Men in colourful dhotis folded up to their knees step over small mounds that demarcate the salt pans at Mankhurd into neat squares. They check the salt residue left behind by the receding tide and the evaporating seawater.
The calm over the sea breeze-cooled expanse belies the intense debate revolving around the future of this ecological zone. Given Mumbai’s space crunch, everyone wants a piece of the salt pans.
Barely had heritage activists suggested that salt pan lands, spread across 5,442 acres in the city, be designated as heritage areas, than developers shot back saying the city is no place to make salt. A heritage tag could rule out any future development in the area.
The Urban Development Department has been mulling over allowing the land spread across areas such as Bhandup, Wadala, Trombay, Thane and Vikhroli for redevelopment and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) proposed acquisition of some of the land for the Eastern Freeway from Colaba to Anik near Wadala.
But the plan has run into determined opposition. Developing the land would be a violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) policy, said activists.
It should not be gifted to private builders for commercial exploitation, they added.
“The government was foolish to propose low-cost housing on the land. Saltpans fall in the tidal zone. Blocking them would
mean disturbing the natural movement of the tides and the sea level, endangering the entire city in this era of climate change,” said environmentalist Girish Raut.
Saltpans have existed in the region since the time of the Portuguese and Marathas in the 17th century. According to the Bombay Gazetteer, the coastal region of Bombay Presidency, particularly the Konkan region, was ideal for the manufacture of salt.
The main salt-manufacturing centres prior to 1661, when Portugal ceded Bombay (as it was known then) to the British crown, were the islands of Bombay and Salsette, Caranjah, Pen, Vasai, Malvan, Vengurla and Konkan.
The Maharashtra government claims that the Centre leased the land to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The BMC gave the land to various persons on 99-year leases for preparing salt. Though in most cases the lease has ended, the lessees are still in possession of the land.
Over the years, several acres have been lost to developers. One of the classic examples of salt pan redevelopment — Chedda Nagar in Chembur — is under litigation since 1978 as the Centre has challenged the construction by a private developer.
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had a public hearing on the CRZ notification and said there would be no hasty decision on saltpans.
“As far as the housing problem is concerned, there are hundreds of options available for low-cost housing. We have not fully utilised the existing schemes. Once we do this, we will not require the salt pan land,” said architect PK Das.
“Mangroves have stopped growing on these lands. These are inter-tidal zones. They should not be touched and mangroves must be allowed to come up there. Development of such land will harm the city in the long run,” said Debi Goenka, of the Bombay Environment Action Group.