Dharavi Koliwada: Interview with Koli Women I
Director: Richa Hushing
Duration: 00:15:29; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 4.194; Saturation: 0.224; Lightness: 0.243; Volume: 0.314; Cuts per Minute: 5.162; Words per Minute: 117.042
Summary: Yamuna and Mani bai are friends and neighbours in Dharavi Koliwada. Koliwadas or villages of Kolis are the first settlements in the region. Before the land was turned into a city and then into a metropolis by joining the islands and then by filling up the sea and the marsh land, there were mainly the fishing hamlets and salt pans along with little patches of civilization. Koli community is one of the worst victims of urban development through the 20th century. Though they were converted into Christianity as early as 17th century by the Portuguese colonial missionaries, they have failed to take advantage of it either by receiving modern education or by acquiring employment or by expanding their economic activities. Despite the religious affinity with the foreign rulers the community maintained their indigenous life style and traditional occupation of fishing. But as the city grew and more contenders came in to the trade on the sea and marine lives, the Kolis and their traditional occupation of fishing have come to the verge of extinction.
In Koli practice the men go to the sea for fishing and the women handle the market. As a result the women have emerged as the public face of the community. The community is identified by the spectacular presence of the Koli women in the public place. In their broad body structure, distinct features, heavy jewelry, 9 yard saree, super confident body language and extrovert personality they make a spectacle in fish markets and in the public transports. Since the men work in the sea, far away from the din of the city, the Koli men do not have much of a public presence.
As the fishing trade itself has got severely affected by the chemical pollution of the sea, introduction of trawlers of the multi-national companies, by rampant construction activities and also by the intrusion of fish vendors from outside the community; Kolis are forced to get engaged with the happenings in the mainstream. They are asking for reservation in govt. jobs, concession in educational institutions and also joining political outfits that are strategically maneuvering their anxieties into xenophobia.
This interview takes place in a comparatively affluent household in Dharavi Koliwada. The house is a sprawling bungalow with all modern gadgets, marble floorings and wooden furniture’s. Such a house could be the source of envy for anybody in Bombay, in terms of living space available. But these kind of spacious houses are not uncommon in Koliwadas. But access to these houses is always through extremely narrow by lanes. Often a long winding labyrinth ends on a wide courtyard of a house. As the area was never planned to accommodate additional construction and urban infrastructure, the condition of the public spaces are abysmal. The once prosperous fishing hamlet is now facing extinction. The proposed redevelopment is made to gentrify the entire area. Once situated at the North-West border of the city, Dharavi has now become a prime land in the middle of the city. The dense settlement of low rise houses needs to go in order to extract more commercial value out of the precious land. The scheme proposes rehabilitation of all inhabitants in small tenements in the sky scrapers. The scheme suits some of the inhabitants whose livelihood is not necessarily located within Dharavi and not dependant on use of space. But others whose livelihood depends on the unique social structure and spatial arrangement of the settlement are strongly opposing this process of homogenizing the area. As oppose to the shanties in other parts of Dharavi, Koliwada comprises of village like independent structures. Though their already endangered livelihood is not likely to be affected anymore by this scheme, the Kolis stand to loose their ancient rights over the land and traditional culture.
The interview takes place in Yamuna's house which is an affluent one in the Koliwada. The new construction of wide wooden doors, marble on the floor and fancy tiles on the wall are evidence of comfortable life and also a sense of permanency. It is indeed difficult to believe that this house may get destroyed soon and the residents would be accommodated in a tiny apartment block. Most of the Dharavi residents are migrants from the far away villages and thus do not have much attachment or pride associated with their dwellings. But the Kolis are indigenous people and have never migrated from their community settlement. This development related displacement will be very severe on them.
Yamuna, the elderly Koli woman, has an endearing way of speaking. Even while speaking of misery and poverty there is reassuring smile on her face.
In 1976 Dharavi was officially recognized as a slum.
Over years Kolis have faced a major decline in fishing business and now the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan is posing further threat to their existence. The Redevelopment Plan proposes constructing high rise residential and commercial complexes. The Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) gives permission to the builders to construct these buildings on a condition that 225 sq feet of flats would have to be given to the original residents. Technically Koliwada is a village holding and thus it should be exempted from any urban plan, but the government very comfortably is ignoring this fact. Koliwadas have been facing multiple struggles, first of their identity with various migrants around, then for the survival of their traditional occupation, for new scopes and opportunities for the community and this one is like the final blow.
Yamuna (Y): Earlier there were seven islands. During our forefather's time there was an ocean here; and in that were these islands. This is how India and Bombay were earlier. Now we have motor cars and big houses. Now this area will also have big houses, where will we go? We are the oldest residents of this area. The new house will not be the same as this house. This is small but it is good, new houses would be claustrophobic.
Richa (R): Is your house small or big?
Y: It is not too big but it's comfortable. You can step out easily. If you live in a building, who will step down from 6th floor? Everyone is making such high rise buildings, how will old people go there? You like big building?
Y: You will like it, but we like our small houses. Hope that the government does not force any such scheme. This is our country, you have come from outside. We just lack in education. That is why we are left behind. My grandchildren will study a lot.
R: What you are saying is right.
Y: We are old people, we did not study and that is why we were left behind.
R: Tell us something about your house. How old is it, how did you make it?
Y: I do not know; this is all done by my children. It was the same for everybody in the entire area but some others have made additional floors and have added windows.
R: How was the Koliwada village in your childhood?
Y: Lots of changes have happened. Earlier there were lots of small huts, now every one has built their houses properly. Children study now, they will need space in the future. Earlier Koliwada was very small, now it has grown large.
R: The marble and granite in your house is a new addition?
Y: Yes it is new.
Y: I feel that my children should study and do better in life like you people. Our parents did not know the value of education, they never cared and we did not study. We used to work and earn our bread. We used to do fishing.
R: How is the business doing now?
Y: I used to work earlier but stopped working for last two months. I find it difficult to cut live fish which jumps around. That is why I don't work anymore.
Now fish is so expensive, earlier we used to get pomfret in 5 rupees now we get it for 500. Even if our wages had increased, it would still be very difficult.
We used to get the whole stock for 200 rupees, now even 10,000 are inadequate. How will we work?
Even the customers are less; they live in big houses and have other expenses - so they do not eat fish. They have become misers. Earlier people used to earn and eat to their hearts' content. No one cared for future. They just wanted to eat. I will take you to other people.
R: No, tell me more about Koliwada. How were the houses, people and what used to happen here?
Y: There is nothing more to tell about old times. The houses were small; children studied and made the houses bigger.
R: All that you have already said, tell us something more. Like how Dharavi has changed and expanded… people have come from all over. Tell things like these.
Y: Behind our house, there was a port, all boats used to be grounded there, fishing boats. It was called the last house of the port (Bandar cha last ghar). Then the road came, and the creek etc. disappeared. Creek was the port then, all small fishing boats used to be kept there. We used to go to get fishes from there.
Yamuna echoes the sentiment of the rest of the community – a desperate attempt to enter the mainstream. The Kolis believe that through education and some kind of reservation in the public sector they can come out of their marginalized status and enter the mainstream.
The urbanization and globalization of the market have closed the noose around the neck of the fishing community. Earlier these people used to sell the fishes that they had caught themselves, but now due to pollution in the creek and inaccessibility of the sea, they are forced to buy fishes from wholesale markets and then sell it in the local fish market. The other development plans in the city like Bandra-Worli sea link and the presence of big company's trawlers in the sea have made fishing much more difficult.
With little amount of fishes that they manage to catch, the next problem is selling them. The urban lifestyle takes the customers away from the local fish markets and inclines them towards malls and frozen foods manufactured by corporations or opt for the vendors who bring the wares at their door steps.
Despite the desperation when Yamuna talks about her home being the 'last house on the Port' her pride makes it a part of the mythic tales of sea, journeys and adventures. Her eyes shine in memory of the time when she was part of a distinguished life style and not a mariginalised slum dweller.
R: This is Koliwada's last house?
Y: Yes, last house. People from that side say go to house near the port and if you approach from the other side, then there is a house near the crossing. My husband's relatives live that side. There was a port behind and all the boats used to be stationed there. Now they have made road there. From the time this road came, Dharavi has lost its value.
R: Since when has this road come?
Y: It has been about 15 years. It was not there before. Earlier the bus used to go from the village. Since the time they built the road, the whole fun of Dharavi is lost. We used to just go to the creek and get lots of fishes and eat them fresh. It was such fun.
Manibai (M): Now we eat frozen ones, which are 8 days old. Government has not taken care of the koli community.
Y: Due to the road, we do not get fish. We are dying of hunger. We have to go far to get fishes. .
M: Government let acid water fall in our creek, all our fishes died because of that. We are left with nothing. Now government does not give jobs to even our educated children. People come from everywhere else and have become officers, but our children are not even given jobs to sweep. Our boys and girls are really well educated, but the government does not help them. You have come from somewhere to take interview, our children are sitting idle. Government does not do anything for us.
Man: Government is only interested in selling Bombay and earning lots of money.
Man: To develop it and get lots of money. That is it.
Y: We may beg and live but they should get what they want.
M: They do not give us anything. They do not even give certificate to our children, and for service you need certificates. You would have got some certificate that is why you have reached here. But it is not the same with our children. They have studied for 15-16 years; it has all gone waste. Their parents must have arranged money from everywhere to get them educated. Did government do anything for the koli community? Lalu (Lalu Prasad Yadav) admits everyone (gives employment). But what did our government do for us?
Yamuna reminisces of the time when her house was called 'the last house on the port'. The same house is now surrounded by shanties and concrete jungle. The city of Bombay is full of such ironic names of places and each hides some facts about the history of the real estate. There are a few places called 'Lands End' in reference to the erstwhile sea. Some others are called 'Reclamation' indicating that the land is made by filling up the sea. Fancy shopping malls and high end boutiques have the addresses of some textile mills…
Manibai, an articulate neighbour of Yamuna joins in the conversation. Unlike Yamuna's non-linear conversational way of speaking, Manibai is sharply focused on the mode of giving interview. She talks about the disappointment with the Government.
The final death nail on the Dharavi Koliwada was the road that came up to stop sea water coming to the creek. The urban development in Bombay was never planned with an organic understanding of the city and the livelihood practices. It was always a case of fire fighting with piece meal development. The survival anxiety and desperation to enter the mainstream make the Kolis conducive to identity polemic. They believe that the government should make special provision for them and create special opportunities, in terms of jobs and education, over the other citizens. The sense of being 'the original inhabitants' is beginning to take a negative form in the context of others who have come to the city through last two hundred years and got settled within the mainstream.
Man: Every minister does some good things for their state, what have our ministers done for us? They only fend for themselves. This is our village, if development happens here how will we feel? If their village undergoes development, will they give away their land? They do not need to toil their land after getting into the ministry, but what will we do?
M: Did you see our village deity?
Man: Did you see our village temple?
M: It is a new one.
Man: Khambdev, it is there in every village.
M: This whole area was agricultural land; government took it and gave it away to slums.
Man: This slum was not there earlier. From here you could see the railway tracks.
R: You have also seen it?
Man: Yes, I have seen it. There was grass vegetation all around. All these have happened in last 30-35 years. There is a slum area behind Pila Bangla bus stop; they tried to burn it thrice. Now it has become permanent. They have got plots, what will we get? We have such big houses they will give us only 225 sq feet (in compensation). Why should I take only 225 sq feet? If you have big 20-30 acre land in your village, will you take 225 sq feet flat in return? Of course not. We have no other issue, but give us land.
M: Give us land; provide education and jobs to our children. Our creek has also gone, where we will get money to feed them. Our children have no jobs. Where will we get money for food? Government does not think about us.
Yamunabai's son joins into the conversation and brings in the polemic of electoral politics. He is employed with the BMC. It is the general belief that the contemporary Koli men do little else than loitering and drinking. As the fishing business has shrunk they could not or did not relocate themselves into other occupations. Since the finance of the trade has always been with the women they are still struggling to make their ends meet by buying at the wholesale market and selling at low margin at the local market. This structure has increased their work load as instead of dealing with the ware which came to the creek at their door step they now have to travel to Crawford market or Sasoon dock or Bhaucha Dhakka port to buy fish. This phenomenon has been reducing the Koli men into an idle lot. Taking advantage of the situation male migrants from UP and Bihar have entered into vending fish. While the Koli women sell fish only in their inherited spaces in the markets, the male vendors carry the fish baskets on their heads and sell at people's door steps. This is a classic case of urban economy where the unorganized sector of migrant labour challenges the foundation of the organized sector.
Mithi river which was called Maikawati earlier ran through the area. It is believed that the word Mithi came from Marathi word 'Meeth' for salt. Mithi still exists in the size of a drain at the west side of the present Dharavi. On 26th July, 2005, the Mithi river swelled up and flooded the city causing huge loss of lives and property. Much of the present constructions, even the runways at the airport, are built by filling up or changing the course of the river. The abused river took its revenge following a heavy rain on that date. The danger still looms large. The city was built not on land but by making land over various water bodies. That not only endangered the natural resources and killed various livelihood practices, also have made the existence of the entire city precarious and prone to natural calamities.
R: What were you saying about Khambdev temple?
M: You could see that temple from here.
Y: Everything was open and you could see the temple. There was not a single hut.
Man: Every village has a temple. It was on the village border…
R: Where, on the border?
Man: Yes on the border. A temple for village deity.
M: Now you can't see it. They have destroyed everything and are constructing buildings there.
Man: Our village border was from Kurla, Sion. The airport was creek before.
M: Yes there was a pond there and the fishes used to come to our village from there.
Man: It was Mithi river,
M: Government did not take care; they sold it to people from outside.
R: What were you saying about airport?
M: The pond in the airport had sweet water. There were huge fishes, Rohu, Katla. In monsoon, the water from pond used to come into our creek. We used to get lot of fishes. Now there is nothing.
M: The government knows nothing about Bombay and Kolis. Vilasrao (the former chief minister) is from Maharashtra, has he ever done anything? Nothing.
Man: No one knew about Koliwada. MHADA also does not know about us. Some people read about it somewhere and came to visit. That is how they got to know about Koliwada. This Koliwada is here from the time of the English. There was a queen …who gave it as gift.
M: Yes, queen Elizabeth used to come to our village. Elizabeth had given a letter to our village leader and it was written that no one can touch this village. But village leader got tempted with money and sold it off. She had given it on a stamp paper.
Man: These women have lived all their lives here. They grew up here, got married here. She is from Worli Koliwada.
Y: Yes I am from Worli. She is from this house; she got married in the next house.
Man: This is her mother's house.
M: Vasudev Worlikar, was a mayor from here. That time his letters were valuable. It was useful for our children, but Government has stopped it.
Y: Our children are dying of hunger.
M: Government is treating them badly, even when they are educated. We blame the government for this. Not you people, you are educated, and may have come from other places, I do not know. You get permission and jobs, our children do not get anything. Can our children get the same platform like you do? So why will they not steal and loot around? Government helps other communities, but we get nothing. Does anybody ask for us?
The Koli community has a traditional right of use over the land and the sea. It is believed that the British govt. had issued some sort of certificate of autonomy to the Koliwadas which was to protect their traditional rights over the land of their villages. Instead of recognizing and bringing that right under the state system, the government has equated them with other squatters' settlements in the city and has planned to evict them from their homes of 450 years. This lopsided sense of governance and development could affect the social fabric of the city severely. As it is the local government of Maharashtra, which sits at Bombay, is known for their affinity with the builders' lobby. Infact most of the Chief ministers have been involved with some land scam or others in the city. Hence it is not surprising that they have done nothing to resolve the issue of community ownership of land on any other way than put it in the market for real estate development. A few from the community who could achieve some political or bureaucratic clouts either failed to help them or have used their anger towards political mileage.
As the access to the marine lives declined, the Koli women have become mere vendors of fish who buy from the wholesale market and sell in the local market. Not only the income has reduced drastically, so have the community pride and cultural distinction. Yet they cannot find an entry point to enter the urban job market. The proposed redevelopment plan will even destroy further the collectiveness of a community village.
M: Vasudev was the first from our Koli community to have become a mayor. There was a Koli mayor of Bombay, he was proud of his community. But he died. Our community is suffering, no one cares about us.
Man: Now everyone works for their benefit and are making use of us. That is it.
R: How is the fish business doing?
M/Y: What fishing! Now we get fishes from outside, from Crawford market. We buy it per kilo and we get very little money out of it… about 5-10 rupees, that it is our profit.
… continued in 'Dharavi Koliwada_Interview with Koli Women 2'