Indian cities are habitats for a vast number and variety of animals. It has taken a lockdown to spotlight these creatures living in and around our cities.
The local governance of a century old fishermen village in Dharavi in the heart of Mumbai.
Koliwadas are located all over Mumbai and literally mean habitat of the Kolis, or communities of fishermen. They are generally referred to as one of the original inhabitants of modern Mumbai.
Dharavi Koliwada village is located at the North of the Dharavi main road and is well-known for its fresh fish market. Sections of its old, self-standing, hard-walled houses aptly fit the description of an old village. Dharavi Koliwada is approximately 40.000 m sq., covering a population of around 25000 people. There are around 500 original settlor families in the village who are Kolis. Following pre-colonial codes, they are like the Gauncars or village residents who have stronger traditional rights and manage the collective ownership of common lands. In this village they constitute the Dharavi Koli Jamaat Trust (henceforth Jamaat) and have 2500 families renting off them who are protected by the same tenancy acts that are applicable in the rest of the city.
The Jamaat manages local issues and oversees the needs of the village. Out of the 40.000 m sq. of land in Koliwada, 10,000 belongs to the trust which uses land for public service such as the fish market, gyms, meeting spaces, marriage halls and a temple. It provides facilities and materials for students, and organizes events such as the Koli Sea-food festival. It works in association with the BMC which provides facilities and ensures infrastructure management in the area. It manages to coordinate the receipt of funds for public projects as per the municipal guidelines but mostly relies on its own resources in the form of rents, sponsorships of events and in-house donations.
One of the main concerns of the Dharavi Koli Jamat Trust is to preserve Koli traditions. The Kolis have their own festivals and celebrations: Holi, Ganpati, Khambadev are some examples. Areas outside the purview of the trust commons are also part of the Koli traditions, such as the temples or the fish market. That is why the members of the committee struggle to retain the characteristics of the area. They protest the Dharavi Redevelopment Project as they believe saving their traditions and heritage is synonymous with saving the place. The trust often petitions the Government to let them live in the same area and increase the floor space index rather than reduce living space by constructing buildings.
The Jamaat is lead by the Patil or the village head. He is highly respected and considered as the community leader of the village. Dharavi Koliwada is the only Koliwada where there is one Patil for both Hindus and Christians. The status of the Patil is typically inherited, while the trust is managed by an elected president, a secretary, a treasurer and nineteen members, including ten advisors. The secretary is a non-elected representative, appointed by the state government, to oversee Jamat activities. In this sense the trust manages to combine traditional roles that favour the original settlor families in terms of decision making, but with a more modern responsibility towards all who live in the village according to civic laws and government accountability. The members are elected every five years by eligible residents who are determined by their birth in the original settlor families. It also demands that members of the trust be at least 21-years old and have high school education. The candidates campaigning for posts submit a letter with their propositions and ideas for the residents of Dharavi Koliwada. The campaign lasts between three and six months. If the Jamat dissolves before the expiry of its term, new elections are conducted within six months. The Trust is also open to women. Among the committee members, two are female.
The Jamaat functions as a participatory government with members taking decisions by consensus. The committee meets to discuss all kind of topics regarding Dharavi Koliwada and works together. It outlines important points to discuss about the growth of the area, the cultural events or the needs to be addressed. The Kolis can also directly make a personal request to the Jamat by submitting a letter explaining an issue. The Committee will then discuss and declare an appropriate response. The Jamat almost always takes its decisions independently.
These days the challenges faced by the trust are quite intense. Since ownership of land in Dharavi Koliwada is shared between the Mumbai District collector, the municipal corporator and the State of Maharashtra, the situation is complicated. However, Kolis know they have a stake in the development of the neighborhood as a whole. Trust members eventually want to take on the redevelopment of their village under their own control. It must also be noticed that in some areas of Dharavi, including Koliwada village, there is a considerable middle-class and educated population. The model of participatory governance as practiced by the Dharavi Koli Jamat Trust is an example of self-regulation and residents’ participation at a local scale, which needs all the official support it can get and become more inclusive and modern in the future.
A few ongoing, incrementally developing projects in the form of re-building existing structures, by the Jamaat, are small steps of consolidation in the right direction.