spill. He obtained a guarantee of compensation of $20 billion as down payment. The fishermen have sought Rs.10,000 a month as compensation. There’s no good reason why the parties responsible for the accident and spill should not pay up.
As the inhabitants of this multi-everything city seek leisure alternatives in the form of recreational parks; as they hope to live in sea-facing apartments, the construction of which will lead to loss of mangroves vital for regeneration of fish; as upwardly mobile families take to the sea, taking yachting and boating lessons; as the wealthy buy pleasure boats and dream of marinas; and as the sea-link will inevitably get extended to Haji Ali, the space available to the fishing communities is shrinking. From being the city’s original inhabitants—which they are—they are suddenly seen as obstacles; their villages described in fashionable circles as “eyesores”, even as the chic socialites eat fried pomfret or prawn balchao with chilled sauvignon blanc.
As Salman Rushdie reminded us in Midnight’s Children: “The fishermen were here first…When Bombay was a dumbbell-shaped island tapering, at the centre, to a narrow shining strand beyond which could be seen the finest and largest natural harbour in Asia, when Mazagaon and Worli, Matunga and Mahim, Salsette and Colaba were islands too…before tetrapods and sunken piles turned the Seven Isles into a long peninsula, like an outstretched, grasping hand, reaching westward into the Arabian Sea; in this primeval world before clocktowers, the fishermen—who were called Kolis— sailed in Arab dhows, spreading red sails against the setting sun. They caught pomfret and crabs, and made fish-lovers of us all.”
There was no Palladium or Infiniti Mall then; the land on which Nariman Point and the Bandra-Kurla Complex have emerged had not been reclaimed; why, Charles II hadn’t even married Catherine of Braganza—but the Kolis were there, their men taking their boat to the sea and catching fish, their women piling them in baskets and trading them expertly, as they still do at Sassoon Dock.
The ships are sailing again in the harbour, and the Taj Mahal hotel has reopened, as it should. But listen carefully—this is the hour of distress for the fishing community; and they are as much part of our landscape as the sky and the rain and the sea.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com