“Everyone talks about mangroves, but no one really knows what they are or what they mean,” says Yogesh Pagade, 32, a fisherman and activist from the Koli community. He lives in the Roadpali Kalamboli village, about 2.5 kilometres away from the Kasadi river in Panvel, Navi Mumbai. Pagade was only 8 or 9 years old when his father first took him along on a boat before and after school to catch fish. His mother would eventually sell the catch in either the Dadar fish market or across local villages for livelihood. “The mangroves here have close to 18 different species of trees, like Miswak (Salvadora Perisica), which is used in the toothpaste. Mangroves are where so many species thrive, mangroves are what protect us from floods, mangroves give us much of our livelihood,” says Pagade.
Mangroves are coastal forests situated between the ocean and land, made up of shrubs or small trees, which grow in coastal saline or brackish water. The mangroves by the Kasadi river are a microcosm of what has long been transpiring in the once rich expanse of Mumbai’s coastal forests. As the Navi Mumbai Airport gets approvals for construction, permission to clear another 6 acres of mangroves has been granted.
“The Taloja MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation) is here and CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra) operates here. A lot of their waste as well as a lot of Mumbai’s waste finds its way to this creek--whether it’s medical waste, discarded furniture, plastic waste, it’s all hanging from the branches and trees or floating in the river destroying the wildlife--especially since the 2005 floods,” says Pagade. According to Mangrove mapping and change detection around Mumbai (Bombay) using remotely sensed data (2005), a study published in the Indian Journal of Marine Sciences, nearly 40% of the city’s mangrove cover has been cleared.
“A few years ago, a study found there are 19 species that use the mangroves of Mumbai and Konkan for breeding. Six of them are important for commercial aspects and ecology. In a situation where your mangroves have more pollutants, that will deplete oxygen necessary for these species to survive,” says Akshay Deoras, an independent meteorologist and PhD candidate at the department of meteorology, University of Reading, in the UK. “It will affect mangroves because they need salty water. If you change the composition of the water by dumping waste, it will choke the mangroves.” Current estimates say that about over 700 megaliters of untreated sewage is released into four rivers in Mumbai every day.
In the mangroves, as leaves dry and fall into the soil, they are consumed by crabs and other sea creatures. This leads to decomposition and makes it a nutrient for the soil. Pagade, however, says that the waste that goes and settles by the flora in the coastal forests is destroying the biodiversity, and by extension, his livelihood.
Pagade’s mother, 56-year-old Indubai, grew up in Khargar. As a child, she remembers her family’s agricultural work by the creek, which she would attend to and then accompany her father with the day’s catch. Before heading home, they would take “dried parts” of the trees as firewood. Indubai, with some difficulty, can recount the crab, mullet, snapper and prawn species her father would catch among the mangroves. “Pehle jo machchi ka sale hota tha, toh log haq se maangte the. Acha lagta tha khaane ko. Ab khaadi ka machchi sun ke koi leta bhi nahi. (Earlier our local fish was in high demand, now no one wants it),” she says. It reached a point where local catch was so scarce, that Indubai would travel to Sassoon Docks to procure fish and sell it locally in the village.
As a result, the current generation of the Koli community is being forced to move away from the profession of fishing. Indubai, too, had hoped her son would be able to pursue a different, more lucrative job.
Ganesh Nakhawa, a fisherman and activist from the fishing village of Karanja, says, “The creek and coastal fishing has already collapsed. There is no chance that people will come back to it. It was once a proper livelihood where they could earn better and live happily in their community -- but there is no fish. How will anyone survive?” adds Nakhawa. “Near Yogesh’s village -- there are a lot of MIDC villages -- people work as security guards, labour.”
Nakhawa, now vice chairman of the Purse Seine Fishing Welfare Association, was also ready to settle down in the UK after completing a business studies and finance degree from the University of Edinburgh. But he was compelled to return when the plight of his father and others from the community -- as with the mangroves and creek around his fishing village of Karanja -- became alarming. It is the passion and drive of local community activists like Navakhe, Pagade and others like Nandakumar Pawar from Uran (he started the NGO Sree Ekvira Pratisthan with an aim to protect the 1,042 hectares of mangroves from Mulund to Vikhroli along the Thane creek) that is keeping the movement to conserve mangroves in Mumbai somewhat alive.
They have even led community awareness drives -- Pawar, for instance, has engaged with the community to prevent cutting of trees by the local fishermen and explained to them the importance of wildlife and birds that gather around the area as a result of the mangroves, including flamingoes. Yogesh has worked with CIDCO to put up boards around the mangroves, identifying the species of trees, listing the uses of mangroves. His father Ramchandra Narayan Pagade, 58, also cleans the creek along with other members of the local community.
Much ado about mangroves
The Koli community, considered Bombay’s original inhabitants, have had a long and complex relationship with mangroves. “Religiously, a few communities even worship them -- deem them god and perform puja annually,” says Nakhawa. “I have always wondered why. Then I realised, this was a form of respect and conservation -- pray to everything that needs to be protected. So be it mangroves, mammals (turtles, dolphins, blue whales) - that message spreads within the community, that woh bhagwan hai unhe bachana hai (this is our god, we take care of it).” As Mumbai expands, the Koli community also needs space, but not at the cost of mangroves.
“Mangroves act like a sponge. Whenever you get a lot of rainfall, they would be there to absorb the water,” says Deoras. “The patterns expected are that rainfall events in Mumbai will become more extreme and that is going to be a problem because the city is expanding and there is already a lot of stress. So you need mangroves to absorb more water. And in the last two years, we have started to see tropical cyclones. Last year we had (cyclone) Nisarga in June and (cyclone) Taukte in May this year. Mangroves help reduce the impact of storm surges and massive swells in the surface of the sea.”
To a limited and scattered extent, the importance of mangroves is being recognised at the state and judicial levels too. Maharashtra is the only state with a dedicated mangrove cell. Over the last year, the state forest department and mangrove conservation cell have taken possession of 9,800 hectares of reserved mangrove land. In 2018, the Bombay High Court passed a judgment banning the destruction and cutting of mangroves in Maharashtra -- all mangrove land will fall in Coastal Regulation Zone-I category as per both the CRZ notifications of 1991 and 2011. A year later, the Court noted that the construction of the coastal road in the city shall not be allowed to proceed without appropriate statutory clearances under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and environmental clearances mandated by the Union environment ministry. The order, however, was set aside by the Supreme Court, which allowed construction of the road but restricted any other development.
The impact and pace of rehabilitation efforts are slow too -- activists and NGOs believe it’s too little too late, and compensation for already lost livelihoods requires a more robust framework.
Rooted in hope
“Twenty five years ago, my dad used to take me in a small boat in the Dharamtar creek, and there were a lot of fish. We would use nets to catch crabs,” he says. “We would bring back enough to feed the whole joint family of 25-30 people and sell the rest in the local seafood market. That is all gone. You put the same kind of net today, you will get 100 plastic packets and maybe one or two fish.”
To help keep the profession alive, the Koli community has created man-made ponds in their creeks -- whether it's the Mithi or Kasadi rivers. But such artificial solutions can only go so far. Nakhawa believes more organisation and political support is required within the community, “similar to the fishermen of Kerala -- they are a lobby. The government listens to them.”
Pagade is hopeful, inspired by efforts such as those of Godrej in Vikhroli, which is also where he has learnt more about mangroves. He uses this information in his representations before environment ministers and corporates alike. Pagade has even created pages and groups through Facebook to meet more people involved in cleaning and conservation. “I want to create sustainable ecotourism in the mangroves here like they have in the Sunderbans, let people come and see what they are destroying. I think this will be useful for both -- the cause and the community,” he says. “I have not started a family yet, but it is the next generation of fishermen I am fighting for.”
Asmita Bakshi is an independent journalist. Reporting for this story was supported by The Ministry of Mumbai's Magic collective.