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Development on saltpan land: Activists write to ministry

The city has 130 hectares of saltpan land, which is equivalent to the size of 14 Oval Maidans (9 hectare) in south Mumbai.

mumbai Updated: Apr 26, 2018 00:38 IST
The city has 130 hectares of saltpan land, which is equivalent to the size of 14 Oval Maidans (9 hectare) in south Mumbai.
The city has 130 hectares of saltpan land, which is equivalent to the size of 14 Oval Maidans (9 hectare) in south Mumbai. (FILE)

As the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) final draft Development Plan-2034 (DP) plans to allocate saltpan lands for affordable housing, environmentalists have written to the union environment ministry, raising concerns about its impact on a coastal city like Mumbai.

The city has 130 hectares of saltpan land, which is equivalent to the size of 14 Oval Maidans (9 hectare) in south Mumbai.

“We are allocating a very small area for affordable housing from already identified saltpan land of 721.24 hectares, which is not part of coastal regulation zone (CRZ) and is open for development, of which we are taking only 130 hectares,” said a senior official from the BMC’s DP department. “This 130 ha, 30% each will be used for affordable housing, open spaces and builders’ development area. These are predominantly in residential zones. A small portion such as this should not be difficult for the central or state bodies to notify for affordable housing.”

In its letter, Watchdog Foundation on Wednesday demanded that a thorough study be undertaken by the central government, in view of extreme weather events, globally changing weather patterns and a rise in sea levels in the context of buffer zones such as saltpans protecting coastal cities.

“Confusion prevails because during his press conference, civic chief Ajoy Mehta first announced that 330 hectares of saltpan land will be acquired by the BMC. Later on, officials from the DP department said it was 130 hectares. Earlier in the draft development plan and revised draft development plan, it was marked as 256 hectares and 260 hectares. So there is no clarity on how much of these eco-sensitive areas will be lost,” said Godfrey Pimenta, trustee, Watchdog Foundation. “

He added that flooding was a major concern this monsoon and the saltpan acts as a barrier. “The monster sea waves in coastal areas of Mumbai, particularly during the monsoon, are reminder of the grim reality of the days to come. In these circumstances, it will be suicidal to allow any kind of development on saltpan lands,” said Pimenta.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, the civic body received a total of 72,489 suggestions and objections to their earlier draft DP’s regarding the affordable housing scheme.

Real estate developers had mixed views on the issue. “It is a positive move as builders will benefit from less pressure on real estate development in south Mumbai, which will now be focused towards the suburbs. However, the safety of these structures considering the foundation of these fragile areas is a matter of concern,” said a developer.

Shadaab Patel, real estate developer and social activist, said, “This will be disastrous for the city as we are living in a concrete jungle and these last remaining lungs are also being snatched away from citizens. This is not Dubai where we can construct breadth-wise ignoring fragile areas. This is a bad move towards conserving the city’s environment.”

Other environmentalists said landfilling and construction on flood plains and low lying areas like saltpans will cause severe floods. “We cannot move into inter tidal areas and needlessly destroy them. Under the guise of affordable housing, the government is inaugurating a buffet for the developers. There are three lakh unsold houses in Mumbai and all black money is parked in it. These constructions will only provide more space to hoard illegal wealth under the guise of affordable housing,” said Stalin D, director, NGO Vanashakti.

“The CRZ notification is a central law and it says that land between the high tide and low tide needs to be protected. The state government or BMC cannot change the central government law as salt pan land is by definition is found in these areas. Despite knowing this, it is a shame they have gone ahead with giving more land to builders without understanding the environmental impact,” said Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the environment group Conservation Action Trust.

If you build houses on our land, where should we go: Agris

The plan to use saltpan land for affordable housing has irked Agris, who live in these areas and make a living by selling salt.

Agris, both Hindus and Christians, are among the original inhabitants of Mumbai. Nandkumar Pawar, a member of Agri community from Bhandup, said, “Construction is not feasible on the low-lying saltpan land. Around 35 years ago, a huge chunk of our land was taken for redevelopment in Uran, displacing members of our community. The same will happen now. It will affect our livelihood, leaving us with nowhere to go.”

Pawar said saltpan labourers come from Dahanu, Palghar and Daman during winter and summer. “These lands are used for fishing during the monsoon. How will we earn a living if you wipe out saltpans,” Pawar asked.

Rajaram Patil of Koliwada Gaothan Vistaar Kruti Samiti, a group of residents of Koliwadas and Gaothans, suggested even if the land is given for redevelopment, 50% of it should be used to house the community.

“No authority ever thought of expanding Koliwadas and Goathans. Now our land will be taken to be provide housing to outsiders. What about the original inhabitants,” asked Patil.

Godfrey Pimenta, trustee, Watchdog Foundation, said the plan goes against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of housing for all. “There is a special kind of prawn called Kolin which is used to make various dishes. It is available only in saltpans during the monsoon. There is another fish called Ntuti, which is stored for the rest of the year,” Pimenta said.