How India's boom has left its fishermen high and dry

A dispute over a theme park near the city of Bombay has pitted old lifestyles against new, reports Justin Huggler
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A fishing boat slowly coasts through the waters of the Arabian Sea. On the distant shoreline, the skyscrapers of Bombay loom through the haze, but out here it's a scene from a hundred years ago. The fishing boat is built of wood, its high prow curving gracefully above the water. Its sides are decorated with hand-painted murals: a tiger stalking its prey through the jungle, a Himalayan mountain village, and, a discordant modern note, Bruce Lee in action.

A fishing boat slowly coasts through the waters of the Arabian Sea. On the distant shoreline, the skyscrapers of Bombay loom through the haze, but out here it's a scene from a hundred years ago. The fishing boat is built of wood, its high prow curving gracefully above the water. Its sides are decorated with hand-painted murals: a tiger stalking its prey through the jungle, a Himalayan mountain village, and, a discordant modern note, Bruce Lee in action.

The fishermen are hauling in the nets. They scamper agilely across the prows as if oblivious to the swaying of the ship and the drop to the shark-infested waters below. Something moves among the fish in the net. One of the fishermen reaches in and hauls out a long sea snake, its black flattened body marked with pale stripes. He holds it up by its tail in the brilliant sun, and points at it smiling. Then he throws it casually on to the wooden deck and the fishermen stand around fearlessly admiring the snake. Most sea snakes are poisonous; their bare feet are just inches away from it. Eventually one of the fishermen throws it back into the sea and it swims off, arcing its body gracefully through the green water.

India's wealthiest and most vibrant city is just a short distance away across the waves, but here it's as if time has stood still.

Noel Kinny has fished these waters all his life. He sits back happily on the deck of his boat, the Kismat, among the other fishermen. "I learnt to fish from my father, and he learnt from his father," Mr Kinny says. "My family has been fishing here since the British times." Round here, that's as far back as most people think. The family has probably been fishing here far longer. But now the fishermen of Bombay are dying out. Mr Kinny and his colleagues say they fear they may be the last generation to fish these waters the same way their forefathers did.

The reason has a lot to do with Essel World, a theme park that has taken over some of the mangrove swamps where the fishermen live. Though the fishermen and the theme park live cheek by jowl, they are worlds apart. Here boats are drawn up on the sandy beach, and thick groves of coconut palms sway in the breeze. At Essel World, the latest Bollywood hits blast out over the loudspeakers. The flashing neon lights of the rides shine long into the night. There are long queues for the rides: the Aqua Blasta, Ricki's Rockin' Alley, and the Arctic Circle, Bombay's first ice-skating rink. Here the palm trees are made of plastic, and the leaves are lit up at night. The dustbins are shaped like fat pirates, complete with eye-patches and moustaches. Next door is the Water Kingdom, a water-slide theme park complete with wave machines.

Across the creek where once only the fishermen's boats plied, pleasure boats of daytrippers cross from the teeming streets of Bombay, full of excited children. Most of those who come here are office workers - this is their day off from the grinding commute on Bombay's desperately crowded suburban trains, and they are determined to make the most of it.

Essel World and the Water Kingdom are the brainchilds of Subhash Chandra, one of India's most high-profile businessmen and the man behind the private Zee TV network. The old Bombay is clashing head on with the new, and the new is winning. The fishermen say that Essel World is squeezing them out because its owners want to develop hundreds of acres of mangrove swamps to extend the theme park. To the businessmen of modern Bombay, the mangrove swamps are wasted dead ground. To the fishermen, they are a lifeline that keeps them financially afloat through the monsoon season.

During the monsoon, fishing is banned in the open sea off the coast of Bombay. For centuries, the fishermen have turned to the mangrove swamps during these times. Muddy and shallow for most of the year, during the monsoon the channels of the mangrove swamps are flooded and fish come here to breed. The fishermen ply the channels in narrow boats, catching prawns, crabs and grey mullet.

They take us out on a narrow boat to demonstrate. It's a precarious affair - you have to lean from side to side to prevent the little boat from overturning. One fisherman stands at the back and propels it with a single oar, like a Venetian gondolier. Without the mangrove swamps to keep them going through the monsoon, the fishermen fear they may no longer be able to afford to live.

At the moment, Essel World is built on 65 acres of private land. But the local government wants to give 700 acres of state-owned mangrove swamp to the theme park for expansion.

The attempt to develop the mangrove swamps comes on top of a gradual erosion of the area that the fishermen are allowed to fish out at sea. "We keep receiving official notices informing us we're not allowed to fish in new areas," says Mr Kinny. "They say it's because they're doing seismic research, but we know the real reason is they're looking for oil." There are oil reserves off the coast at Bombay, and the Indian government is keen to exploit them.

Despite his Western-sounding name, Mr Kinny is Indian. The name is because he is a Christian - most of the fishermen here are Christians, and pride of place among the murals on every boat goes to a picture of Jesus, adorned with fresh marigolds, a very Indian tribute.

Mr Kinny and the other fishermen are the original inhabitants of Bombay. Their ancestors fished this coast when there was no city here, just a series of small fishing villages like the one where Mr Kinny lives at Gorai, on the northern edge of Bombay island.

Today Bombay is one of the most populous cities on earth, and it is still growing at a furious rate, the biggest driving force behind the turnaround that has transformed India's economy from a basket case to the second fastest-growing in the world.

The fishermen's life is a harsh one. The boats are at sea for five days at a time. Fifteen men go out on each. That makes them so crowded there is barely enough space for the men to lie down and sleep at night. They take turns to sleep. The boats work round the clock , fishing through the night.

The villages where the fishermen live may look like a tropical paradise, but they are very poor. There are few of the amenities people take for granted in Bombay city, just a few miles away. Mains water arrived only a couple of years ago.

Yet the fishermen are desperate to hang on to this life. "When you come out here to the coastal region the first thing you see is this open, remote area," says Nicky Cardoso, a former Jesuit priest from Goa who has joined the fishermen in their campaign to keep the mangroves. "The middle classes want to come here because we have destroyed this in the city. We live in air-conditioned flats. Carloads come here to see this scenery. But they never go to the coastal villages and see the struggle to survive."

The fishermen are fighting back. They have united to challenge the government decision to hand the land to Essel World. They have won a stay of execution order from the courts while the case is re-examined.

Five hundred families live on fishing here. The fishermen have been joined in their campaign by local farmers who say that the Water Kingdom is depleting local water reserves and destroying their livelihood too. There is a water shortage in Bombay, and the farmers say the Water Kingdom is buying up water from unscrupulous locals who have dug new bore-wells. They say the water table has become so depleted that seawater has flooded their traditional wells, making them useless.

The fishermen are among India's poor, but for them the development which is a mantra for India's politicians and the big Western lenders is a dirty word. "Development has done nothing for the local community here," says Mr Kinny. "Essel World promised the local community jobs, but just one person from each family gets a job, and it's a lowly cleaner's job. It's mostly outsiders who are working there.

"We're not angry with the people who go to Essel World. They just want to have some fun. But we're angry with the company that runs Essel World. They've got their theme park here, they've got their Water Kingdom. Why should they get all the land in Gorai? Why can't they go and do their new development somewhere else?"

The fishermen say that developing the swamps will not only wreck their livelihoods but also do serious environmental damage. The mangrove swamps, they argue, act as a sponge and soak up water which would otherwise erode the coastline. In the Kutch area of Gujarat state, where mangrove swamps have already been redeveloped, the water level has risen significantly, says Mr Cardoso.

The dispute is becoming a battle between those who argue that India's best way out of the poverty in which most of the country is still mired is unrestrained development on the Western model, and those who say that India should protect its unspoilt environment and traditional lifestyles.

Out at sea, one of the fishermen pulls a baby shark out of the net. It is tiny, little bigger than a man's hand, but it's already very strong and it's hard to keep hold of. It writhes its muscular body from side to side. The fishermen throw it back into the sea.

Another boat approaches across the waves. The crew on this boat are almost all children. It's not a regular voyage - the children each learn their forefathers' craft on their family boat - this voyage for the children all together is a celebration ahead of Christmas.

The sun is sinking into the waters of the Arabian Sea, a sunset most in the West would regard as a holiday moment to treasure. The children barely glance at it - they see it every day. But Mr Kinny and the other fishermen fear that by the time these children are grown up, this way of life handed down across the generations may be lost for ever.