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Shivaji statue destroyed fishermen. Maha govt jailed them instead of helping

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 26 December 2016, 11:23 IST

The fishermen of South Mumbai's Machhimar Nagar are not new to contradictions. The fishing hamlet, with its sea-facing houses and fleet of small and mid-sized boats, stands in stark contrast to the plush Cuffe Parade area just across the road.

Now the fishermen face another contradiction, one far more dangerous: the huge Chhatrapati Shivaji statue, which is to come up Statue of Liberty-style in the Arabian sea.

On 24 December Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the 192-metre tall statue that is coming on a rocky outcrop in the sea 3 km from the coast.

The project, which was first proposed over a decade ago, has been pushed by the BJP-Shiv Sena government since it came to power in October 2014.

The fishermen, most of whom had supported the Shiv Sena-BJP government in the elections, now find themselves on the opposing side. The fishermen say - with evidence from government's own studies - that the statue will severely impact fishing. With the government unwilling to listen - even getting public hearings for it cancelled - the fishermen have fought the state on the streets and the National Green Tribunal, where the project's environment clearance has been challenged.

On 23 December, around 150 of these fishermen were arrested by the police, and were let off only after the inauguration was complete on 24 December. Those arrested included fisherman leader Damodar Tandel and marine conservationist Pradip Patade, who are petitioners in the NGT case.

Bad governance

The state government has to hold public hearings for projects like the statue, which need environmental and coastal zone clearances.

However, as Catch had reported earlier, the Maharashtra government wrote to the environment ministry at the centre to waive off the hearings, saying that the statue was in "national interest" and thus did not require public consultation. It said that it could instead open a website to gather public feedback.

The environment ministry agreed and issued an order that the statue project was exempted from public hearing since it was in the national interest.

Both Maharashtra govt & Centre prevented public hearings saying the statue is in 'national interest'

But this came at a time when the both the governments had received expert advise - from a government institute - that the project would harm fishermen.

The central government's National Environment Engineering Research Institute or NEERI had prepared the Shivaji statue's Environment Impact Assessment in 2014. In it NEERI had said that the project's impact on fishermen would be "severe".

It had also said that the statue would impose a burden on already-congested South Mumbai area, and noise and dust pollution during the construction of the statue could cause "social conflict" in the residential areas.

NEERI's opinion was spot on. The fishermen, who have been agitating against the statue for nearly one year, have marshalled facts and government paperwork to argue how the statue's venue will destroy their business.

The statue is to come up at a rocky outcrop - not an island, as the government claims - which goes underwater in high tides.

Govt went ahead with the project despite knowing that it would have a severe impact on fishermen

For this reason, the outcrop is used by fish to breed and raise their young (even scientifically termed nurseries). The Shivaji statue will build over the entire rock, filling up soil on the breeding grounds and nurseries to build the foundation for the statue and the museums, shops and other attractions there.

The fishermen claim that their already precarious business will be destroyed by the statue - not only will fish population drop because breeding grounds would be lost, but the routes of the hundreds of ferries that will ply tourists will intersect where fishing is carried out.

The Indian Navy's no objection certificate to the statue project also recommended that 500 metres radius around the statue be declared a No Fishing Zone.

Opposition from govt's own supporters

The fishing community has no idea why they were never taken into consideration by the government. The community insists that it's not against the statue, but its venue.

"Nobody has come here to ask the fishermen if they want the statue. We have suggestions on alternative sites within Mumbai. But why are they not willing to talk to us? How can we welcome the Prime Minister when they are going to destroy our livelihoods?" asked Damodar Tandel, who heads the Akhil Maharashtra Machhimar Kriti Samiti (All Maharashtra Fishworkers Committee).

He is also is a Shiv Sena leader. He shows a photograph of him sharing a dais with Devendra Fadnavis, now chief minister, who was then campaigning at the fishermen colony.

"Just three months before the 2014 elections Fadnavis came to us. He asked for our support and assured that under the BJP government fishermen would not face any issues. So we gave our support. Now they are sending the police after me," Tandel told Catch earlier this week.

"It looks like they don't want fishermen in South Mumbai anymore."

"It looks like they don't want fishermen in South Mumbai anymore": Damodar Tandel

In the week before the foundation stone was laid, Tandel said that he was summoned by several senior police officers who were concerned with the community's plans to carry out mass protests when Modi came visiting. They had planned to wave black flags on their boats, form human chains, shut down fish markets in the city and even the docks where fishing boats land.

Even when this correspondent interviewed Tandel at his residence in Machhimar Nagar, two officers of the state intelligence department arrived to find out about preparations.

On 23 December, the entire sea face was cordoned off and 150 fishermen taken into preventive custody. They were apprehended for their plans to conduct a motorcycle rally, and kept in prison till after sunset on 24 December, hours after Modi had left the city. In their absence, several hundred women from the fishing colony raised black flags on their homes.

Fishy reports

Pradip Patade, a marine conservationist in Mumbai and the other petitioner in the NGT case points to irregularities in two reports that were commissioned by the government to study the statue's impact on marine life. One of them was done by the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa. Although the report's contents describe the site as a "unique ecosystem" that is the breeding ground and nursery for fish, this is not reflected in the executive summary, which describes the tourism benefits of the statue including of laser shows.

"This was supposed to be a scientific report on marine ecology. Who is NIO to speak about such benefits?" asks Patade.

The other report was prepared by the Bombay Natural History Society, which the government had also asked for an analysis on how marine life would be affected. The BNHS responded in just two days. The short letter, signed by BNHS president Asad Rahmani, said that there wouldn't be any impact on fishing after the construction, and that pollution of sea water was a bigger concern for marine life than the Shivaji statue.

Patade says that even the government's responses in the NGT case seem misinformed. "In one of their replies they said that since the site is a rocky outcrop, there is no fishing on it. But that's basically a reef - there are corals, molluscs, sponges, algae, etc. These are the basis of the food chain of the ocean," Patade says.

A fragile business

For residents of Machhimar Nagar, the Shivaji statue comes at a time when fish catch is on a decline and many fisherwomen are compelled to work in fish factories. "Our women who used to sell the catch from their own boats now go to Sasoon docks to clean fish for big companies. They work all day but make barely eight rupees for each kilo of prawns," said Shobha Koli, who sells fish caught by the family boat - which fishes for nearly eight hours in the wee hours - on the Cuffe Parade street.

"Our boats are small. The sea beyond the Shivaji statue location is very choppy and our boats cannot manage them. The government cares about farmers and gives them compensation. What about us fishermen?" Koli asked.

If fishing ends, the impact would also be felt by young tribals who come from the Thane and Palghar districts north of Mumbai to work seasonally in the fishing boats in the city. These young men are hired by boat owners in groups of 5 of 6, and live on the boats and are understood to do most of the fishing - there are nearly 5000 of them just in Machhimar Nagar, a fifth of its resident population.

"We come here to do fishing because there are not many opportunities where we come from. Here we can make about Rs 10,000 a month," said Ajay Garude, who belongs to Palghar district. "If fishing stops, we will have to go back," he said.

First published: 26 December 2016, 11:23 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.