‘Govt Doesn't Do Anything But…’: What’s Making Mumbai’s Koli Women Vote Today Despite Skepticism
While Koli women are ruthless businesswomen and masterful hagglers, when it comes to politics and the electoral process, they tend to harbour deep cynicism.
The women from Koli fishing community are a fiercely independent lot and aren't afraid to fight for their rights.
Mumbai: "The government doesn't do anything for people like us. It is for the upper-class people like you," muttered Jayashree, as she scooped scales from the back of a dead fish with a blunt knife. Jayashree belongs to the Koli community --- who are said to be the original inhabitants of Mumbai -- and much like other women in her community, she, too, is a fishmonger.
As Mumbai geared up to vote in the Lok Sabha elections in sweltering heat, Jayashree continued her monologue matter-of-factly. "Now that the elections are here, members from different parties have been coming to our homes, asking for votes."
"I quietly listen to all their tall claims. But on the day of polling, I will vote for whoever I like. Not that my vote matters much, but still," she added. Sitting on the jetty at Sassoon Docks, Jayashree talked shop, discussed politics, women’s empowerment and climate change, among other things.
Eyeing the colourful boats bobbing on one side of the jetty, she remarked, "My husband has not taken the boat out since eight months. What's the point? There are no fish in the sea. But clearly, we aren't entitled to any sort of compensation. Tell me, why do farmers get compensations when their crops fail, but we don't when our men have to sit out the monsoons or when there are no fish in the sea?"
The stench of dead fish, sewage and the sea swirled around us, the concrete floor under our feet was clammy. Vultures circled overhead, eyeing the bouquet of dead fish that she had arranged in a plastic basket before her. But Jayashree remained unperturbed. For her and several other Koli women, Sassoon Docks is their workspace where they spend at least 8 hours every day.
Koli women are a fiercely independent lot who do not shy away from speaking their minds and aren't afraid to fight for their rights. They are financially empowered, have a unique sense of style, are treated as equals by the men of their community, and are very good at managing their fishing businesses.
"In certain communities, women sit under their veils in their homes and their men step out to earn money. But our community is different. In our community men and women are equal. I was 18 years old when I was initiated into the fishing business," said another fisherwoman at the Docks.
While Koli women are ruthless businesswomen and masterful hagglers, when it comes to politics, government projects and the electoral process, they tend to harbour deep cynicism and are wary.
This time, they have reluctantly got involved in matters of government, and accidentally become the crusaders of environmental causes. They have done everything in their power to preserve the coastal regions of Mumbai and their own livelihoods, which depend heavily on the coastal regions.
The entire Koli community came forward to protest against the reclamation work that had started in order to build the coastal road. The Kolis claimed that this reclamation will adversely affect the ecology of the sea. The construction of this road was later stayed by the Bombay High Court. Not just that, the Koli women from Versova recently challenged the construction of Shivaji Memorial in the Supreme Court, claiming that if the memorial is built the zone around it will be declared a non-fishing area, consequently affecting their livelihood.
Various representatives from five Koliwadas of Mumbai — Colaba, Khar, Worli, Mahim and Juhu — threatened to boycott this election if projects such as the coastal road and construction of 300 acre big BMC park — that would eat into the parking space of the Koli boats — were not immediately scrapped.
"What's there to expect from political parties? They have never fulfilled our demands, so now we have nothing to demand from them," said Soneeta, another fishmonger who sells her stock at the Sassoon Docks like Jayashree.
"We struggle to live on a day-to-day basis. So we do not have the luxury to fight for our political rights as naukriwala (employed) people do. Our community barely has representation in the political system. All political parties only bother about us and ask our demands during the polls. As soon as the elections are over, they disappear for the next five years," she added.
Mangala Anil Tande, another Koli woman, chimed in. With a touch of resentment in her voice, she said, "We do not have salaried people in our houses. Do you think politicians will give us jobs? There are college graduates boys in our community who are sitting jobless. We are good here, doing what our ancestors did."
Tande said the community is giving their children educational opportunities which they did not get themselves while growing up. But she questioned the use of this education if it cannot get their children decent jobs.
Most Koli women who work at Sassoon Dock live near Badhwar Park in the Cuffe Parade area. This region is a strange representation of the stark economic inequalities of our society. It has, on one side, posh, well-maintained buildings of the uber rich of the city, and on the other, there are the Ambedkar Nagar slums where Kolis live. These slums are endless labyrinths of narrow lanes, with no proper sanitation or water system in place.
While most women were evasive when asked who they will vote for, Manda Anand Patil, who lives in the Badhwar Park area, confessed, "It has been years that we have been voting Shiv Sena. Whatever little has been done, they did — be it making toilets or installing water taps."
"Back in the day, I used to vote for the ‘hand’ (Congress election symbol), but for years now, I have been voting for Shiv Sena. My brother-in-law's son is a Shiv Sena member. I vote for them from my heart," she added.
Although the Kolis community is spread across Mumbai, in South Mumbai, where women like Soneeta and Jayashree live, the fight is likely to be particularly tougher with two strong contenders. On one hand, we have the sitting Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant who is banking heavily on the 'Modi factor' and his son-of-the-soil image to win, on the other hand, Congress is fielding Milind Deora, who is being backed by billionaire businessman Mukesh Ambani.
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