Tragedy of Commons and Kolis (Fisherman) of Versova

Kolis or fishermen have be oldest residents of Mumbai. There is popular Koli song written by poet Shanta Shelke  and sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Hemant Kumar.

Aami panyamandi raapan takto jail, Dhan daryacha lootun bharto dali

 Raat punvechi chandana pyali, Kashi chaandichi maasoli jhaali

 Majhya jaalyat houn aali, Neto baajaraa bharun mhavra taaza

In this song a fisherwoman talks about putting fishing net in sea and lot of fish get trapped in net and then she takes them to market. This song was written decades ago, when sea was unpolluted, fish were in plenty esp. fish for which Mumbai is well known like Bombay Duck and Pomfret. Each trip to sea resulted in high yield. Today situation is different.


Before we talk about changed situation, we will talk about term in economics – Tragedy of Commons.

Tragedy of commons occurs when individuals tend to exploit shared resources (like sea, pastures, lakes etc.) to such an extent that demand greatly outweighs supply, and the resource get depleted and  soon becomes unavailable for the community as a whole. Overfishing is good example of this.

tragedy of commons

Grand Banks fisheries had plenty of cod fish. Traditional method of fishing ensured that there was adequate supply of cod for community for decades. But later fishermen started competing with each other, this competition combined with advanced fishing techniques resulted in overfishing. Each fisherman was fishing more than what was due. By 90s the population of cod fish declined to such an extent that entire industry collapsed.

Another example is that of farms along Mississippi river. Each farmer made excessive use of fertilizers to get better yield, but due to rains the fertilizers flowed into Gulf of Mexico via river and its tributaries. These fertilizers resulted in growth of algae which in turn depleted oxygen levels in ocean, resulting in death of fish and soon there was “dead zone” in Gulf of Mexico. No fish can survive in dead zone.


Coming back to Kolis, pollution and overfishing resulted in tragedy of commons, impacting very existence of Kolis.

“General fish population has definitely decreased maybe because of pollution, development and other factors. But more than anything else, it is because of overfishing and catching juvenile fish that are not allowed to mature.”

-Dr W S Lakra, director, Central Institute of Fisheries Education

Visit to Madh and Versova Koli settlements in Mumbai shows consequences of tragedy of commons.

“The catch has definitely gone down…It’s halving every year. We can see chemicals in the water and there are so many plastic bags.”

-A Koli from Versova

versova madh

Arabian Sea is getting polluted due to waste generated by citizens of Mumbai, irresponsible citizens throw non-biodegradable like plastic bags, bottles etc. into sea. Untreated waste from hundreds of industrial units also adds to pollution. Versova beach is littered with plastic bags and bottles. There is mixed smell of drying fish, garbage and chemicals. The sea between Versova and Madh is highly polluted. This is depleting supply of fish.

“We fisherfolk have always learned to laugh, dance and make merry. Most of the uneducated lot are too bothered about their daily problems to look at the larger issues. Our water is being polluted as we speak and the government has no control over any of the industries that dump effluents in it. The first thing we would do after school is jump into the water and swim to Madh, but now we have forbidden our children from entering the water because it is filthy.”

-A Koli from Versova

To catch fish, now fishermen have to go farther into sea, resulting in more fuel cost. In addition to pollution, another factor that is depleting fish supply is presence of big trawlers. The small boats of fishermen are no match to these trawlers. Trawlers results in overfishing, resulting in lesser yield for fisherman.


Traditionally fishermen never used to fish during four months of monsoon, as it is breeding season for fish. But trawlers fish during monsoon resulting in decline in fish population.

“There is nothing left in this business for us. The cost has gone up, we have seen expenses rise with the levels of dirt in the water and the boat has to sail farther away to collect fish. I have thought to myself many times that there is nothing here for our children to pursue.”

-A Koli from Versova

There are other problems in supply chain. Migrants from North India have now become part of supply chain. They buy fish from Kolis and then supply it to residents, this result in loss of business for Kolis, as buyers instead of buying fish from fish market (dominated by Kolis), buy it from middle men i.e. migrants.

“We are the original inhabitants of Mumbai. We don’t mind the north Indians coming to our city and selling bhelpuri, sev puri, ragda patis or anything else. But why are they coming in our traditional business? At least leave something for our community so that we can survive here peacefully.”

-Ramkrishna Keni, a Koli leader


This combination of pollution, depleting fish supply and competition from trawlers and middlemen is making fishing business economically unviable. Many Kolis fear that this will threat to very existence of community. Younger generation is not keen to get into fishing business.


“My father has been a fisherman, and my brother too started fishing from a young age. We have never thought of doing something else. But the younger generation is not interested in this profession any more. They would rather pick up new trades or jobs than go out into the sea. The government does little or nothing for us. So it’s up to the members of the community to fight to survive”

-A Koli from Versova.



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