Metro car shed project revives debate over salt pan ownership in Mumbai

Jan 08, 2021 10:18 PM IST

A row over the transfer of the Mumbai Metro-3 (Colaba-Bandra-Seepz) car shed, from Aarey Milk Colony to Kanjurmarg has revived a four-decade-old tug of war between the Centre and the state government over the ownership of the salt pan lands spread across some 5,500 acres in Mumbai.

The Metro car shed site was moved from Aarey Colony to Kanjurmarg.(HT PHOTO)
The Metro car shed site was moved from Aarey Colony to Kanjurmarg.(HT PHOTO)

The Uddhav Thackeray government allotted 102 acres of salt pan land to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) for building an integrated car shed in Kanjurmarg, in east-central Mumbai, last year in a decision opposed by the Centre, which claimed ownership. .

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Since the 1980s, both governments have been citing various laws and court orders to stake their claims to the lands spread across the eastern suburbs of Mankhurd, Chembur, Ghatkopar, Bhandup, Nahur and Mulund and some western suburbs including Dahisar and Malvani. Through the decades, both governments have also made various plans for utilising these lands, which have remained on paper.

Salt manufacture

It is said that the story of salt manufacturing can be traced to the first human settlements in the seven islands of Mumbai. According to the Thane gazetteers department, the Agris, Kolis and Native Christians were engaged in salt manufacturing and were known as “mithagris” or “salt workers”. “The Agris were found in Bassein, Ghodbander, Panvel and Uran; the Kolis in Trombay and the Christians in Ghodbander and at Kurla near Bombay,” according to the records available on the website of the department.

In 1816, the British government realised the potential of salt and decided to raise revenue from it. Kaevan Umrigar, a heritage evangelist from the Mumbai-based Khakhi foundation, said: “Originally, the salt workers would give a toka or a share of the produce to the rulers. However, the British realised the potential of salt tax as regular source of revenue.”

Salt manufacturing no longer has a significant active role in the city’s economy, salt pans do act as a natural barrier during flooding. A 2016 report by the MMRDA states: “Salt pans are not only important from a livelihood, economy and salt production perspective but are critically important from the point of view of flood-protection as they are shallow depressed areas holding sea water. The salt pans today face a serious threat from the construction lobby of the region leading to a mild decline in the overall area and production.”

The tug of war

According to the Union ministry of commerce, Mumbai has 5,378 acres of salt pan lands allotted to 31 salt works (six on lease and 24 licensed) in 13 revenue villages. The government had also stated that the lease of these six salt works expired in October 2016. According to a 2010 report by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), 1,206 hectares (please convert to acres for sake of consistency) comes under the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) and 204 hectares of these lands in the eastern suburbs can be developed.

The 102-acre Kanjurmarg shed falls along the Eastern Express Highway and was also considered by the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena government as an option for the location of the car shed. When the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government shifted the plot from Aarey to Kanjurmarg, the Centre filed a petition against the transfer and the Bombay high court (HC) stayed the transfer. The court, in fact, called the collector’s action of passing the transfer order as bordering on “committing a fraud on power.”

In 1985, a Central government committee had come to the conclusion that these lands had become unsuitable for salt manufacture and should be transferred to the ministry of urban development. A reply by the ministry of urban development to the then member of Parliament from Mumbai North-East Kirit Somaiya stated: “Accordingly, the Ministry of Industry, Department of Industrial Development issued orders dated 9th January,1986, 30.12.1987 and 22.2.1990, transferring 5,378 acres (approximately) of lands in Greater Bombay, on `as is where is` basis with all the assets and liabilities, to the Ministry of Urban Development, for use as considered appropriate.”

After that, for a brief period, the Union government and the state government of Maharashtra were also looking at jointly developing these lands to meet the ever-growing needs of Mumbai. “Both the governments had reached a consensus to use the land for affordable housing and public amenities,” said Somaiya. A group of ministers had also visited Mumbai to take a decision on utilising the salt pan lands.

In 2014, the Mumbai suburban collector issued an order in respect of 2,978 acres of salt pans in Mumbai as belonging to the state government. The Centre’s Salt commissionerate appealed against this order before the Konkan divisional commissioner. In 2018, the then BJP revenue minister Chandrakanth Patil, while reviewing this petition, vested the 2,978 acres to the state government. A senior official said: “The order was issued under the revenue minister’s quasi-judicial capacity, which the Salt commissioner did not challenge.”

Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant had earlier also said that the salt commissioner had not provided any documents in the last three years to substantiate its claim, but opposed it only when the land was allotted for the car shed.

What now?

In December, chief minister Thackeray appealed to the Centre and the BJP in Maharashtra for a dialogue to resolve the issue. He also criticised the centre for creating “hurdles” in the project. People familiar with the situation say that Thackeray is keen on going ahead with the plan to build the car shed in Kanjurmarg.

The MVA government on Wednesday formed a nine-member committee under Maharashtra chief secretary Sanjay Kumar to look at alternate plots for the car shed. The committee has to submit its report in a month’s time. According to the government resolution, the committee has to mainly look at two plots — Aarey and Kanjurmarg.

A senior state official said that the 25 hectares in Aarey will prove to be insufficient for future traffic requirements. “The Kanjurmarg plot will be utilised as a common car shed for line 3, 4 (Wadala-Kasarwadavali) and 6 (Swami Samath Nagar-Vikhroli). In fact, it will also be integrated with Line 14 (Kanjurmarg-Badlapur). This means the state will save on both land and cost by constructing a car depot here (in Kanjurmarg).”

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