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Standing atop Worli Fort gives you the feeling of being caught in a strange cusp of time. Ahead, against the grey skies, lies the nine-month-old Bandra-Worli Sea Link, a Rs1,600 crore feat of engineering. Behind lies the 600-year-old Worli Village, with its brightly coloured houses. The fort itself is 335 years old and, among other things, houses a well-equipped modern gym inside its precincts. Time and tide lash curiously here.

Seaside: (from top) The Bandra-Worli Sea Link as seen from Worli Fort; structures built on the slope of the fort; children rehearse for a school function in the narrow lanes of the village; and Holi celebrations in the village. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint

During the morning rush hour, as cars and public transport crowd the roads, the Kolis of Worli Village make their way back to the shore in fibre- reinforced plastic boats with the day’s catch.

Located in southern Mumbai, Worli Village is a 72-acre triangular piece of land that juts into the sea. It is home to around 60,000 people, of which around 25,000 are Kolis, one of Maharashtra’s coastal fishing communities.

In the days leading up to the sea link’s inauguration, the fort caught the city’s attention. The media buzz around it inspired village residents such as Sharad Koli to try and revive their culture, using the treasure that lay in their backyard “to help the village". Sharad, a textile engineer, is hoping to garner support for, and organize, a Worli Village Festival on the lines of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival—an annual event in south Mumbai that promotes art and culture—that could become an annual affair and showcase Koli culture and cuisine. The 40-year-old wants to use the money that would be raised from such a festival to redevelop the village.

Residents such as the Bhayes are supporting him since the redevelopment plans also include measures to revive fishing. The Bhayes have been living in Worli for seven generations. Their double-storeyed house is almost 90 years old and is home to 30 family members.

They gave up fishing two generations ago but are now returning to it owing to changes in the government’s policies.

The Kolis here belong to the Mahadeo tribe, which was declared a Scheduled Tribe after independence. In 1995, the government of Maharashtra took away their Scheduled Tribe status and granted them special backward class status. This reduced their percentage of job reservation in government institutions from 27% to 2%.

As long as they enjoyed a higher percentage of job reservation, the Kolis of Worli, unlike those in north Mumbai, actually used it to get into government service.

The older generation of Bhayes, Chandrakant (70) and Vishwanath (68), worked in the railways and British Bank, respectively. Their sons Onkar (39) and Pankaj (38) managed to secure jobs in the postal service and railways, respectively. “The youngsters of the village are now going back to fishing since they can’t find employment easily," says Onkar. The eight children of the Bhaye family are still in school but already the prospect of college admission is beginning to bother the elders. They’re not entirely happy that their children may need to go back to fishing, but they’re chalking out a plan to improve fishing methods, with cold storage facilities and perhaps bigger boats. They are counting on the Worli Village Festival to help them achieve these objectives.

While it is unclear exactly when Kolis settled on the seven islands—Mahim, Mazgaon, Parel, Worli, Colaba, Little Colaba (now Apollo Bunder) and Bombay (now Malabar Hill)—Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) records show they came sometime in the 14th century. When the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, some of them converted to Christianity. In the 17th century, when the British transferred the East India Company’s headquarters from Surat to Mumbai, Kolis made space for Gujarati and Parsi traders.

The constant influx of immigrants into Mumbai has been shrinking Koliwadas and pushing them to the land’s end. Worli Village, for example, has shrunk from 100 acres to 72 acres. Its space has been eaten up externally by the Indian Coast Guard camp and Mumbai Port Trust (formerly BPT) colony and internally, by migrant settlers.

The village has been home to migrants since before independence and, over the 40 years, their numbers have skyrocketed, as have the number of shacks that house them. Today, the village is no longer the charming fishing hamlet it used to be; it is just another Mumbai slum with a few quaint houses thrown in between.

Sharad sees the village as a potential tourist hub. The presence of Worli Fort helps his plan. The fort, which comes under the jurisdiction of the state department of archaeology and museums (Maharashtra), has been in a state of ruin for many years now.

Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect, is enthusiastic about the plan: “It’s great that the Kolis are coming forward to restore the fort and use it to revive their own culture." But she adds a note of caution: “Redevelopment of Worli Village needs to be handled sensitively. It shouldn’t cause more damage than good." Lambah says what’s needed is a blueprint which considers the historicity of both the village and the fort, and the welfare of the community.


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