Mumbai: A typical working day starts at 2pm for Sandhya Bhanje. She arrives at the jetty to oversee the unloading of the catch and stays on to supervise sales to customers from all over the city until sunset.
Finally , the fish left over is hauled onto trucks bound for Crawford Market from where it’s shipped out by seafood exporters. Now for the economics. Her family owns seven trawlers that bring in crates of shrimp, pomfret and Bombay Duck. Each makes two to three trips a month, with a haul worth about Rs 3 lakh every time, going by industry estimates.
Welcome to the koliwada in Versova. Situated on a palm-fringed edge of the western coast, it belies conventional ideas of a coastal hamlet dependent on a traditional activity for its livelihood. The industry of fishing has transformed this once semi -rural settlement of kolis, considered a Backward Community, into an affluent quarter of packed, multi-storey buildings lining narrow streets.
Business is booming in Versova koliwada. With over 300 trawlers, the approximately 4,000 households here record an annual turnover of approximately Rs 400 crore, says Rajhans Tapke, general secretary, Koli Mahasangh. “The fishing business we see today is thanks to the co-operative movement. In fact, former chief minister Sharad Pawar always cited us as an example for the sugar industry to emulate,” said Tapke. The village was the first in the city to boast of a cold storage and its own ice factory .
The Tapkes themselves operate a couple of trawlers.A clan of three brothers; they own houses spread out over a couple of multi-storey structures in the village. Currently, there are four co-operative societies in the village, but the Vesava Machchimar Vividhkaryakari Sahakari Society Ltd is the largest with 4,000 members and 271 trawler owners affiliated as members.
“Till 15 years ago, the society was responsible for the sale of fish. But now every individual trawler owner strikes his own deals. The society provides the diesel needed for the vessels and ice to store the fish. Most importantly, it regulates the floor price below which no one is allowed to sell. This is to ensure that there is no unhealthy competition,” said Jitendra Chinchay , a director of the society .
The affluence shows in the changed skyline of the koliwada. It is home to several three and four store-buildings packed so close to one another that one can reach into adjoining structures through windows. The lavish use of marble and granite and the gadgets on display in homes tell how lucrative the business is.
Rajendra Kale, chairman of the Vesava Society, said Versova has 3,000 active fishermen and employs about 5,000 people in ancillary activities. While the business of fishing is mostly a male domain, nearly 80% of those who hawk it are women. They handle wholesaleretail trade as well as negotiate long term deals with exporters.
“On an average 25-30 trawlers return to the village with fresh catch daily. A trawler returns with fish worth nearly Rs 3 lakh,” said Kale. Each trawler makes about three trips every month, spending a week out at sea.
Tapke, however, says trawlers are forced to foray further out every time in search of fish and laments government’s indifference to the trade. “The sea is treated like a dumping ground. There is no proper treatment of sewage before it is released in the sea. The waters around Versova are so dark we stopped fishing here nearly over 25 years ago,” he said.
Versova creek is the largest of the inlets along Mumbai’s coast. Several streams from Malad, Goregaon, Kowte, Erangal, Amboli and Oshiwara empty into it and, in turn, it opens into the sea at Juhu. Efforts to divert sewage and effluents away from the natural channels are limited or still in progress.
The large volumes of waste flowing through the drains in the western suburbs eventually make their way into the Versova creek.”Even the Mithi River seems cleaner,” said Tapke. Most of the flotsam gets washed up on the shore eventually. The boats now travel almost 50 nautical miles into the sea, said Pradeep Tapke, who owns two of them. The fishermen venture as far as Jaffrabad in the Kathiawar peninsula and Ganpatipule in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district.
Along with growth in fishing activity , village elders have taken the lead in backward integration to minimize waste and improve profitability. Fish waste is converted into manure after it’s dried on the beach or used as chicken feed by poultry farms. “The tiny fish which have no market are sold to the food processing industry through suppliers,” said Raj hans Tapke.
Among other sources of revenue is a three-day Versova Fish Festival which Tapke has been organizing since 2005. This year, the village set up 60 stalls and each earned around Rs 5-6 lakh.The total business in those three days amounted to nearly Rs 4 crore.
Recently , residents of highrises in the vicinity took the lead to rid the beach of plastic waste. Now that the stretch looks cleaner, Tapke senses an opportunity. He hopes to use a part of the beach to put up stalls on a permanent basis, provided the authorities are willing.