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Mumbai places environmental memories on the map
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Mumbai places environmental memories on the map

Map, Bombay61

Vikas Koli’s wooden boat winds along Mumbai’s mazes of creeks as he stares intently at his phone’s map.

India’s financial center, the city is a dense urban sprawl that houses more than 20 million residents. To Vikas’ right, concrete slabs rise from land reclaimed by the creek to create a boat jetty to commuters. Upstream, a block with high rises can be seen. 

However, the map doesn’t show any of Mumbai’s modern landmarks. Instead, the map shows only one of the many creeks that divide Mumbai. It also shows a simple illustration showing a fishing boat with two crabs. 

Map, Bombay61

Bombay61 places Mumbai’s natural resources on map

Vikas believes the map tells a story about a lost past. Bombay61 urban design studio and think tank created it. It locates points along old fishing villages (or ‘koliwadas), which were important sources to fish and crab prior to the city’s expansion. 

Redefining development 

Bombay61 hopes that maps will inspire nostalgia among locals, such as Vikas, and increase appreciation for the surrounding environment. Their efforts to highlight livelihoods and natural systems is part of a larger movement of climate activists, urban designers, and others looking at Mumbai’s past to find an alternative vision of development. 

“The water quality was good, some 20 or 30 years ago, and they used to get some fish over here,” Vikas remembers, pointing at the crab on the map and the corresponding spot on the riverbank.

Vikas Koli on a boat in Mumbai

Vikas Koli illustrates how untreated water and pollution can lead to lower crab catches and loss in livelihoods

Koli is believed to be one the first inhabitants of Mumbai. They were fishermen and have a close relationship with mangrove forests and creeks. 

However, plastic and effluent have polluted water in recent years, causing severe damage to mangroves and ecosystems that rely on them. The catch has decreased. “Mumbai used be owned by fishermen. But now fishermen are getting displaced,” laments Vikas. “That’s the saddest tale of Bombay.”

The city is saved from the sea 

Mumbai was originally made up of a series islands. The British colonial era saw the land being reclaimed from the sea. As the population grew, so did the demand for space. Development projects were focused on increasing infrastructure and housing density.

These have often been atthe expense of natural ecosystems that threaten the survivalof the city. Mumbai floods every year during heavy monsoon rains. Percolation is blocked because of dense concrete construction. Property developers have also encroached onto floodplains and protected mangrove forest land, causing damage to the city’s natural barriers to storm surges. 


Mumbai’s transformation into a modern megacity was a monumental achievement, but it has also been at the expense of its safety from increasingly unpredictable nature forces

These problems could be exacerbated by climate change. The sea level could rise by more than a meter before century’s end, flooding other coastal cities like New Orleans, Jakarta, and Bangkok.According to a 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Iqbal Singh Chahal, Mumbai’s Municipal Commissioner Recently warned that if nothing changes, a large portion of the city would be underwater by 2050.

Making memories visible 

For Bombay61 co-founder Ketaki Tare, looking to the past is key to facing up to the future. 

Tare and JaiBhadgaonkar, the co-founder, hoped that by mapping the memories of the community, they could reverse what American psychologist Peter Kahn had called “The Greatest American Psychological Disaster.” “Environmental generational forgetfulness”   where young people normalize their pollutedenvironment.If concrete development, pollution and annual floods become “the new normal,” explains Tare, it is difficult to envision an alternative. 

The project also produced wall murals that depict scenes from local stories, as well as a photo archive of the coastline and creeks.

A woman buys fish from a stall in Versova Koliwada, India

Bombay61 mural illustrating the historical importance Versova koliwada’s role as a fish trading marketplace

Debi Goenka (executive trustee of the non-profit Conservation Activist Trust) agrees that there is a need for a fresh approach. “The bottom line is that any project that destroys your natural infrastructure to replace it with artificial infrastructure, in my mind, is not developing,” he says. 

Protecting mangrove forests 

This tension in urban development is reflected in the way mangrove forests are managed. Goenka has been advocating for policies that prohibit the development of mangrove forests and floodplains in the city for years. Between 1990 and 2001, almost 40% of Mumbai’s mangrove forests were destroyed. Based on one estimate.

The Mangrove Cell was established in 2012 after increasing public pressure on the state government. The Mangrove Cell was established in 2012 by increasing public pressure on the state government. It is the first Indian government agency of its kind. It is responsible for mapping existing forest areas and protecting them from illegal encroachments.

Men in Mumbai mapping mangrove forests

A team of mangrove forest specialists maps the area to determine its coverage and density.

“Land is a major problem in a city such as Mumbai. So, there were initially a lot of problems,” says Dr Sheetal Pachpande, ecologist and deputy director of projects at the Mangrove Foundation, a subsidiary of the government department. 

She claims that “today, 99%” of encroachments have been stopped by a combination of chain link fences and trenches to protect the land, dedicated forest rangers, outreach, education, and dedicated forest rangers. [on mangrove forests]Mumbai was removed.

They also claim to have planted over 8,000,000 mangrove saplings. 

Action in the community and ownership 

Goenka believes that such efforts will only succeed if there’s public engagement, which Bombay61 calls “participationas a mode for development.” By incorporating memory into urban design, their projects aim to help the Koli revive a sense of ownership over their surrounding environment  motivating them to protect it. 

A boat which the Koli community plan to use for mangrove tours sits in the creek by Juhu koliwada

Koli community hopes tourist boat tours through the mangroves will provide an alternate income.

Future projects include running mangrove tours in order to raise public awareness about the benefits of mangroves, and a program to help the Koli collect plastic trash in nets strung across creeks.

Tare explains that Koli will be in a position to generate incomes while also protecting their environment. Vikas is currently running tours through Koliwada showing visitors the creeks, wall murals, and campaigning for the preservation.  

“They know the mangroves verywell,they know the species also,” explains Tare. “Why don’t we see these communities as the guardians of these natural resources?”

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