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How climate change is threatening a fishing community in coastal India

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For the Koli people in Mumbai, the end of the powerful monsoon rains also marks the return of the sea for fishing. This year, they celebrated this new beginning at the end of August. Namrata Kolachalam sends us this postcard from Mumbai.

NAMRATA KOLACHALAM, BYLINE: Surrounded by the gleaming high-rises of India's financial capital, the small shops and stalls in this Koli fishing village bustle with activity. At an open-air cafe, community leader Mohit Ramle is busy preparing for the evening celebrations.

MOHIT RAMLE: The Western concept is Thanksgiving Day, but for us it is Narali Poornima.

KOLACHALAM: Narali Poornima is an annual holiday that takes place in the Hindu month of Shravan after two long months of monsoon rains, when fishermen cannot go out to sea. It marks the beginning of the new fishing season and brings out the whole community to celebrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOLACHALAM: As dueling brass bands lead dancing processions through the narrow streets, thousands of people spill onto the sprawling sandy beach. Colorful fishing boats decked with flower garlands are arranged across the sand. Men wear a traditional red cap with blue stripes. Women have strung light-up beads through their hair and the hems of their saris, so their golden jewelry glows in the fading light. Oh, and there are coconuts everywhere.

NARENDRA KARDE: (Non-English language spoken).

KOLACHALAM: As he arranges coconuts on the sand, Narendra Karde walks me through the religious ritual. He says he'll offer flowers to the coconuts and top them with red powder and light incense. He passes around a tray of karanji, a coconut dessert shaped like the half moon, as the waves crash on the shore.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES SPLASHING)

KOLACHALAM: As the sun begins to set, he joins his wife and toddler to toss the coconuts into the Arabian Sea, an offering to the sea god, Varuna. They ask for calm waters and plenty of fish. In the morning, fishing boats will launch into the sea as they've done for centuries. But now climate change presents new challenges. Here's Mohit again.

RAMLE: And then we march into the seas. But the future is unknown to the fishermen because of this climate change - what cyclones they will face, what storms they will face.

KOLACHALAM: One research group has found that the frequency and intensity of extreme cyclone events around Mumbai has doubled since 2010. Koli fishermen must navigate increasingly polluted waters, competition from industrial fishing boats and extreme weather. I asked Mohit if the Koli people are more fearful of the sea these days. He answers with a Koli folk song.

RAMLE: (Singing in non-English language). Any cyclone, any storm may come, no matter how much it rains. But Kolis don't fear of anything.

KOLACHALAM: On the beach, I meet many young Koli people who have decided not to work as fishermen, like Meenal Sandyacha, who teaches science at a local college. She says many young people like her are now top-class doctors, engineers and lawyers. Still, she says, it's important to honor their heritage.

MEENAL SANDYACHA: We are top-class doctors, top-class everything, but still we should be rooted.

KOLACHALAM: We have to be rooted, Meenal says, because if we forget the sea, the sea will forget us.

For NPR News, I'm Namrata Kolachalam in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Namrata Kolachalam
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