One year ago, Hema Bhanji sat wearily outside her home, a makeshift two-story building in the crowded, twisting alleyways of the Versova Koliwada, Mumbai’s oldest fishing village. She was slicing deftly through the last of her fish, caught on the boat’s final trip before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived on India’s shores.

By her side was a woman nearly 30 years younger, helping to clean the catch while hesitantly eyeing the chunks of surmai being tossed into a plate. Hema sighed and looked at her friend with exasperation. “Take the fish. Staring at it won’t fill you up.” Nearly in tears, the woman thanked Hema and hurried across the road to her family. She had to cook the fish before her husband woke up from his evening nap. As for herself, Hema went to bed hungry that night. “One empty stomach is better than five,” she said simply.

If this were a few months ago, the two would have been flocking, along with hundreds of other Koli fisherwomen, to their open, women-run fish market nearby with kilos of fish, joyfully gossiping about their husbands, their work, and all the other daily dramas of the area.

What followed was a tumultuous year where they had to hold on to every last rupee. India’s infamously strict lockdowns had halted all fishing activity, bringing Koli women’s livelihoods and social interactions to a complete standstill. By late June, many of them had begun to run out of money and food for themselves and their children.

What was most remarkable about Hema’s act of generosity is that it was not born out of any singularly altruistic sentiment, nor was it an isolated example of friendship. A group doubly marginalised for their caste and their gender, Koli fisherwomen have had the odds stacked against them for decades.

Their average income has declined by as much as 30% since 2010, yet the Indian state does not sufficiently acknowledge their economic vulnerability, according to research by Dr Samir Jale at Shivaji University.

More than two-thirds of Mumbai’s Koli population of 200,000 is female, but their voices are seldom included in the city’s political processes. Despite these challenges, Koli women continue to be fiercely independent, financially, and domestically – a feat that is rare in a male-dominated country.

Hema Bhanji takes pride in helping other fisherwomen. Photo: Paroma Soni

A network of solidarity

Legally classified as a “Backward Class,” Kolis are unofficially considered a lower-caste community since the British Raj, although their own definitions of the term are fluid. Widely considered Mumbai’s native inhabitants when the city was just a group of islands, Koli fishermen go out to sea – sometimes for months – while the fisherwomen take charge of collecting, cleaning, cutting, drying, and selling the catch across town.

The traditional lifestyles of this small-scale fishing community have been under increasing threat since the late 1980s, owing to the rapid urban development of the city and climate change. Increasing levels of water pollution, changing marine ecosystems, and destruction of mangroves, among other factors, have forced fishermen to go out even longer and further in search of fish, shrinking the already-low levels of income for most households. Many young Kolis are increasingly moving out of fishing in search of more stable jobs as the fisheries get more uncertain by the day.

With the men away and without any economic support as India’s economy liberalised at the turn of the century, this group of women began forming ties to solve small problems that arose in their daily lives. Sometimes this meant helping out with each others’ kids because childcare services were inaccessible to them. At other times it has meant sharing ingredients or cooking meals together when there wasn’t enough food. They gave money to women in need even if their own funds were tight. They spent time listening to each other’s anxieties, fears and dreams, particularly in fish markets that became their safe spaces. They shielded each other from abusive husbands or lent shoulders to cry on.

Over time Koli women’s small acts of kindness developed into a complex network of solidarity, shaping a sense of collective identity. Describing them as “existing within the cracks and fragments of society,” Dr Niharika Banerjea, a sociologist at Ambedkar University, explained that the Kolis’ informal structures of care arise both as a result of the economic and gendered injustice they face, and in resistance to it.

“This is a community that has been marginalised for so long,” Banerjea said. “To survive, they have had to create alternative forms of living that do not prescribe to the dominant narratives of how society should be – based on caste, class, race, gender, and so on – and they have thrived.”

A Koli woman wearing a protective mask is seen at a fish market amidst the spread of Covid-19 in Mumbai, India, September 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Emotional bonds

Unlike most women elsewhere in this overwhelmingly patriarchal country, Koli fisherwomen hold the decision-making power in households and in business. But outside of the Koliwadas, they continue to be denied access to their fundamental rights. So they use their collective power and informal networks to lift each other up as the state beats them down, especially during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

“All of us, we have grown up together, spent all our lives around each other – and we have kind of been hidden from the rest of the world,” said Sheetal, Hema’s niece, who shifted from fishwork to a job at a local salon after getting married. “Sometimes we don’t get along, and some women certainly drive me crazy, but I can’t imagine a world where I would not stick up for anyone if they needed my help.”

These bonds are cultivated as much by the women’s compassion for each other as the infrastructure of their surroundings. “The strong cohesion between Koli women has always been a feature of the community,” said D Parthasarathy, a professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Bombay. “It is continually nurtured by the activities of everyday life, like in the way Koliwadas are spatially organised. Their houses look right into each other, their doors are always open, kids run through them all the time, and they do most household and business work together.”

As Koliwadas got increasingly encroached upon by developers, women began to combine the spaces between their homes into small courtyards, laying out all their fish to dry there instead of the big drying grounds they used to have. “We shared [physical] space for work and other things, but we also shared an emotional and fun space where we could just hang out,” said Hema, fondly recounting funny stories and encounters from the past few years.

Even faith reinforces the solidarity. “Koli women’s strong belief in their goddesses – not gods – strengthens their political identity,” said Parthasarathy. Though there are some Christian Kolis and Muslim Kolis, the majority are Hindu Kolis who worship seven main goddesses – including Mumba Devi, from whom the city of Mumbai gets its name. These goddesses symbolise harmony and unity, an important aspect in understanding the relationalities among Koli women.

‘Someone stole my air’

Most of the Koliwada’s communal spaces, however, closed off abruptly when the Covid-19 lockdowns were announced on March 23, 2020. The mandatory curfews and strict restrictions on movement brought fishing and all related fishing activities to a complete halt, including a shutdown of fish markets. Koli fisherwomen went from earning around Rs 100-300 per day to absolutely nothing. When the lockdowns began to ease, the annual 61-day ban on monsoon fishing to protect marine life came into force. Fisherwomen were forced to stay indoors for more than five months.

“The financial stress was one thing – at one point, we had no money even for buying vegetables,” remarked Bharati Chamar, a colorfully-dressed Koli fisherwomen in her 40s who sells fish in markets across Mumbai. “But being stuck with only my husband in our tiny house for half a year? I was bored. I missed the markets. It felt like someone stole my air.”

Mucky and densely packed, saturated with the smell of raw fish and the cacophony of enthusiastic customers, the fish market was the beating heart of these women’s friendships. “It’s not just a place of work – it’s the place their mothers went to, and their mothers before that, a space deeply enmeshed in their sense of identity,” said Gayatri Nair, a sociologist at IIT whose research focuses on Koli communities. “It’s a social, familial, familiar space that is thick with these relationships flowing through them.”

Bharati Chamar felt claustrophobic during the months of lockdown. Photo: Paroma Soni

Ignored by the state

In a country that rarely accords visibility to women, hundreds of Koli women trading freely and controlling the cash flow in large public spaces is extraordinary. They not only participate in the labor force but also contribute confidently to how it is shaped, with generations of expertise. “Koli women manage the entire economic system of fishing within the Koliwadas,” said Ketaki Bhadgaonkar, co-founder of the non-profit Bombay61. “With their enterprising nature they make all the decisions about rents, budgets, household expenses, how fish should be processed and distributed. This rarely happens with women in other sectors.”

With less than 30% of the country’s women employed, a number steadily on the decline, India ranks 121st out of 131 in the Female Labor Force Participation Rate according to a World Bank report. Many Indian women stop working after marriage, largely because they are not allowed to by their husbands and in-laws. There are few labor protections or incentives for working women, in rural and urban sectors. Especially during the pandemic, more than 17 million women lost their jobs according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a higher percentage than men.

Although Koli women’s work lives are far more independent than other Indian women’s, they too saw their incomes vanish overnight, and received no support from the state. Two fishworker unions’ that advocated for relief were run by men. Their demands centered primarily around things like fuel subsidies, discounts on fishing nets, and compensation for hours lost on boats – things that are relevant for fishermen who go out to sea, but not so much the fisherwomen who work on land. The resulting government policies that passed applied nationally and, unsurprisingly, did little to aid fisherwomen.

“There is general disregard in our country’s policies for the work that women do, whether that’s unpaid labor in the household or in the fisheries value chain. It’s just assumed women will come and do the drying once the fish has been caught,” said Siddharth Chakravarty, a consultant on fisheries and public policy. He added that even though women in Koli communities do at least 2-3 times the amount of fishwork as men, they are not able to take out loans or avail credit legally unless they have assets to put down as collateral. These assets, usually land holdings or other property, are generally drawn out under the man’s name.

Women clean prawns at a fish market in Mumbai, September 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Informal safety nets

For women in the Versova Koliwada, that has meant finding refuge in their friends’ generosity when institutions failed them. Jagruti, a smaller scale “distributor” who bought fish wholesale from other fisherwomen and then sold it door-to-door, had no way to make ends meet. Her husband Ashok, a dhol player for weddings, was also out of a job. They burned through their savings in the first month of the lockdown and were unable to take out any form of credit. The Maharashtra government had set up a ration stall which gave each Aadhaar card holder 5 kilos of rice and 5 kilos of lentils per month, but only Ashok had the identification card. Jagruti and their two young children have been waiting for their documents to process since 2013.

“After weeks of not eating a single full meal, I called my friend Seema and asked if she could make me just one cup of chai. We were saving up whatever little we could during lockdown in that silver box up there, just so we could afford some tea leaves,” Jagruti said, pointing to a rusted box next to a pooja space full of her seven Koli deities. “But with the electricity company tripling the cost of power, our water supply running out, the bank denying our loan, the kids’ school – we didn’t have a chance.”

She smiled abruptly. “I just wanted one cup of kadak chai to take my mind off things. The next thing I know, Seema shows up at my door with 10,000 rupees that the women have pooled together.”

This sharing of money is possible because some women who own their own boats, like Hema, are relatively more cash-rich, while other secondary distributors like Jagruti frequently need to depend on others – usually their husbands – when their flow of income falters.

“In an informal setting, these class differences matter less. Women with more means will gladly help women without,” said Nair. “But when you try to formalise these networks, the lines are blurrier. There’s a noted difference between women with trawlers, women with smaller boats, and women with no boats at all. This is especially visible when it comes to, for instance, an issue of voting and taking a trade union position on limiting the amount of trawler fishing.”

These conflicts have kept Koli women’s networks from being formalised, despite repeated attempts to form women’s cooperatives to leverage more political power. However, spontaneous forms of solidarity continue to thrive. “The relationships among Koli women and their informal networks are no less important or powerful than any formal ones,” said Shibhaji Bose, an independent consultant with the TAPESTRY research project.

“The Koli people – especially the fisherwomen – have always been central to the popular imagination of Mumbai,” said Bose, referring to old Bollywood movies and the city’s culinary traditions. “But the city has not paid Koli women any dividends. They are natives of the land, but have not gotten their fair share from the country’s economic boom. With their existence at a crossroads, they say it’s only their goddesses and their bonds that keep them afloat.”

The ways in which Koli women adapted their homegrown social structures to collectively survive the pandemic is indicative of their strength as much as it represents the deep failures of Indian society and state. Koli women opened up their homes, risked their lives and livelihoods for each other even as a deadly virus loomed, while many privileged communities instinctively turned inwards.

“We are proud people,” said Hema. “And we are proud of asking each other for help, and proud to be able to give it to our sisters who need it most.”

Jagruti lives with her family in Versova Koliwada. Photo: Paroma Soni