‘We have nothing but fishing’: Why Kolis of Mumbai are building man-made ponds in Mithi river

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One of Mumbai’s hidden secrets lies in the heart of its most densely populated area. Nestled amongst the slums of Dharavi are a series of man-made ponds, constructed within the confines of the all-mighty Mithi river.

These ponds are the product of the Koli community, a group of fisherfolk who have inhabited the city for centuries. Facing both man-made and natural threats to their livelihood, the Kolis were forced to adapt to the changing landscape of the city by advocating for mangrove conservation and deploying indigenous solutions to combat modern developments.

The Dharavi ponds signify not only the resilience of the Kolis but also the onus all citizens bear to understand if not adapt to the Mumbai’s tumultuous relationship between land and sea.

The ponds are a microcosm of an ecosystem worth aspiring to. Where the water is clear, the fish bountiful, and the community keenly in tune with its symbiotic connection with nature.

The Kolis of Mumbai

The name Koli comes from the Sanskrit word kula or clan. The term is used to describe a number of tribes, inferior in nature to the cultivating classes, with little other distinguishing factors. The origins of the Kolis remain unclear with some stipulating that they emigrated from Sindh while others claim that they are a western branch of the great Kol tribal group. While the widely dispersed Kolis have few concrete links to their ancestors and culture, Bombay’s Kolis had a unique identity that held them together and cemented their legacy on the coastlines of the city.

The Koli community arrived in Bombay in the 12th century around the time that King Pratap Bimb invaded Mahim, a now populous suburb. Some historians even say that the Kolis have been fishing the shores of Maharashtra since before the time of Alexander the Great. Although there are no concrete figures on how many Kolis live in Mumbai, their population was estimated to stand at 1.5 million in 1969. Today there are only 7 million Kolis in the whole of the country.

A typical days product at Dharavi fishing market 1 1 A typical day’s product at Dharavi fishing market (Mira Patel)

However, there are still traces of the original Koli settlements across the former islands in the forms of Koliwadas, a term that literally translates to home by the sea. There are 30 or so Koliwadas across the coastal areas of the city, from Cuffe Parade to Juhu and Worli to Versova. While most of the Koliwadas operated in proximity to a sea or lake, one of the oldest and grandest Koliwadas (according to a 1909 news report by the Gazetteer of Bombay) was tucked inland along the banks of the Mithi river.

Described as the “Great Wall of Mumbai,” dividing old from new, at its prime, the Mithi

was a bounty for the Kolis. It tended to their sanitary needs, allowing them to wash clothes, bathe, and defecate in its clear flowing waters. It provided them easy access to the Mahim estuary and the sea. It was a place for recreation for children and families. Most importantly though, it afforded them a place to fish when conditions in the sea or estuary may be particularly rough.

The Dharavi Kolis traditionally fished in the Mahim estuary for most of the year, frequenting the Mithi river only during the monsoon months when it was unsafe to venture too far into the sea. However, over the last three decades, the fish stock in both the Mahim estuary and the Mithi river has rapidly dwindled, leaving the Kolis with few alternatives to sustain their livelihoods.

The state of the Mithi river

The Mithi river is one of the four rivers flowing through Mumbai. It originates from the overflow of Vihar lake in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, later receiving overflows from the artificial Powai lake further down its course.

The river was formed during the time of reclamation in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the British levelled the hills that formerly adorned the cityscape, the resulting debris joined the seven islands into one massive land mass, with the Mithi deftly cutting through it, as one of the last vestiges of the archipelago’s long history with the sea.

More sewer than river The banks of the Mithi River (Mira Patel)

However, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation have hindered the flow, shape and constitution of the river. According to an ORF report published in 2011, between 1976 and 2004, airport works forced the river to deviate unnaturally in a 90-degree angle. The report says that “there is no doubt that the airport expansion has adversely affected the course of the Mithi river, leading to its rapid environmental degradation and reducing its ability to effectively drain this densely populated low-lying region.

In 1978, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) reclaimed 370 hectares of land to construct BKC, including parts of the Mithi river. This resulted in the river being reduced to a canal, giving it an entirely different course and shape.

A study in 2006 by the National Remote Sensing Agency says that between 1966 and 2005, there has been a 50 per cent reduction in river width and a 70 per cent decrease in mudflats and open spaces. However, while these structural changes did fundamentally alter the flow of the river, a greater threat to its purity and existence came from the slums and industries that blossomed along its shores.

MITHI RIVER There are several slums along the bank of the 17.6-km-long Mithi River (File Indian Express)

Seventy per cent of the banks of the river are occupied by slums, with nearly 15 lakh people living along its course. The slums have not only destroyed much of the mangrove cover on both sides of the river, but inefficient waste management practices have resulted in a daily deluge of sewage entering its waters. Mumbai produces 2,371 million litres of sewage daily, of which only 2,061 million litres are redirected to Sewage Treatment Plants. According to the MMRDA, there are 13 major nullahs discharging raw sewage into the Mithi and around 93 per cent of the pollutants in the river are from domestic waste.

Adding to the problem, there are 1,500 industries and 3,000 illegal establishments that line the banks of the Mithi. Many of these industries are small scale, including oil refining, tanneries, textile, and dye factories and so on. They contribute seven per cent of the waste in the river, including not only solid waste but also dissolved pollutants like toxic chemicals and cement and concrete debris.

Conservation efforts

In the summer of 2005, three feet of rain fell on Mumbai, taking more than a thousand lives and resulting in flash floods and landslides. The Mithi river, which works as a natural storm draining system, could have helped prevent flooding had it been functional. Recognising the important role it could play in the future, authorities began to address its conservation.

An important part of these efforts was preserving the mangrove cover on the banks of the river. Mangroves are resilient coastal forests that are efficient in dissipating sea waves and breaking down pollutants and sediments in the water. The MMRDA stated its intention to distil the waters of the Mithi, prevent improper waste disposal practices and conserve mangrove covers.

The banks ot the Mithi river and lined with trash and settlements The banks of the Mithi river lined with trash and settlements (Mira Patel)

After the 2005 floods, the MMRDA committed to spend Rs 1200 crore towards the beautification and restoration of the Mithi river and its surrounding areas. In 2015, over 100 industrial units were issued closure notices by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, and by 2018, electricity and water were disconnected for 200 industrial units operating around the river. Over the last few years, 700 small scale industries have also been shut down.

However, according to Debi Goenka, founder of the Conservation Action Trust, little progress has been made so far. “I have been hearing about the MMRDA’s plans to depollute the river for 40 years,” he says, “and yet, nothing has changed.”

He claims that the MMRDA can account for the amount of money they have spent (nearly Rs 10,000 crore) but cannot state how the funds have been utilised and the benefits that have been achieved. Goenka accuses the civic body of villainising slums as a preface for incentivising commercial development.

To address domestic waste, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has planned to construct a 6.7 kilometre tunnel that will collect 168 million litres of sewage and waste generated along the river, redirecting the same to the Dharavi sewage treatment plant. The project, estimated to cost Rs 603 crore is yet to be completed.

A rare fishermans daughter A rare fisherman’s daughter (Mira Patel)

In 2015, the then state environment minister Ramdas Kadam stated that the Mithi remained more of a sewer than a river. A study in 2012 found that the level of heavy metals in the river had crossed the maximum permissible range, meaning that the water is not safe for any domestic or industrial use. Furthermore, due to its high number of pollutants, Mahim creek, where the Mithi enters the sea, cannot sustain aquatic life.

Given this troubling situation and the futility of conservation efforts, many may wonder what the next course of action should be.

According to Samidha Patil, who works for the non-profit Urbz, the answer lies with the Kolis. She says that the Koli community has withstood thousands of years of change, adapting to cope with man-made and natural disasters. Urbz works with the Kolis to develop climate mitigation practices, which for the fishing community, is the only hope of keeping their age-old traditions alive.

The Koli fishing ponds

Day by day, the industrialisation of the city threatens the Kolis’ ability to catch fish. According to Mahadeo Koli, whose family has lived in Dharavi for over 300 years, over the last three decades, the changes have been devastating. Mahadeo says the Mithi river used to be abundant with fish till as recently as 2003, but now “you don’t even find tiny fish in the river”.

Madheo at the store he owns to generate additional income Mahadeo at the store he owns to generate additional income (Mira Patel)

His sons are not working as fishermen and Mahadeo believes that much of the new generation will also opt against continuing the practice. “Now other communities are getting into fishing,” he says. “They use big boats and sell door to door. We cannot compete against them.”

Ratna Koli agrees with him. Traditionally, amongst the Koli community, the men catch the fish, and the women sell them. Ratna, whose husband cannot sustain the practice, now has to rely on buying fish from Colaba Market. She wakes up at 5am every day to buy the fish from wholesalers and then spends the rest of the day attempting to sell the catch in the Dharavi fish market. She says that on a good day she earns between Rs 200-300. On the afternoon that she spoke with indianexpress.com, she had not made even a single sale.

Ratna Koli with Fish Ratna Koli at Dharavi Fish Market (Mira Patel)

When asked why she would continue depending on fishing despite the challenges, her answer was simple. “What else can I do?”. “The Kolis are fishermen, that’s the only life we know.”

Ponds — the lifeline

To sustain that life, members of the Koli community have designed a simple yet ingenious solution. Using the age-old practice of aquaculture, the Kolis have constructed their own ponds within the Mithi river, to breed and catch fish.

The perimeter of the ponds is fortified using soil from the mangroves. The ponds work in tandem with the tides — as the water comes in, the Kolis open the gates, and as the water goes out, they close them.

A cat eyeing fresh fish at Dharavi Fish Market A cat eyeing fresh fish at Dharavi Fish Market (Mira Patel)

As a result, the water level in the ponds is higher than the surrounding river. Importantly, it is also clean. Using local materials, the Kolis insert mesh-like substances across the entrances of the ponds, which filters out all the muck and sewage. Visually, the difference is striking. While most of the Mithi river is grey and thick, the ponds look crystal clear, allowing one to see the bounty of fish swimming in them.

There are around 34 ponds in the estuary near the mangroves, with the largest being three acres wide. The ponds are also in tune with what’s happening in nature. Cognisant of the threat of overfishing, the Kolis ensure that there is always a constant supply of fish in the ponds. They are very careful with what they remove and put back the younger fish in order to preserve the supply. They also recognise the importance of allowing the fish to spawn, avoiding spawning areas during the reproductive season.

Initially, these ponds were constructed to minimise the need to fish in the rough waters of the Mahim estuary during the monsoon season. However, as the river became increasingly more polluted, they now serve a far more important purpose. The Kolis don’t just sell fish, they depend on it for sustenance.

However, the ponds are often unviable. Mahadeo says that in periods of heavy rainfall, the ponds overflow and become contaminated by the surrounding water. Additionally, during the dry season, the ponds are often inaccessible by boat, meaning that one would have to walk through the dense mangroves to reach them. Goenka adds that the ponds are also unnatural, and at times strategically placed. Calling them a land grab, Goenka says the ponds are used to stake out territory and have a controversial impact on the environment. He believes that the onus should be on mangrove preservation and waste reduction.

Kamla Koli 2 Kamla Koli (Mira Patel)

For the Kolis, such an outcome would be unthinkable yet increasingly likely. According to Kamla Koli, fishing is in her blood. Without it, the Kolis are just one of many marginalised communities in Mumbai, devoid of culture and detached from their roots. “People from UP and Bihar, they can take up any job,” she says. “For the Kolis, we have nothing but fishing.”