Living to Fish – and Fishing for a Living

3/18/13 – Mitesh Gala (GSSE MBA ’08) is CEO and Founder of SEED, and is living in Mumbai with his wife and new baby. He spent some time with local fisherman, and shares the inspiring story of these entrepreneurial youth.

The Mumbai BayDuring my time in Mumbai, I’ve had an opportunity to explore the diversity this city offers. People from all over the country come to this city to make their fortunes. However, there is one community that is native to this place and around whom the city has grown. These are the fishermen folks also known as “Koli”. Kolis have been living in this city much before the British closed the sea between the seven different islands to form the city of Mumbai. As the city continues to grow, now at about 10 million people, Kolis continue to fight land encroachment and an increased cost of living which is threatening their way of life.

Kolis in MumbaiSushant and Jayant (names changed), represent the youth of this community who continuously struggle between maintaining their identities as Kolis and the pressures of making a living. And I had a chance to see what “making a living” was for them one day not too long ago.

Mitesh and the Kolis in MumbaiSo we set out at 7am to catch fish off the Mumbai coast. I hopped in a row boat to get to their diesel-powered boat, which was parked a few meters in the water. They had both spent the night 50 miles off the coast to catch lobsters. However, the tide wasn’t good and their trip ended up being a waste of time. So, this morning they were going to keep it simple and catch whatever they could closer to the coast. They were determined not go home empty-handed.

Kolis fishing in Mumbai BayUsing wooden tools, a rope, and a net, they caught fish by dragging a net behind the boat like an underwater parachute. Weights were placed on one end, while the other end was tied to floaters so that the net was spread out as widely as possible and at least 20 feet from the boat, away from its wake. Sushant and Jayant were now set to scoop up anything within a 2 mile area. Since all we had to do now was to wait, we got chatting.

Both were in their early 20s and were aspiring for a better life. One had passed 10th grade and he had applied to be a city bus driver and had even gotten his driving license. The other left school after 8th grade and was thinking of helping a relative at his shop.

They both liked to fish but were not hopeful about it. Catches were dwindling in numbers, and without a larger boat and crew, (ie more money), they couldn’t venture into deeper waters for a larger catch. However, this wasn’t the way the Kolis had always made their living. They never had to venture out to sea so far. These days, fishing would bring in around $280 USD a month – with some good days and some bad days.  By comparison, they could make double that by being a city bus driver.  The conversation ended with both of them sharing that for now, they go with the flow: Weather permitting they fish, and when not fishing, they take up odd jobs. After about two hours, they decided to pull up the net and take stock of their catch. And onboard fell their prize.

Trash in the catch in Mumbai BayHalf the catch was filled with garbage such as plastic carry bags, potato chip bags and other trash discarded into the sea after religious ceremonies like the flower basket. The other half of the catch had a variety of fish and crustaceans.

They caught crabs, a few sting rays, baby eels, shrimp, and various types of fish including blubber fish. They threw back what they didn’t need (including the garbage) and kept the shrimp and some edible varieties of fish and crab.

Edible catch in Mumbai BayWhile their total catch probably weighed around 2-3 kgs, they ended up with only 400 grams of cash-worthy catch that would fetch them only $20 USD at the market. It was truly disheartening to see how little they were able to make after such a long time and much effort.  In the end, I asked them how much they would each take home for the day and they replied, just $7.50 USD, in total.

Such is life for them. And they keep going back to the sea, which brings to mind many questions such as “why had their catch been dwindling over years”, “was it because of the increased quantity of trash in the water”, “what else is going on in their ecosystem”…etc. While one needs more anthropological and ecological background to understand this community and their changing socio-economic status, my brief 1-day encounter made me think about how their total catch could be made worthwhile. If the garbage they picked up could be sold, recycled or reused or even burnt to generate energy, it could put their love for the sea into new perspective while also solving a major environmental issue along the city’s coastline.

When the two boys were sorting the good catch from the bad catch, I got to learn about the various types of fish and animal species found in these waters as well as their local names. In fact, these boys had a lot of stories to tell, about their encounters with the various animals of the sea like giant turtles, dolphins and even whales. Wow, if I were to start a tour company, I would definitely recruit these kids to share their stories and their knowledge of Mumbai’s marine life. In fact, Mumbai presently doesn’t have a service of this kind and given their historical knowledge of the sea, the Kolis would be great tour guides.

I know that ideas are a dime-a-dozen. And the couple of ideas I immediately thought of are very simple solutions to think of, but not easy to execute. If one were to spend more time, some of these questions could lead to interesting and plausible solutions. But after many such thoughts, I decided to simply enjoy the view of the city that I’ve never seen before as we headed back to shore. One day, someone will come up with a business idea, or maybe I will re-trace my steps, but for now, we were all getting hungry and I for one wanted to enjoy listening to the splashing sounds of the water against the boat as the engine chugged it forward.

-Mitesh

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3 Responses to Living to Fish – and Fishing for a Living

  1. Jack Glade says:

    As I read this I experienced what I think is one of the core responses of social enterprise thinkers: What can be done NOW to improve the lives of these boys and their community? The big questions take big-picture thinking and a long timeline, but any of the small steps the author mentioned could happen quickly and would result in positive change that might snowball. Sometimes I feel that the big push in the social enterprise field on ideas that can “go to scale” may leave people like these boys holding empty nets.

  2. Chad says:

    I wish I could take these two fishing in an environment that was pristine! They deserve it. http://www.alabamafishingforum.org

  3. Pingback: Mumbai fishermen say little life left in the sea | The Alternative

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