Bhaji on the Beach

18 October 2015 Scroll.in

*This story was originally published with Lucky Peach. The version here was amended for republication with Scroll.in to reflect the changing situation of the methi growers in Versova.

Methi destructionIf you visit Versova Beach in Mumbai at around 8.30 am, you won’t find people sunbathing or surfing or swimming as you might at other urban beaches around the world.

At the shore, you will see residents of the hundred-odd huts thrown up along the high-tide line taking their morning constitutionals. Behind you, between the huts and the trees separating the filthy grey-brown Arabian Sea from the swish suburb of Versova, you’ll see bare-chested men and women in damp saris pulling rapidly at a carpet of chia pet green growing in patches from the sand.

This Lilliputian crop is chhoti methi, or baby fenugreek. The sprouts – little green caps on silky white stems that are subtly bitter when raw – are an essential ingredient in dhansak, a lentil-and-meat dish prepared by Mumbai’s prominent Parsi community, and are popular as a simple fried vegetable among coastal fishing communities, who cook them with garlic and kokam, a sour berry that grows along the same coast.

While the full-grown variety of fenugreek is used throughout the subcontinent, baby methi is eaten almost exclusively here. According to Javed Ansari, a third-generation methi grower on this beach, “Bombay people eat it more than anyone else.” Like all microgreens, baby methi sprouts are extremely fragile – they have to be picked, sold, and cooked within a day, lest their tails begin to rot – which means that any of it consumed in the city has to be grown here, too. Since methi grows best in dry, sandy soil, and since most of the city’s few remaining beaches have long since been taken over by the city’s teeming masses, Versova is one of the few places left within range of the main city markets where the diminutive vegetable can be grown.

Daily ritual

The 40-60 families farming in Versova hail, like so much of Mumbai’s labour class, from the immense north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where baby methi isn’t widely consumed. Within their families, Ansari told me, they cook the vegetable only once or twice a week, as a treat to supplement their usual meal of lentils and rice, rather than cook it as locals do. They prepare it in the style of many northern Indian vegetables: fried with onion, garlic, tomato, and chilli.

Ansari’s family, and most of the others living here, have been practising this type of organic urban farming in exactly this place for the last 60-odd years, about a half-century longer than the ideas of organic and urban farming have existed in India. Nisha Sheikh, who told me she’s “either 50 or 60” years old, said, “My life has been spent on this. This is my only livelihood.”

The farmers start their days at 3am, when they begin harvesting the morning crop – a five-to-six-day-old growth poking its head barely an inch above the sand. They’ll tie the harvest into small bundles, wash them in drums of water pulled from 20 or so borewells dug on the beach, and wrap them in jute sacks to bring to the market by 6.30am. to sell at wholesale prices to the vegetable vendors there.

Each family on the beach has about five patches of methi growing at any given time, kept in rotation so that each day yields fresh product. Once the first batch goes to market, the farmers will water their remaining patches before covering them with dried palm fronds as protection from the withering tropical sun – which, in the summer months, destroys a substantial portion of the crop. Then, they’ll continue to pull the methi that’s ready to send to market for the afternoon round, at about 2pm. The plant is so fragile that a single shipment won’t last the day.

For the next three hours, the older people will rest while younger ones go off to school or other part-time jobs to supplement their incomes – then, at 5pm, with the day’s sales calculated, they’ll start the work of replacing whichever patch they uprooted that day, using a cut-off hoe to dig into the sand until they reach the cool, dry soil below the surface. “We dig a hole as deep as ourselves,” Javed told me on the morning we met, holding his hand above his head, “and then we start planting.”

With the new patches excavated and the good soil spread onto the surface – sometimes in rectangles, sometimes in curving boomerang shapes that hug the sides of the funereal pits – they’ll use small planks of wood to smooth out the surface and create inch-high barriers around the edges. Then , they will scatter the coffin-shaped methi seeds, soaked in fresh water for eight hours until they’re plump and yellow, in a dense layer over the sand.

Each patch requires some 10-15 kilograms of seeds and, in a good crop, will yield just under 2,000 small bundles, which sell for 50 paise each, wholesale. Customers at the vegetable stands will pay up to ten times that amount. The vegetable wilts to practically nothing – you need about eight bundles to make a single portion. The only expense for the farmers, who use neither pesticides nor any mechanised tools, is the seeds themselves, costly this year at about Rs 90 per kilogram. Last year, they cost less than half that. The average family of five pulls in a monthly income of Rs 10,000-12,000 and usually requires the work of all able-bodied members.

Official interference

On my first morning at the beach, I asked Santosh Yadav – like Javed, a third-generation methi grower and recent high school graduate – if he ever had days off. He laughed, explained that they couldn’t afford days off. Waste a day and five whole patches of methi will die. “When the BMC comes,” he said, “that’s when we rest.”

The BMC is the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the sole governing body for India’s largest city and, by all accounts, about as evil and opaque an organisation as you could hope to find. When bad decisions are made, when neighbourhoods are knocked down, when hideous buildings in clear violation of building codes are allowed to come up, the vast majority of Mumbaikars will likely just roll their eyes and say, by way of explanation: “the BMC.”

Like virtually all the city’s urban poor, the methi growers of Versova have regular run-ins with the BMC, who, four to five times annually, will come and destroy their miniature farmsteads. The authorities rightly claim that the growers do not own the beach lands and that their patches of fenugreek violate the Coastal Regulation Zone. The methi farmers counter that, until the collectors stopped visiting them in 1993, they paid a monthly tax of Rs 3 on their farms, which ought to legitimise them in the eyes of the municipality. Some of them still have the tax receipts to prove it. Others told me they’d gone just a few months back to the tax collectors to offer to resume their payments, including back taxes on the last 20 years, if a representative would simply come to the beach to collect. The authorities declined.

Beyond the legal question, the BMC; the office of the local member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, Ameet Satam; and the Save Versova Beach Association, a citizens’ organisation committed to clearing and beautifying the beach for public use, all claim that the methi farmers have done irreparable environmental damage to the beach by digging into the sand and stealing fresh water from the water table. The BMC’s solution is to send in bulldozers to dig up the farms. It takes about a week to re-establish the crops, Santosh said: a significant blow for families that can barely scrape by as it is, but not enough to keep them from returning.

Right and wrong

The arguments against the farmers’ place on the beach are not, of course, illegitimate. “Nowhere in the world will you find a beach used for agricultural purposes!” Satam proclaimed on the afternoon that I visited his office, jabbing a heavily jewelled finger onto his desk. What’s more, they’re reaping profit – albeit a meagre one – from publicly held property, and illegally preventing its use by the wider public. When I brought up the issue of taxes, Satam turned pugnacious, dismissing the assertion as “false information.” Mumbai is built on such elaborate games of hearsay. There’s no truth in paperwork.

The activists I met from the Save Versova Beach Association – a crowd of elderly gentlemen who gather in a nearby park on early mornings to nod happily at one another’s kindly pronouncements on the world at large – seemed motivated by a very genuine, if also perhaps myopic, civic sense, and preferred speaking of the beach and its future in metaphors. Dr ML Kanchan, whose neatly tended white moustache was matched by a bristle of white hair growing from the bulbous tip of his nose, explained, “It’s like organising your own house. If you buy a bungalow and it’s full of weeds, and if you love it, then you will pull up the weeds.” He wants nothing more than a small patch of pleasant open space added to a city that has practically none.

Satam, for his part, has grand visions of Versova beach transformed into a tourism hub, complete with a privately-run water sports facility and canteens built on stilts over the water, which he compared fancifully to those in the Maldives. “Mumbai has the maximum number of foreign visitors in India, but mostly they come for business or to stop over before going to Rajasthan or Kerala,” he said. Somehow, he imagines a redeveloped Versova as the attraction that will keep those foreign tourists here for a few extra days. When I said that most foreign tourists stay in Colaba, over an hour south even in moderate traffic, and would be unlikely to come all the way to Versova just for a beach, he mentioned the city’s plans to build a coastal highway to decrease travel times.

“But a coastal road would cut the beach off from the sea. Wouldn’t that be a problem for a water-sports facility?” I asked. He conceded that the details still needed working out.

All the farmers I met were well aware of what was coming next: “They’ll come right after the monsoon,” Nisha Sheikh had said, shaking her head. “They’re trying to make a Chowpatty (a pleasure beach).” In the meantime, the growers will keep on growing. Bombay still wants its baby methi, and there’s no place else to farm it.

At the end of my meeting with Satam, I offered my own two cents: Mumbai already has pleasure beaches, and foreign tourists – if that’s really whose patronage he’s after – won’t be caught dead in the city’s notoriously filthy waters. What the outside world would notice, I said, would be infrastructure for a sustainable urban-farming project that allowed the methi growers to continue their work with oversight by environmental and government agencies. If you build that, I told him, foreign tourists will come. Satam waggled his head and said he’d take it under consideration. In the meantime, he told me, the next demolition drive would take place at the beginning of October, once the rains had ended.

Endgame

On October 4, I received a message on Whatsapp from Hari Yadav, one of my contacts in Versova, which said: “All r farm is finished.” The next day, I returned to Versova to see the aftermath. Hari had been out at the market when the demolition took place, so he introduced me to Raj Yadav, another of the young, educated generation of methi growers.

At 10.30am on October 1, Satam turned up at Versova Beach with a crowd of some 70 people, most of them private citizens from the buildings along the beachfront, a police escort, and a bulldozer. “They weren’t abusing at all, but the language was heartbreaking. They wouldn’t listen to a word from us,” Raj told me. “They said, ‘We’ve come to make the beach. There’s no use talking. Go back to your village or to Arthur Road Jail’.”

The farmers stood back and watched as the local legislator calmly – and, Raj made a point of telling me, quite politely – led his supporters on a walk down the beach and back, then left as the bulldozer did its work, filling in the last of the wells by about 6pm. The day after returning to Versova, I reached Satam by phone. “Many of the local people came out to support the drive and to appreciate the beach,” he said. The work continued into the next day – Gandhi Jayanti.

The bulldozer is still parked at the edge of the beach with instructions to bulldoze every day to be sure the farmers can’t set up shop again. Raj told me the contract was for nine days; Satam said, “If they try and come back, then the demolitions will continue.” A few of the methi patches have survived, and even on the morning I visited the farmers were extracting what they could of the remaining crop. In other places, little green shoots, almost ready to sell, had been left to tumble down the collapsed sides of wells. On average, Raj says, each farmer lost about 75-80 kgs of methi. As I left the beach, I saw someone – presumably the driver – sleeping on the bulldozer’s silent cabin, his feet dangling listlessly off the side.

Seeking a compromise

I asked Raj and Hari if they would be able to replant this time, but neither seemed certain. “Before they would come once a year, just for show,” Raj said, “but Satam is  serious, he’s already done four demolitions this year.” If they have to, they’ll try their luck on another beach, maybe at Aksa up north, but without easy access to transportation, they say, it will be difficult to move their product quickly enough.

Raj and Hari and several of the other younger men now hope to set up a meeting with Satam to talk about some sort of compromise along the lines of what I’d mentioned during our meeting: splitting the beach between new tourist infrastructure and a permanent, hygienic space for urban farming on the beach. Raj and Hari both told me that at least two representatives from the beach had gone multiple times to Satam’s home and to his office to petition for a meeting, but that they’d never succeeded in seeing him.

Satam, for his part, claims that no one has attempted to contact him, but says he would be open to a discussion. For the moment, his focus is on environmental clearance so he can move on to the next step in the Versova beach’s transformation: inviting tenders from private contractors.

In the meantime, Raj told me, “We’re all sitting, waiting.” He crossed him arms and shrugged and squinted over the ruined fields toward the retreating sea. “We’ll plant again after the demolition is finished – and we’ll just hope.”

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