Koli community — original inhabitants of what eventually became Mumbai — now confined to small colonies

For over a week now, ‘Sion Koliwada' is in a state of siege. A strip of road separates the empowered and the debased as the spectre of demolition hangs like a Damocles' sword over the 2000-strong traditional fishing community, the Kolis.

As police vans keep an ominous vigil on their quarry, families here are galvanised into frenetic activity, pasting pamphlets, inking their weather-beaten walls with slogans that cry out: “No permission for the builder or his minions to trespass our land.” The original inhabitants of what eventually became Mumbai, the Koli community is now confined to small colonies. The residents of Sion Koliwada in central Mumbai today rue their fate as victims of classic civic corruption.

Since May 29, the colony has witnessed police action and some of their residents are in jail on charges of rioting. Since 1994, this 14,000 square metre area, which houses 18 chawls, has caught the covetous eye of promoters and builders with notions of ‘redevelopment' uppermost in their minds. Residents allege that builders, M/s Bawa and M/s Jay Kay, attempted to oust their community by getting their ‘redevelopment' project sanctioned by submitting forged written consents of the original residents to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

As per Slum Rehabilitation Authority guidelines, a minimum of 70 per cent of eligible slum dwellers in a slum pocket must come together to form a cooperative housing society for the implementation of a Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS). Information obtained under the Right to Information (RTI) Act reveals that the promoters resorted to all-out forgery to get their project sanctioned by the BMC, typical of many slum redevelopment schemes in the city. For instance, Eknath Koli of Koliwada, who passed away on September 3, 1997, signed his consent letter on July 20, 1999, two years after his death. Likewise, Lilabai Patil, an illiterate woman, seems to have given her consent with a signature in English.

The builders claim that they had obtained the necessary consensus from residents who had formed the ‘Shiv Koliwada Co-operative Housing Society.' However, residents claim that members of this society committee were builders' henchmen and that no formal talks had taken place between the builders and the residents.

“We have not seen the face of any of these builders till date. Most of the office-bearers of such societies are hardened history-sheeters in cahoots with the builders,” Vasant Patil, an old-timer from the area told The Hindu.

Last Tuesday, BMC authorities, accompanied by two score policemen and goaded on by the builder, stormed the house of Kalpesh Shivkar. When Mr. Shivkar asked the authorities to produce a formal eviction notice, the officials instead stepped aside and let the police take over.

Sixteen-year-old Frank Fernandes, his father Nelson Fernandes and Sunil Koli were beaten and punched inside the police van. After a six-hour detention and hectic meetings, oral assurances were given by the zonal Deputy Commissioner of Police that compensation would be given.

After the first assault on May 29, a day later, the builder and his henchmen struck again. This time, the builder had his private bulldozer. According to witnesses, the police did not flinch in inflicting violence on women, as 25 of them were beaten, dragged and abused continually in foul language. The police allege that most of the instigators hailed from slums in other areas.

Since 2006, the community has been battling a new builder: Sudhakar Shetty of Sahana Developers. The same year, Mr. Shetty and his cohorts demolished two chawls adjacent to Koliwada. The chawls were built on government land belonging to the State Education Department and also housed a primary school along with residential quarters for teachers.

“Just how he managed to destroy property on government land is evidence of the nexus among government authorities, police and private builders” says Devendra Vaity, a young resident and social activist. According to him, the builder proposes to construct three buildings to rehabilitate the 300-odd families currently residing here.

The Kolis have been meted out a raw deal throughout modern history. In 1888, with the British government grabbing their fertile creek-lands, there began an insidious decline in the community's means of livelihood that saw the destruction of traditional Koli vocations such as fisheries, drying fish and weaving nets.

A 1939 resolution (no. 538) passed by the Improvements Committee under the then Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) reserved a plot of land that accommodates the present-day Sion Koliwada.

Information obtained under RTI reveals that this ‘redevelopment' project was scuppered in 2001 by the Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA), which in a letter told the architects that the builders had failed to obtain the necessary consensus of 70 per cent.

Since the assault by the police, fear has frayed the nerves of the residents of Koliwada.

“After the crackdown, we are scared to be caught off guard. We simply cannot afford a full night's sleep,” despairs Sudha Shivkar. Lawyers were barred from meeting the residents picked up by the police, who refused to lodge a First Information Report (FIR), stating that first they would investigate the matter.

“We have merely followed the instructions given to us by the BMC. The [BMC] authorities had called for police security during demolitions. As far as I know, only a couple of families are opposing rehabilitation,” said Inspector Satish Rathod, the police investigating officer. Mr. Rathod further denied that the police had resorted to brutality during the drive, claiming that a woman constable was injured by the protesters and had to be admitted to hospital.

Madhuri Shivkar's dwelling stands adjacent to a temple built in 1916, when the Great War was ravaging Europe. Her grandmother Shantabai awaits the return of her three grandchildren who are in custody. “Madhuri and Gnyaneshwari will return in the evening. They've gone out for work, haven't they?” She is soothingly reassured.

But senility hasn't blunted her. She senses something's amiss as she drifts into a gentle sleep

Outwardly, the Kolis are grinning and bearing it. But it appears that time is running out for the doughty community.

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