Of the thousands of migrant labourers in the city, the one’s working on the fishing boats and trawlers are the ones’ that are heard of the least. During the lockdown, the situation for these labourers became a dire one, with no way to return home and no steady income to survive in the city.
Nishad, a 25-year-old labourer came to Mumbai in September 2019 from Uttar Pradesh and found a job on a fishing boat. When the lockdown was announced, he was stranded at sea for almost a month. Along with the rest of the crew, he hoped to return to the mainland but he felt safer out at sea. He said, “I felt like returning but I was afraid that if I return, I would contract the virus and fall sick.”
While boat owners refused to comment on the issue, it seemed pretty clear that they too were hit hard by the pandemic, which resulted in the inability to pay their workers. “I have to send some money home to my family in Gujarat”, said Dhinesh, a 30-year-old labourer from the town of Valsad. In spite of having a rich coastline too, fishermen often migrate to Mumbai. When I asked why this happens, he replied, “If I sell a pomfret in Gujarat I will get the minimum price which is around Rs. 250. In Gujarat not many people eat fish so we have to sell at the lowest price because customers know no one will buy from us if the price is high. In Mumbai there are ample restaurants and hotels that are willing to purchase at high rates.”
Rajhans Tapke, the General Secretary of the Koli Mahasangh spoke to us about the reasons why the migrant fishermen are a problem that has not been mitigated. He says, “Fishermen all over the country have suffered due to the lockdown, but those fishing in the Arabian Sea have been hit the hardest. Last year the coast was ravaged by cyclones and this year we had both a cyclone and the pandemic. Individual fishermen have suffered losses of around Rs. 2-2.5 lakhs.”
According to Pravin Bhanji, the head of the Koli Samaj Trust in Versova tells us, “We have been waiting for the government to give us some help. We always think our names are on the tip of their tongue but then we get forgotten.”
From mending nets to filling diesel into the tanks, the most rudimentary of tasks are completed by these migrant workers, proving that they are the crucial spokes in the wheel that runs the city’s fisheries industry, and many of them have returned to the boats with the advent of the fishing season.