Getting indigenous communities into climate conversations
Written by
23/09/2022

The two communities of Kolis (fishers) and Warlis (tribals/Adivasis), residing on the edges of Versova Creek (Madh Koliwada, Versova Koliwada, Dharavli village) in Mumbai share a unique relationship with the city and its coasts. To celebrate this local culture and the unique fabric of the city that is home to generations of indigenous communities, a […]

The two communities of Kolis (fishers) and Warlis (tribals/Adivasis), residing on the edges of Versova Creek (Madh Koliwada, Versova Koliwada, Dharavli village) in Mumbai share a unique relationship with the city and its coasts. To celebrate this local culture and the unique fabric of the city that is home to generations of indigenous communities, a special four-day exhibition and festival titled ‘Samvad Khadicha’ (or ‘Conversations of the Creek’), was held recently in Mumbai and it highlighted their culture, history and the need to save the city’s creeks.

The event, organised by Bombay61 Studio (B61), an innovative and experimental urban solutions think tank and the Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic (MMM), a collective that represents the creative and social power of Mumbaiker youth, with support from the research entity TAPESTRY project, celebrated the relationship between the two communities and Mumbai’s coastal ecosystems. “Samvad Khadicha allowed the youth to show up for the city’s indigenous coastal communities. Our previous work has also shown us that amongst the different issues we have worked on under climate change be it biodiversity, urban green spaces, mobility and so on; the issue of indigenous communities and equity in climate policy action resonates the most with them,” says Harpreet Bhullar of MMM.

Art as a way of expression

The festival, held in the heart of the city, showcased various forms of photos, traditional artwork, storytelling, art workshops, shared meals, and cycling tours, to reflect on the past, present, and future of traditional fishing and on the state of creek-dependent communities. At the centre of it all was a community-led installation, ‘New Catch in Town’, an indigenous invention that traps solid waste dumped in creeks which are an essential source for the rich marine ecology in the coastal areas and has been designed using the traditional knowledge of the fishing community. 

In just three days, the simple innovation managed to clear 500 kg of solid waste from just one of the creek outlets (Kavtya Khadi) and can relieve a polluted outlet of around 5000 kg of waste in a month. 

The New Catch in Town  addresses the issue of creek pollution and the deteriorating condition of the creeks due to urban infrastructure development and industrialisation. It is the traditional knowledge of the Kolis fisherfolk which inspired the design of the solution. The design is based on the traditional fishing nets used by the Koli community called the dol nets to catch the fish in the creeks. It is a modular design that can be adapted to any creek outlet. The New Catch in Town is a simple community-led solution that due to community involvement has higher chances of sustenance,” Bhullar explains. 

The exhibition deploys several artistic media to amplify the voice of Kolis and Warlis. It showcases archival pictures dating back to the 1950s about the creek and the creek communities. Photographs sourced from the youth and other community members of three traditional villages- Madh, Versova, and Dharavli portray the current condition of these communities. Traditional artworks of warli paintings by a warli community member and Koli community member showcase their individual and subjective interpretation of the historical and ecological transitions in their surrounding coastal ecosystems and the community itself. 

Initiatives such as New Catch In Town are examples of community led pilot solutions by vulnerable communities such as kolis. This pilot demonstrates the critical need for vulnerable communities to be at the centre of designing and implementing any solution that addresses issues which are affecting their day to day lives and livelihoods: creek pollution in this case. “Such innovative solutions also hold power to be leveraged as evidence to push decision makers for development of more community-led projects as collaborative efforts between decision makers, affected and vulnerable communities and other stakeholders is the only way to address massive challenges posed by climate change,” adds Bhullar

Climate change and Mumbai creeks

“Instead of climate change and its impact on the creek, I think we should talk about how the creeks of Mumbai and their degradation have led to climate change,” says Jai Bhadgaonkar, co-founder of Bombay61. 

The creeks are a rich source of biodiversity, with an ecosystem that is created due to the high tides and low tides that allows for oxygen levels to be maintained, along with the mangroves and their cover which are a great breeding ground for the fishes. All these processes eventually lead to a high level of biodiversity within these creeks. “Now the indigenous communities are also dependent on these creek systems for their livelihood which can be seen as a sustainable way of living, established over the years. When we look at the process of urbanization and the level of pollution that has been affecting these creek systems. it is a source of major concern for us where we see affluents, sewage, mainly plastic pollution that has been let into these rivers. Also, the process of urbanisation has determined the reduction and the growth of the mangrove covers which also impacts the overall aspect of sustenance and disrupts the biodiversity within these creek systems. Eventually, all of these degradations impacts climate change and the carbon footprint of our cities,” he added. 

Warli is an art of storytelling. This is something that becomes important for the communities, mainly the tribal warli and koli communities because their concerns overlap with each other. “Because of the degradation of these ecosystems we can see that they have been affected mainly for their livelihood sustenance. Now, this is something that needs to be voiced to the larger city and the warli art form empowers them to narrate their concerns to the administrative bodies and to the larger city dwellers,” adds Bhadgaonkar.

Mumbai’s waste problem is no secret. According to a report published in Bombay Community Public Trust’s web portal, Mumbai generates approximately 7,025 tonnes of waste per day. This explains why the city’s landfills have been stretched to the limit and solid waste is now finding its way into creeks and rivers to endanger the livelihoods of indigenous communities. “All of this is directly affecting the communities — groups that have been at the centre of Mumbai’s balance with nature. An installation like the New Catch in Town offers a specific community-led indigenous solution to meet their goal of waste management,” Bhadgaonkar concludes. 

It’s a project that sets an example for bottom-up approaches to develop mitigation strategies for the betterment of the environment and indigenous communities.

Written by
Smitha Verma is the Head of Editorial at LetMeBreathe. A journalist with two decades of experience in writing and reporting on diverse subjects ranging from youth to politics and gender to cinema, she has worked with major print publications such as Telegraph, Hindustan Times, Financial Express and The New Indian Express, to name a few.
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