Worli: Mumbai’s Fishing Village Fights for Survival

The cuisine of the Kolis is Mumbai’s heritage and a living history of the city’s delicate coastal ecology.

Priyamvada Kowshik

Sonali Patil is a natural when it comes to facing the camera. She’s just spent a good part of the morning cleaning, cutting and cooking fish for us. Freshly shucked rock oysters of Worli—locally known as kalwa—are sautéed with onions and a fragrant green masala for Kalwa sukkka, a Worli specialty. “Kalwa are special to Worli because of our rocky coast. They are gathered by women from the poorer households of the community. It is back-breaking work, cracking the shell open to reach the soft flesh while balancing gingerly on these rocks,” Sonali says, laying out the sukka on a plate. 

She then adds a flourish of fiery red Koli masala to the adjacent pot of Shevandi Ambat (lobster curry) simmering on the stove. The young woman inherited these recipes after she wed a fisherman from Worli. “Some of these dishes cooked in Worli are unique. Aai taught me to cook with a good dose of green masala,” she says pointing to her mother-in-law Shaila, who is washing a batch of prawns.  

Shaila Patil is a woman of few words. “Ask the youngsters your questions, they are vocal and fighting for the right reasons. What do I know how to speak on camera, I’ve spent all my life cleaning, sorting and selling fish,” she chortles, her fingers now busy deveining prawns. Shaila is aware that the proposed coastal road project is a threat to their livelihoods. She has watched with a growing sense of dismay, the bulldozers ploughing through a good part of the rocky coast near her home, irreversibly damaging the ecology that has supported her community. “Does anyone care about what’s happening to the Kolis,” she says somberly. The rocky shore of Worli is millions of years old. It forms a gradual slope into the sea which makes it a natural barrier along the shoreline against any natural calamity from the sea. "Destroying this shoreline will create greater pressure along Mumbai shoreline," says Mumbai-based conservationist Stalin Dayanand, director of the environmental organisation Vanashakti.  

A looking glass into Mumbai's past

Sonali slides taut slices of glistening white pomfret and a fistful of chopped raw mango into a bubbling green broth. Koli cuisine has simple, spice-laced sukka and kalvan or curries. Dried shrimps or Javla are toasted with onions and chillies, or cooked with vegetables like brinjal. Shivlya (shellfish) or prawns may be cooked in a curry they call ambat. The Koli platter reflects the diversity of the catch that the Mumbai coastline offers. Fish is marinated in fresh green masala (coriander, ginger, garlic and green chillies) or red Koli masala—a spice mix of red chillies and whole spices. Zesty souring agents such as raw mangoes, kokum or tamarind lend a tangy balance to the kalvan. Use of coconut is limited. The drupe is a key ingredient in Konkan cuisine, but Mumbai’s Koli cuisine is distinct from Konkani or Malwan food.      

Sonali learnt of Worli’s uniqueness only once she moved here. The rock oysters on the shore, white prawns that are so abundant “they’re jumping out of the water” when fishing season resumes in August; varieties of crabs, clams and shallow water fish found in the rocky pools at low tide, and other fish that arrive at the narrow jetty with a Victorian name—Cleveland Bunder. “This region is a fish breeding zone, one of the reasons why it is thriving with life. If we lose this, if we build over fish breeding zones, won't their population decrease? Will our children have fish to eat, or will our food and way of life be lost forever? Are the people of Mumbai concerned about this at all?”

Her questions are pointed, but no one is answering them.

Worli Koliwada, one of the oldest fishing villages of Mumbai, is in the midst of a struggle to preserve its  livelihood. Their fishing grounds in the shallow waters along the coast are now threatened by the reclamation activity for the eight-lane Mumbai Coastal Road Project. Work on the project was brought to a stop after the Bombay high count cancelled the ecological clearance for the project. By this time, a part of the Worli intertidal zone had been flattened, drilled into and dumped with rocks and soil. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has challenged the court's decision and the matter now rests with the Supreme Court. 

The 29.4 km coastal road proposed along the city’s western seafront proposes to connect Malabar Hill in the south to Kandivali in the north, via the Worli sea link, by reclaiming the coast. The project has been opposed by conservationists, urban planners, the fishing community and residents of Mumbai who have pointed at its social and environmental impact. The loss of the Worli intertidal zone will result in loss of livelihood for these fishers. 

“This does not concern the Worli fishers alone, but every citizen of Mumbai. We are destroying our natural barriers in the event of a calamity. Mumbai and Mangalore have been recognised as two cities most vulnerable to climate change calamities,” says Stalin, whose NGO Vanashakti and Sagarshakti petitioned the High Court to assess the environmental impact of the construction along the Worli coast.     

Why should the loss of a rocky coastline worry us?

The shallow waters of the Mumbai coastline from Malabar Hill in the south to Bandra in central Mumbai, have been rich fishing grounds for small-scale artisanal fishers. They are fisherfolk who own small boats or gather molluscs and crustaceans from the rocky intertidal zones. Their fishing practices are largely sustainable, unlike destructive fishing by trawlers. 

Given its rocky shoreline, Worli acts like a nursery for fish, even deep-sea fish swim to these shallow waters to lay their eggs. “Most Mumbaikars dismiss the sea as polluted, they’re not aware of the diversity of marine wildlife it supports. It’s the same case with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai,” says Sarita Fernandes, a young activist at Sagarshakti. In the absence of a comprehensive biodiversity mapping of the intertidal zone, citizen-driven initiatives such as Marine Life of Mumbai stepped in. The group, made up of marine enthusiasts, has been conducting shore walks and documenting marine life along Mumbai’s coast since 2017. “We have recorded 340 marine species on the Worli coast,” says Pradip Patade, who was spurred by an incident of sting ray attacks on Ganpati revelers in 2013, to document the marine life of Mumbai’s coast. 

For fisherman like Nitesh Patil, the worry lines run deep. “This is our farmland. We encourage sustainable fishing, we protect the waters from trawlers who destroy fish breeding zones. How can our livelihoods be taken away without any thought to the impact on our lives?” he questions, voicing a concern every member of the Worli village has been nursing, as they continue their struggle to save their coast, culture and cuisine. 

Also Watch: Join chef Ranveer on an exploration of Koli cuisine of Mumbai


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