The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's "ambitious" Coastal Road project has affected the livelihood of the small and artisanal fisherfolk in Mumbai's Worli area with fishers claiming not just an exponential fall in catch, but also fishing equipment worth lakhs being damaged since reclamation work began in the area in 2018.
The community now fears further loss of livelihood with the proposed reclamation of the Lotus Jetty near the Haji Ali Mosque in Worli as part of the Coastal Road project, damaging not just the delicate ecosystem of Worli's shoreline, but also taking away the boat parking space available to them in the area.
The Lotus Jetty is one of the largest spaces for Mumbai's small and artisanal fisherfolk to dock their boats. It is currently used by over 100 fishermen. The reclamation is being conducted
Locals say the reclamation work that has been undertaken in the last two years has already destroyed the inter-tidal pools that are rich in marine life. The noise from the heavy machinery too has driven the fish away from the area, they add.
"They want a parking space for their coastal road, but what about our parking space? Does our profession have no value?" asks Sanjay Baikar, secretary of Vanchit Machhimar Haji Ali Sahkari Sangathana Maryadit, an association of the fisherfolk living between Worli and Walkeshwar.
"This project has caused massive damage to our livelihood and is a threat to our way of life," adds Bhaikar.
Local fishers said that on 30 August, supervisors affiliated to the civic body arrived at the Lotus Jetty and asked them to remove their boats, as reclamation was set to begin.
The locals claimed that the authorities hadn't served any prior notice, and alleged that the verbal instruction was followed by "threats and abuses".
Sixty-year-old Jais Khambal, a member of the association, says that the Lotus Jetty is the only space left for fishers in the area to dock their boats.
Khambal informs that he started docking his boat at the Lotus Jetty after reclamation work began near his residence in Priyadarshini Park.
"We will have no way to earn a livelihood if this jetty gets reclaimed as well," he says.
The United Nations defines 'small and artisanal' fishing as, "¦traditional fisheries involving fishing households (as opposed to commercial companies), using relatively small amount of capital and energy, relatively small fishing vessels (if any), making short fishing trips, close to shore, and mainly for local consumption."
Many of the fishers using the jetty in Worli are third-generation fishers to take up the profession while others have been fishing for over four decades now.
For them, fishing is the primary source of livelihood, and most of those who venture out on the sea are sole earners in their families.
Waiting for the chief minister's reply
Members of the fisher community are angry as well feeling intimidated by the Coastal Road project.
They have rallied against the coastal road project under the Vanchit Machhimar Haji Ali Sahkari Sangathana Maryadit and have been demanding from the government to stop the Coastal Road project as it's impeding their source of income.
The association, which represents over 600 people, including the fishers' families, has written to Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray several times, seeking an audience to discuss their grievances regarding the project.
However, they say that they are yet to receive a reply from the chief minister.
Fishing equipment worth over Rs 20 lakh damaged, say locals
The ongoing reclamation work is in the immediate vicinity of the Lotus Jetty, and the fisherfolk are incurring losses worth lakhs of rupees as their engine-powered boats, dinghies, and nets are damaged in the process.
In June, 25-year-old Salman Sayyed lost an engine-powered boat worth more than a lakh due to reclamation work at the jetty. With 10 dependents in his family, he and his younger brother are the sole earners.
"They (BMC field officers) gave me an hour's notice to remove my boat from the jetty. I had agreed to, but they buried the boat under rocks despite that," he alleged.
Now Sayyed is left with just a dinghy.
Locals say that while an engine-powered boat can venture at least 15 kilometres into the sea, the capacity of a dinghy is drastically lower. At best, it can cover a kilometre.
Fifty-five-year-old Palaniswami also recounts a similar experience from two weeks ago.
"They broke my engine boat, with only a day's notice to remove it from the jetty. It seems like they destroy the boats in the night, when no one is around," he alleges.
Another resident of the area, Alauddin Khan, gives an overall figure of the financial losses the community has seen so far.
"At least seven-eight such boats have been broken since 2018, and countless nets have been damaged. Overall, the fishers in the area have borne losses worth Rs 20-25 lakh," says Khan.
BMC denies asking fishers to clear Lotus Jetty
Meanwhile, the BMC has denied any knowledge of having issued any order instructing the fishers to clear the Lotus Jetty.
Niranjan Khanolkar, chief engineer in the BMC's Coastal Road Department, said, "Our office is not aware of any such action. Sometimes a contractor or a supervisor might give such instructions for technical reasons or on a temporary basis."
The proposed 30-kilometre-long coastal road aims to decongest existing arterial roads in Mumbai by connecting south Mumbai to the northern suburb of Kandivali.
The first phase of the plan includes bridges on stilts, an underwater tunnel, and road segments between Marine Drive and Worli. The 9.9-kilometre road will ultimately join the Bandra-Worli Sea Link.
While the government is justifying its plan to reclaim at least 100 acres of land as a way to develop the city's infrastructure, the adverse effects of the project on the local fishing community's livelihood are concrete and manifold.
Locals face loss in income
Many fishers said they are facing a severe shortage in their catch due to the disturbance caused to the coastal marine ecosystem.
On 2 September, Kamlesh Soni set out with three other boat-mates at 5.45 am. In over four hours, Soni said they had managed to catch fish worth only Rs 100-250 in total, which he split with the others.
"In a week, I earn Rs 2,000 while the diesel costs Rs 3,000. Even though we go fishing every day, how will we sustain ourselves with such little produce? Earlier, we could yield a good catch with one or two nets, but now we need 10 nets to catch the same amount of fish," he says.
Locals say that there has been a significant reduction in their family's monthly income due to the effects of the reclamation work. A lot of them are also incurring debts of over a lakh.
"Since 2018, our incomes have been reducing. We used to earn between Rs 15,000-30,000 in a month, but now we are barely earning between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000," Baikar says.
"Fishbait and other small creatures are our last resort to make ends meet," he adds.