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Mumbai puts environmental memories on the map

Catherine Davison
February 7, 2022

Pollution and rampant construction have destroyed much of Mumbai's natural coastal protection. Could recording stories from locals help create alternative visions of urban development?

A fisherman in Mumbai holds up a small fish
Polluted creeks have forced fishers further and further out to sea, diminishing their profitsImage: Catherine Davison

Vikas Koli's wooden boat winds through Mumbai's maze of creeks, as he looks intently at the map on his phone.

The city, India's financial hub, is a dense urban sprawl home to over 20 million people. On the shore to Koli's right, concrete slabs rise up from land reclaimed from the creek to build a boat jetty for commuters; upstream, a block of high-rises looms on the horizon.

But the map shows none of Mumbai's modern landmarks. Instead, besides one of the many creeks dividing the megacity, there is a simple illustration of a fishing boat and two crabs.

Map, Bombay61
Bombay61 puts Mumbai's natural resources on the mapImage: Bombay61

For Vikas Koli, the map tells the story of a lost past. Conceptualized by urban design studio and think tank Bombay61, it locates points along old coastal fishing villages, or "koliwadas," which were important sources of fish and crab before the city expanded.

Redefining development

Bombay61 hopes the maps will inspire nostalgia and a greater appreciation of the surrounding environment among locals such as Vikas Koli. Their efforts to foreground livelihoods and natural systems are part of a wider movement of climate activists and urban designers looking to Mumbai's past for an alternative vision of development.

"The water quality was good, some 20 or 30 years ago, and they used to get some fish over here," Koli remembers, pointing at the crab on the map and the corresponding spot on the riverbank.

Vikas Koli on a boat in Mumbai
Vikas Koli shows how pollution and untreated water have led to decreased crab catches and loss of livelihoods Image: Catherine Davison

Said to be the original inhabitants of Mumbai, the Koli community to which he belongs, were traditionally fishermen. Today, they still have a close relationship with the creeks and mangrove forests.

But in recent years, plastic and effluent has polluted the water, damaging both the mangroves and the ecosystems relying on them. The catch has dwindled. "Mumbai used to be owned by the fishermen. But now fishermen are getting displaced," laments Vikas Koli. "That is the saddest story of Bombay," he adds, using the former name for Mumbai.

Saving the city from the sea 

Originally a series of islands, Mumbai was built on land reclaimed from the sea during the British colonial era. As the population boomed, competition for space fueled development projects focused on increasing infrastructure and housing density.

But these have often come at the expense of natural ecosystems — threatening the survival of the city itself. Mumbai floods each year during the heavy monsoon rains, with drainage blocked by dense concrete construction. Encroachment by property developers onto protected mangrove forest land and flood plains have also damaged the city's natural barriers against storm surges.

A view of the skyline of Mumbai
Mumbai's development has been monumental, but came at the cost of its own safety from increasingly erratic natural forcesImage: Java

Climate change threatens to exacerbate these problems. Sea levels could rise by over a meter (more than 3 feet) before the end of the century, inundating Mumbai and other major coastal cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta and New Orleans,according to a 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Iqbal Singh Chahal, Mumbai's municipal commissioner, recently warned that if nothing changes, a large portion of the city would be underwater by 2050.

Putting memories on the map

For Bombay61 co-founder Ketaki Tare, looking to the past is key to facing up to the future.

Tare, along with co-founder Jai Bhadgaonkar, hoped that by capturing the community's memories in maps they could help to reverse what American psychologist Peter Kahn has dubbed "environmental generational amnesia"  — where young people normalize their polluted environment. If concrete development, pollution and annual floods become "the new normal," explains Tare, it is difficult to envision an alternative.

The project has also created wall murals depicting scenes of local stories and a photo archive showing what the coast and creeks used to look like. The aim, says Tare, is to shift the focus of development away from urban expansion and back "to the natural systems: the coast, the vegetation, the water bodies."

A woman buys fish from a stall in Versova Koliwada, India
Murals by Bombay61 depict the historical importance of Versova koliwada as a fish trading marketImage: Catherine Davison

Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the nonprofit Conservation Activist Trust, agrees there is a need for a new approach. "The bottom line is that any project that destroys your natural infrastructure to replace it with artificial infrastructure, in my mind, is not developing," he says.

Protecting mangrove forests

How the city's mangrove forests are treated has come to embody this tension in urban development. For years, Goenka has campaigned for policies which prohibit development projects in the city's mangrove forests and flood plains. Almost 40% of the mangroves in the Mumbai suburban region were lost between 1990 and 2001, according to one estimate.

Increasing public pressure on the state government led to the formation of the Mangrove Cell in 2012. The first of its kind in India, the government body is tasked with mapping and protecting existing forest areas from illegal encroachments and development projects, as well as regenerating mangrove cover.

Men in Mumbai mapping mangrove forests
Teams help to map the mangrove forests, measuring coverage and density Image: Catherine Davison

"Land is a major issue in a city like Mumbai. So, there were initially a lot of problems," says Sheetal Pachpande, ecologist and deputy director of projects at the Mangrove Foundation, a subsidiary of the government department.

However, through a combination of trenches and chain-link fences to protect the land, dedicated forest rangers, outreach and education, she claims that "today 99% of encroachments [on mangrove forests] have been removed from Mumbai."

They say they have also planted over 8 million new mangrove saplings to date.

Community action and ownership

Goenka believes, however, that such efforts can only succeed if there is public engagement; something Bombay61 has termed as "participation as a mode of development." By incorporating memory into urban design, their projects aim to help the Koli revive a sense of ownership over their surrounding environment — motivating them to protect it.

A boat which the Koli community plan to use for mangrove tours sits in the creek by Juhu koliwada
The Koli community hopes tourist boat tours of the mangroves will provide an alternative income Image: Catherine Davison

Future project proposals include running mangrove tours to improve public awareness about their benefits, and a scheme to help the Koli collect plastic waste in nets strung across the creeks.

In this way, Tare explains, the Koli will be able to simultaneously generate incomes whilst protecting their environment.Vikas Koli is already running tours through the koliwada, showing visitors the creeks and wall murals and campaigning for their preservation.

"They know the mangroves very well, they know the species also," explains Tare. "Why can't we look at these communities as guardians of these natural resources?"

Edited by: Holly Young