For the poor fishermen at Powai Lake, crocodiles are an occupational hazard. But that doesn't stop them from braving the endangered predators
Nigeen Rathod, 40, bears memories of a vicious attack on his legs. Three years ago, he plunged into the Powai Lake — as he did every day for his daily catch — when a crocodile bit him. One can see puncture wounds and suture scars on the fisherman's bare legs as he readies to jump into the lake, with just a rubber tyre tube and a fishing net, to provide for his family of four.
Fisherman Nigeen Rathod, who was attacked by a crocodile in 2013, floats on a tyre tube that doubles as a boat at the Powai Lake
The crocodile attack on a fellow fisherman, 50-year-old Babu Bhure, just last week, seems to have had little effect on his routine. "I was removing my fishing nets around 6.30 am when I felt something brush against my leg. At first I thought it was weeds, but the next second, a monstrous crocodile grabbed hold of my foot. Luckily, there were other fishermen around, who had sticks and spears with them, and they kept hitting the crocodile till it let go of my leg," Rathod narrates, quite matter-of-factly.
Depending on the day's catch, Rathod manages to make about R300 daily. His wife, Ramilla, 32, accompanies him to the lake every evening, with their two-year-old daughter, and waits till the time he returns to the shore.
The crocodile mid-day spotted basking in the sun at the Powai Lake on Wednesday. Pics/Shadab Khan
Every evening, more than 10 fishermen cast their nets in the 40-ft-deep lake. Freshwater fish command a higher price in the market, Rathod says. Fishermen from three gaothans swarm Ram Bagicha, a BMC-maintained garden opposite Powai Police Station, in the evenings for fresh catch.
That fishing is illegal at this lake, which stretches across an area of 500 acres, does not stop eager fishermen. The garden sits right beside Powai Lake, making it the perfect spot for them to climb over its fencing and slide down a slope leading to the water body, without drawing much attention. Security guards at the garden are unfazed by this illegal activity. "These people have been fishing here for years. They have to look after their livelihoods. There are no policemen or BMC officials who inspect the area," said a Rajkumar Yadav, a security guard at the garden.
When mid-day visited the lake on Wednesday, we spotted a large crocodile on one of the islets in the middle of lake, not far from the fishing haunts. The sight of the crocodile draws students from nearby colleges and couples to whip out their phones and take pictures. For the fishermen, these sights are too commonplace for excitement.
Shyamsundar Das, originally a weaver from Birbhum, West Bengal, says, "There was no money in that business. The danger of crocodile attacks is just an occupational hazard," he resolves.
Dilip Bhot, 26, a resident of Tirandaz village, was admitted at Rajawadi Hospital for three weeks in 2009 to recuperate from the attack, during which his ageing mother and dependent brother starved almost everyday. Rarely do these fishermen venture in the lake with any weapon for self-defence. Sticks and stones are Bhot's preferred ammo against croc attacks. But, he is almost empathetic when he says, "They are just protecting themselves and hunting, just like how we hunt the fish for our survival."
Man versus reptile
Powai-based environmentalist Elsie Gabriel says that one of the major factors for the spike in attacks, she observes, is the method of cleaning the lake undertaken by the BMC's hydraulics department. "Over the past year, the BMC has been using aqua tractors to remove water hyacinths in the lake. The noise and vibrations of these machines disturb the crocodiles, which then prefer to surface on the islets in the lake. Crocodile islands inside the lake should be restored and the habitat of these indigenous mugger crocodiles protected," she says.
Currently, for this vast lake, which draws numerous visitors and fishermen, there are only two boards put up by the BMC, warning people to stay away from the shore. In the last decade, there have been more than 30 attacks on fishermen, says S Gaikwad, ward officer, BMC S Ward, which includes Powai Lake. In 2010, a crocodile killed one person. But he dismisses allegations against the BMC and says, "The civic body has made Powai Lake a priority with a large scale overhauling of the lake. In fact, we have completed the initial survey and examined the lake water. This project has earmarked funds to demarcate and protect crocodile heavy areas."