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Saltpan city

Mumbai’s saltpans stretch over 5,000 acres, nine times the size of the defunct mill lands. Governments and the city administration have been eyeing these protected areas for commercial development, ostensibly to house the poor, writes Freny Manecksha. Environmentalists argue that these saltpans, with their thick mangrove forests, are Mumbai’s last defence against ocean flooding

  • The Centre is working on a comprehensive policy for redeveloping Mumbai’s slums so that precious real estate in the island city can be freed up for infrastructure and development. The ‘From Hutments to Tenements’ policy envisages resettling Mumbai’s slum-dwellers in housing projects that could be developed on the 2,700-acre expanse of saltpan land in the city. (Indian Express, June 16, 2006)
  • A much-awaited measure to alleviate the severe paucity of land in the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, is close to realisation. Over 5,378 acres of saltpan land in the city’s suburbs, owned by the Centre, will soon be unlocked to develop low-cost housing projects for rehabilitating slum-dwellers to be displaced by the various infrastructure upgrade projects, including expansion of the Mumbai international airport. (The Financial Express, May 30, 2008)
  • “Opening saltpans for development will decongest the city considerably and ease the housing shortage. This would automatically ensure a fall in prices,” said Anuj Puri, chairman and country head, Jones Lang LaSalle Meghraj, a leading real estate consultancy firm. In most parts of the world, where saltpans have been developed, he said, there has been a spurt in the construction of high-end luxury houses and hotels due to the proximity of the sea. (Hindustan Times, November 20, 2009)

Both the Centre and the government of Maharashtra have long been eyeing Mumbai’s saltpans under the pretext of undertaking low-cost housing projects to relocate the city’s slum-dwellers and upgrade infrastructural facilities. Saltpans are lands along the coast that were hollowed out to process salt; in Mumbai they are spread over approximately 5,378 acres.

The Konkan coast around present-day Mumbai was ideal for the manufacture of salt; indeed, salt works have been in existence here for as long as people can remember. Since 1850, however, the saltpans began to be acquired for various public purposes, and little by little, they ceased to be used to produce salt.

Mumbai’s saltpans are spread across the eastern suburbs of Ghatkopar, Chembur, Wadala, Kanjurmarg, Bhandup, Mandale, Turbhe, Nahur and Mulund, and the western suburbs of Dahisar, Mira Road, Bhayander, Malvani and Vihar. Although most of these lands are privately owned, since 1960 the Central Salt Department in Jaipur has taken the view that salt work lands belong to the central government, and that the salt manufacturers only have right of use to the land to produce salt under the terms of the licence.

More recently, the state government has been claiming that though owned by the central government, the salt work lands were leased out to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Subsequently, the BMC sub-leased the land to various people on a 99-year lease, to manufacture salt. Though the lease is over in most cases, the lessees have not given up possession of the land.

People like K D Doongiriwala, whose family is still in the salt-manufacturing business and owns salt work land in Bhayander, claim that most of the land is private land not government land as claimed by the state. Salt workers have been in possession of land in and around Mumbai to make salt since the Portuguese and Marathas ruled the region.

In the 1980s, salt manufacturers, afraid of the government’s new attitude, brought hundreds of court cases before various civil and revenue courts. Most of these are still pending. A high court decision in 1996, holding saltpan lands to be the property of the government, raised a major hue and cry although the ownership matter subsequently fizzled out. Most saltpans are now occupied by unauthorised slums.

These salt work lands, said to be nine times the size of the defunct mill lands in central Mumbai, are now slated to be exploited for private real estate and public infrastructure projects under the pretext of freeing Mumbai of its slums. At the meeting of a high-powered group of central ministers it was decided, in May 2008, that “efforts of various central and state agencies (will) be coordinated and urgent measures evolved for using these lands for rehabilitation of slum-dwellers,” (Financial Express, May 29, 2008).

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in the wake of the 2005 floods, called for the expeditious transfer of saltpan lands to the state government, in September 2006. But even as the state government seeks clearance for the saltpans to be used to rehabilitate 80,000 slum-dwellers and project-affected families in Mumbai, the BMC has ambitious plans of its own. The current development plan envisages converting saltpan lands for residential purposes, and creating commercial zones with “adequate infrastructural augmentation”. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has welcomed the use of these lands for real estate.

The BMC is drawing up a revised development plan (a blueprint for the city’s development) for 2014-2034 that suggests opening salt work lands for commercial development. One of the “urgent measures” needed to make this possible is to relax environment protection regulations governing coastal land use -- these regulations, as applied to Mumbai, prohibit development on all but 240 hectares of salt work lands.

The move has triggered a heated debate among environmentalists, citizens’ groups and those concerned with urban planning. The civic body’s plans for the last few stretches of saltpans would spell disaster for Mumbai, say citizens’ groups and environmentalists. The latter argue that a major portion of the land is covered by Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) guidelines, and that these lands cannot be used for development. Besides, saltpans form part of the fragile ecosystem that supports thousands of species of animals, birds and fish.

Environmentalists also claim that saltpans, with their thick mangrove trees, are Mumbai’s last defence against flooding. “The saltpans are eco-sensitive zones that act as natural buffers against ocean flooding… They absorb the rush of water from the sea,” says the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a research body.

Hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) in the wake of the July 2005 deluge in Mumbai, a division bench comprising Chief Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud ordered a total ban on the destruction and cutting of mangroves throughout the state. Mumbai alone has over 1,534 hectares (3,800 acres) of mangroves. Not stopping at a ban, the court also issued orders for the cessation of all construction activity within 50 metres on all sides of mangrove areas.

Environmentalist Nahar Singh says: “If they (the state government and BMC) go ahead with their plan, the city is doomed. It will mean more July 26, 2005-like disasters in the city.” Vidya Vaidya, a member of the NGO Citispace, adds: “This will mean irrevocable damage to the environment.” Activists allege that the BMC’s latest move will benefit Mumbai’s construction lobby that has been pushing for the city’s last remaining open spaces to be opened up for development.

Rishi Aggarwal, an environmental activist who is also involved in issues of development and governance, is a staunch critic of the bid to build on saltpan lands. Aggarwal, joint secretary of the Mangrove Society in India, and part of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, says any move to develop salt work lands without a proper scientific proposal or sound environmental impact assessment study would make it a purely greed-driven exercise, not an attempt to address people’s housing needs.

Aggarwal points out that unilaterally freeing all saltpan lands would necessarily mean bending some of the CRZ guidelines because although all saltpan lands do not support mangroves, they do see tidal action. He alleges that structural engineers too have expressed concern over the wisdom of putting up buildings on such hollowed out lands.

Are saltpans the only answer? “If the leverage of the floor space index (FSI) directive is applied correctly, there is sufficient good quality housing stock in the main island city,” says Aggarwal. Dr Amita Bhide of the Centre for Urban Planning and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), says one must explore all options like lands under the Urban Land Ceiling Regulation Act (ULCRA), lands belonging to the defence, railways and Bombay Port Trust. “Having said that, I am aware that asking for land for the poor is often just a front,” Bhide concludes.

The proposal to use saltpan lands first emerged in 2002 when the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) warned that it was running out of land and asked the state to release land belonging to various departments like defence, the Bombay Port Trust, and saltpan lands.

In 2006, the then Union Minister for Commerce and Industries Kamal Nath and Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh worked out a formula of developing saltpan lands on a no-profit-no-loss basis. The scheme proposed allowing private developers extra FSI for commercial purposes after setting aside 225 sq ft houses to accommodate slum-dwellers.

In 2007, a committee of union ministers including Sharad Pawar, A Raja, Kamal Nath and Jaipal Reddy was formed to look into all aspects before a decision regarding saltpan development was taken. In May 2008, the decks were cleared for the private development of saltpan lands stretching to 2,177 hectares. This, despite the Union environment ministry objecting to the release of lands covered by mangroves, which fell under the CRZ 1 category.

In August 2009, Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh once again indicated that the central government leadership was unhappy about opening up salt work lands for development. “My understanding is that currently there is no evidence among top political leaders that they are in favour of opening up the saltpans for development, although there was some interest in the past,” Ramesh said at a public hearing on the CRZ notification. Stating that saltpans were vulnerable lands, the minister added that a proper study should be conducted on the ecology, environment and socio-economic aspects of salt work areas before taking appropriate steps.    

Earlier, in July 2009, around 180.42 hectares of salt work lands around the prime locations of Dadar, Naigaum and parts of the main city, were declared ‘protected forests’ under a state government notification. The notification identified 3,431 hectares of mangrove lands in the extended city as forest land to be protected by the state forest department.

According to S S Sandhu, Divisional Commissioner, Konkan division, who issued the notification: “Many of these vast tracts of saltpan lands have significant mangrove growth. When the Nagpur-based Maharashtra Remote Sensing Application Centre (MRSAC) began mapping mangroves in the city, these tracts appeared on the map. We simply followed the court directives and notified them as forests.”

Although environmentalists are heaving a sigh of relief, government officials maintain that the new notification will not upset state projects. Shree Bhagwan, Chief Conservator of Forests, Thane range, explains: “These lands may be protected, but that doesn’t mean the forest department is going to lock horns with the state over the development of any of these lands. We will make sure there is agreement on the issue.”

Mangrove expert and member of Conservation Action Trust (CAT) Vivek Kulkarni says: “These are basically saltpan areas which have not been used for salt production for long. There is considerable mangrove growth on them that needs to be protected.” Kulkarni, however, points out that there are larger areas of saltpan lands with mangroves along the Eastern Express Highway, Dahisar, and Mahul, which also need to be notified urgently. The authorities seem to have suddenly woken up to the dangers of climate change and global warming; efforts are being made to find ways to mitigate the effects. But a lot more has to be done, and fast, Kulkarni concludes.

The next five years are going to be crucial, say experts, as rising sea levels threaten the city. One of the biggest challenges for the state forest ministry will be to save the saltpans and mangrove lands in and around Mumbai. It will also have to put an end to the large-scale destruction of mangroves along the city’s coastline, failing which millions of lives will be affected. “Mangroves are a natural barrier between the sea and the land. Their importance has increased manifold because of the erratic weather patterns Mumbai is prone to,” says Debi Goenka, member of Conservation Action Trust.

“Opening up saltpans is a bad idea,” says urban planner Chandrashekar Prabhu. Writing on the 26/7 catastrophe, which the government blamed on unprecedented rainfall, Prabhu said: “The writing has been on the wall for a long time. Why did this happen? Every city has its share of dissipation spaces -- wetlands, wastelands, mangroves and saltpan lands. These act like sponges and take the pressure out of the high tide. In the past 10 years, each of these has been destroyed systematically in Mumbai. It is a carefully planned strategy. It is a transition from wetland to wasteland. This has happened in Chedda Nagar in northeast Mumbai where saltpans were filled in to create land.”

The release of thousands of acres of salt work lands for ‘development’ remains on top of the state government’s agenda. In fact, for several months before the October 2009 assembly elections, there was hectic lobbying in Mumbai and New Delhi to open up vast tracts of land in the suburbs. It was put on hold when MP Milind Deora and other prominent citizens of Mumbai raised an alarm over the move. With a fresh mandate, and the next polls four years away, the new government is expected to take up the matter once again.

(Freny Manecksha is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

Infochange News & Features, April 2010