Scattered along Mumbai’s coastline, … sandwiched between multi-storied flats and commercial buildings, … are Koli fishing villages. In existence since the city began, they are a significant link in the history of Mumbai. They began as a collage of simple fishing villages from which the city has evolved into a metropolis of more than 17 million people. Despite the buzz of progress and the modernization that surrounds them, many Koli continue with little change in their cycle of life. Members of the present-day Koli population continue fishing, … as they have for centuries…and the Koli villages remain in control of the fishing industry in the Great City of Mumbai.
The approach to Versova village confirms the local industry. Fish! Fish are hung out to dry on racks, stacked in nearby piles along the streets—just far enough off the road to miss the traffic. The sights and smell of fish are everywhere.
One of several in Mumbai, this village has been a tight knit community for hundreds of years in which nearly every family is still connected. As they work together for a better future, many Koli families live their entire lives along the seashore … their homes, their work and their play all at the water’s edge.
Boats of all sizes and shapes are an essential part of the Koli fishing industry. After 2 to 3 days out on the open seas, fishing boats return to shore with their fresh catch. Fishermen carry the catch only a short distance to thousands of expectant workers and buyers. Fish, squid, Bombay duck, prawn, and shrimp of all sizes and colors are brought to this market.
It is the men who bring the fish from the boats but the women do the buying and selling of the daily catch. Crowding around the bins, they push their way in to inspect the fish and buy wholesale from the Koli fishermen or owners. Competition is stiff for the best fish as they bargain for entire baskets or tubs of fish. … Bargaining disputes are frequent and chaotic. … Women are dressed in colorful saris, and adorned with traditional Indian jewelry—anklets, bangles, nose rings, and bindis on their foreheads. Some of the prawn, crab and bulk fish are sold to Muslim exporters. Premium quality fish are sold to hotels and upscale restaurants. Many boat owners have contracts with pharmaceutical companies for their catch.
Bags of a slimy fish … often called Bombay Duck … are purchased at the nearby open air fish market. Here on this bamboo platform, … measuring no more than 100 feet by 100 feet, … a family processes the fresh Bombay Duck. They are cleaned, … one by one, … then carefully hung on racks. Each fish is individually placed on the bamboo rails to insure quick and complete drying. After two to three days in the hot dry air, the dried duck is ready for packaging and distribution to local, as well as, foreign markets where they are eaten as a popular accompaniment to curry.
Several varieties of fish are also processed in a manner similar to that of the Bombay Duck. As they dry, the fish provide easy picking for crows. The process of preparing and drying fish is a smelly, backbreaking task that requires continual vigilance to insure that the fish thoroughly dries.
Everyone is involved in the fishing industry. Older women and young girls are often seen sorting, cleaning and drying shrimp as they work at the edge of the market area. These fine mesh nylon nets snag all sorts of aquatic life and require continual repair and maintenance. Since nets are used to catch most fish, the young boys in the village learn the skill of making and repairing the nets early in life continuing this trade as adults.
But … life is not all work for those in the village. Children squeeze into a small spot to play cricket. The improvised equipment and competition for the shared space does not detract from the enjoyment of playing the national sport of India. Younger children occupy themselves with a few simple toys and by playing together.
In this village, … as well as in others, … the Koli control all aspects of the fishing industry. There are three Koli societies and a trust, which own more than 600 boats … and … they own the fish. … They own the nets, … the drying racks, … and the ferry that makes frequent crossings across the bay. … They own the trucks and the diesel fuel for the boats. … And, … they own two ice factories. The Koli do indeed retain control.
Ice is essential for the fishing industry. Funds for the first factory were the result of entire village participation and built by the Koli community in the 1950’s. Since that time, they have built a second factory and both continue to be operated solely by the Koli community. Long journeys into deep waters are economically feasible due to this source of ice.
Family clans control much of the activities of these enterprises. As one would expect, clan warring and turf battles frequently erupts.
With the shortage of fish, … a limited fishing season, … and competition from foreign trawlers, Kolis find fishing less profitable than in previous years and so are seeing to it that their children are being educated to assume other jobs. Young Kolis are studying in English to compete well in the universities and job market. However, at home, they continue to speak their original Koli language. For now, these young people are committed to their community, … proud of their heritage, … and they intend to stay, … even if they take work elsewhere in the city. Families are reluctant to give up life in Versova village and most often choose to keep their property and homes there so that they can continue their involvement in the fishing enterprise. When outside work is necessary, the families will usually hire others to do the actual fishing. In addition to outside work, a variety of odd jobs are obtained within the village.
The Koli in Versova say, “We will marry, ,,, live, … and die here. Everything for us is here.”
Their culture is changing, … but, … for now, … Kolis remain. …
They are proud of who they are and what they do.
They are proud to be still fishing.
They are proud of being Koli.
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