Most Mumbai residents encounter the sea only on the west coast, bordering the Arabian Sea. The Thane Creek that separates Mumbai from the mainland on its east coast, is unseen as a waterfront. Rather, it is seen as a toxic wetland – water has been made into land through reclamations by the Mumbai Port, the coastline transformed by industrial processes and largely barricaded from public access.

Through our new film, Sagar Putra, we aim to present a different view of the Thane Creek, one experienced through the everyday practices of one of Mumbai’s fishing villages or koliwadas that are inhabited by the indigenous community of Kolis.

The language of fisher experiences, as the fishers themselves narrate in the film, reveals contemporary struggles against the enclosure of the coast as well as the recovery of a longer, forgotten history of entanglement of sea and city from Mumbai’s eastern seaboard.

More than 25 fishing villages dot the Thane Creek of Mumbai, Trombay Koliwada being one. They form part of a complex living web where marine life, mangroves and villages are linked to each other through livelihood, social, and sacred relations.

Vinod Koli is a Koli fisherman from Trombay Koliwada. He talks about an ecological sensing or knowledge of how fishers measure time – by the tides and not by standardised minutes and hours. He took us on a tour of the creek to show us his saj or traditional fixed fishing areas in the sea, handed down ancestrally.


Koli has inherited his saj and fishing knowledge from his ancestors but it seems he will not be able to pass this on to the next generation due to the difficulty of fishing in Mumbai’s toxic seas and upcoming infrastructure projects that capture the sea and coasts, leaving little room for traditional fishers.

Capturing the sea and creek

The fishers of Trombay are well aware of the dangers of living amidst tidal creek waters that are a toxic mixture of garbage, sewage, chemicals, sound and light pollution.

Pushpa Koli wordlessly showed us the harm wrought on her hands and feet by years of being a khajindar fisher, which involves wading in the stinky, contaminated marsh land of the creek and catching crabs and small fish with her bare hands. Vinod Koli spoke of how plastic often gets snagged in their boat propellers, damaging the boats.

Once so abundant, the fish too have fled the creek, say the fishers, greatly endangering their customary livelihood. Creek communities who live in these “sacrifice zones” or hotspots of chemical pollution suffer disproportionate risk burdens but no data exists on the legacy or pre-existing pollution they face that continues unabated today .

Chandrakant Vaity, the President of the Trombay Cooperative Fishing Society, described how the Thane Creek is being squeezed by development from all sides – in Navi Mumbai and Thane and the newly developing Uran area surrounding the Jawaharlal Nehru Port.

New infrastructure projects are being constructed– like the Maharashtra Trans Harbour Link Road, from Mumbai to the mainland – that seek to make the sea into land and property.

Sitting in the village temple, we listened to the community elders’ long experience of being circumscribed on land and in sea. In 1954, they gave their land to establish the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. “The same BARC that we gave land to, virtually for free, has declared a 500 metre ‘No fishing zone’ beyond their boundary in the sea, in the name of security,” one person complained.

This government ban hurts the fishers while allowing the barges of the oil refineries and the nearby thermal power plant to freely travel the creek. Colonial and post-colonial governments have always sought to enclose the sea through tax regimes and make the commons of the creek a private market.

For instance, the British colonial state levied head taxes on koliwadas for the right to fish, a practice carried over by the government of independent India. Till about 15 years ago, fishers say they paid an annual tax on their saj, a practice that has now been halted. The fishers saw this tax as official recognition of their right to use their saj for fishing and suggest that its cessation is an attempt at erasing their rights to the creek.

Experiences of toxicity, enclosure and erasure compel the fishers of Trombay Koliwada to turn away from their sea-based livelihoods and sea-life. But they do not passively accept this estrangement, it is marked by struggle and processes of reclaiming.

Protecting fishing commons

When telling stories of their village, older fishers talk of not just where they live (the settlement area or gaothan) but also the adjoining expanse of seashore lands, marshy interface between land and sea, and coastal seas where they do fishing related activities. These communal spaces or fishing commons have been produced collectively over many years of use for activities like boat parking, net mending and fish drying. Kolis therefore have a different imaginary of home than that of the city dweller.

For them, their village transcends simple land-sea and workplace-residence boundaries, and draws from ideas of customary use rights rather than property relations. This allows fishing commons to be occupied and shared by many groups for undertaking varied activities, where no one person owns or has exclusive rights over the space.

The expanded sense of village that Trombay’s Kolis operate with we call a “remembered boundary”. It is governed by the traditional fisher caste panchayat and commonly known to all within the Koliwada but unknown to outsiders because fishers cannot prove legal ownership. How the Koliwada remembers their village’s boundaries starkly contrasts with how state agencies mark its official boundaries – as the much smaller residential settlement or gaothan area.


Like many Koliwadas, Trombay’s fishing commons are being rapidly eaten away, a process fishers vigorously resist. In 1987, the Maharashtra government transferred legal ownership of a part of their commons to Mumbai’s public bus company, BEST, to build a bus depot. Till today, the fishers practice their resistance to this enclosure by persistently using the disputed land in accordance with fishing time.

In the early mornings once the catch comes in, this ground is used for a wholesale fish market. After the market winds down, the fish are scattered to allow them to dry in the heat of the day. The cooler evening time signals it’s time to pack up the dried fish and a playground that is used for sports and strolls by several neighboring communities unfurls.

Through it all, the BEST buses manoeuvre around sheets of plastic that dry over a hundred kilos of jawla (a small local fish). With time, the disputed land’s uses have multiplied showing that new forms of community and new uses for this commons have emerged, beyond fishing.

The ceaseless movements that transgress the official property boundaries of the disputed land can be read as a resistance to the enclosure of these commons and a reclaiming of sorts. This reclaiming acknowledges the dominance of property laws in society but also offers an alternative to the propertied ownership model, drawing from older notions of remembered boundaries, shared spaces, and relations with beyond- human entities of creek, sea and fish.

Can this space that has been made through temporal appropriations and negotiations among multiple users provide us with an alternative and more just planning imaginary for our coasts in a time of climate-changed waters rather than one based on ownership, enclosure and segregated land uses?

Wholesale fish market in Trombay Koliwada.

Unseeing the east coast as a waterfront is not a natural process. Both British imperial designs and post-colonial nationalist imaginaries have produced the eastern seaboard as a toxic, industrialised and enclosed zone underwritten by the drying of wetlands and the harming of marginalised groups, like fishing communities and poor, migrant workers in the docks and factories. Zoning the eastern suburbs of Trombay and Mahul for hazardous industries and for the working classes are policies that have colonial roots.

More recent government interventions seek to revalue this degraded landscape through a new real estate-centred imaginary – embodied in the upcoming Eastern Waterfront Development Project. This project aims to repurpose industrial lands of the Mumbai Port for waterfront development, beautification and recreation while integrating the rest of the city with the hitherto inaccessible eastern waterfront.

Both industrial and post-industrial coastal imaginaries are driven by the imperatives of capitalism and seek to erase the fishers’ ways of inhabiting wetness that transcend those solely associated with property relations.

Why we should care about fishers’ ways of knowing the coast

There are good reasons for why we should care about fisher’s ways of inhabiting the coast and how these are being lost and reclaimed. First, fisher’s experiences of estrangement reflect not only the loss of sea livelihoods and destruction of the coastal commons but the slow forgetting of an entire knowledge system that was assembled by centuries of collective living amidst rising and falling water levels.

This experiential knowledge presents a different way of knowing that single- subject, credentialed experts can never attain. It is particularly vital to learn from it in a time of increased submergence owing to climatic change, when technocratic planning processes seem to be falling short.

Second, the fisher’s struggles against state-sanctioned enclosures reveal how they use enclosures as a ground for political action and for reimagining a system they deem unjust. This process of fisher reclaiming is deeply opposed to another kind of reclaiming we are very familiar with – state-led reclamations that are associated with colonising and territorialising the sea/creek, while polluting and making property of it.

Fishers’ experiences therefore offer a language to challenge current unjust imaginaries, connect what seem isolated struggles of other coastal communities, as well as build alternative futures in a time of rising waters.


Lalitha Kamath is an urbanist focusing on the violence of property urbanism and the bottom-up agency of marginalised groups in unsettling dominant urbanisms, and is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Gopal Dubey is a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and an independent researcher.

This is the fourth part of a series that seeks to reimagine the futures of the coastal city of Mumbai in its climate-changed waters. Read the entire series here.