Late last month, the state government of Maharashtra, led by chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, requested permission from the Centre to “unlock” an exceptional feature of Mumbai’s topography: its salt pans.
In a conclave on urban poverty alleviation, Chavan said that space was essential to the city’s slum rehabilitation projects and requested the Central government, which has long owned the leases on many parts of this land, to allow it to be used for residential development.
Post-monsoon soil of the salt pans. Photographs by MS Gopal/Mint
It was the latest in a long line of government announcements hopefully seeking to claim this land. For a city perpetually looking for space, the salt pans, like the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the mangrove swamps, are an aberration. Thanks to tourism and the attention of ecologists, we readily acknowledge the importance of the latter two. But there are probably more people in Mumbai today who know the rough location of the city’s nuclear facilities, than those of the salt pans. The phrase conjures up shining visions of the Rann of Kutch, glittering whitely under a desert sun. The very idea seems out of place on this small, rainy metropolitan island.
And yet, commuters on the Harbour line between Mankhurd, the last station within the limits of the island, and Vashi in Navi Mumbai, see them as they rattle past every day. For much of the monsoon, they lie submerged under blackish-brown sludge, glutted by rain and the Thane creek. To reach them from Mankhurd, you can follow the railway tracks northwards, past slum settlements and complexes of new slum rehabilitation apartments, on to a mud track overgrown with tough coastal weeds, buzzing with dragonflies, and possibly snakes.
A kilometre or so past the Mankhurd railway station, the last shacks made from discarded political party banners and tarpaulin recede. Some way beyond that, even the puddles bisecting the path are free from human excreta, the universal sign of habitation along the city’s rail lines. The only smell on the humid October breeze is a light, almost grassy tang, different from the stinging brine of the open sea. We are in the island’s uttermost east, and experiencing something eerily unusual in Mumbai: an absence of other people. Only the Harbour line trains, running back and forth over our heads every 5 minutes, tell us that we are still in the city.
The detritus of migrant labour.
The Mankhurd salt pans are among the few parts of the flats which are still operational. Overall, the city’s salt lands are spread over close to 3,000 acres, across the north-eastern coast of the island, and along the coastal mainland where much of Navi Mumbai and the far western suburbs have developed. Controlled by the Central government, leases for business on many salt pans have lapsed and the pans fallen into disuse, which gives the state government grounds to request their release.
For years, environmentalists have been protesting these periodic requests strongly. Debi Goenka, conservationist, explains how the salt flats are vital to Mumbai’s environmental health. “Mangroves have regenerated over many of these areas,” he explains. “The salt pans act as sponges during the rain. There must be builders licking their chops at the prospect, but the housing crisis is not going to be resolved by giving away the national park or mangrove lands or salt pans to developers.”
Houses coming up in these low-lying areas would be exceptionally susceptible to floods, and would block the island’s natural drainage mechanisms irreparably. Reclaiming and developing these tracts of land would exacerbate soil erosion problems, as the practice essentially means denuding an existing land mass, like a hill, to graft it on to this unstable sea-land. “Because of climate change and the rise of the sea level, to even think of reclamation in a city like Mumbai is a death wish,” Goenka says.
Mankhurd’s salt pans.
The salt pans are currently governed by Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules, falling in a primary category, CRZ-1, between the high and low tide lines. CRZ-1 protects two further sub-categories: of ecologically sensitive land, as well as land with special features—and mangroves are a special feature.
“The salt pans fall under both sub-categories,” Goenka points out.
In 2005, PTI reported that the salt production from these areas was about 120,000 tonnes. But for all the uniqueness of a salt pan in the metropolitan region, the salt Mumbai actually uses does not come from within the island, but from larger flats and plants around the country. Goenka speculates that the salt produced in these “small-time” operations is used in industrial facilities, rather than sold as a consumer good.
So soon after the rains, the soil is a wet, loamy black, just beginning to dry out. On the borders of the salt plots, patches of fuzzy white begin to appear, baking slowly under the afternoon sun. There is a lone reed hut at one edge of the land, where the migrant labourers who work on this plot live.
Fishing baskets near the creek.
“Now we are just making the soil ready, repairing and building the furrows,” explains Dharma, who works on one stretch of these flats. “If you want to see the salt, come back in May—or a little before.”
Dharma and 11 other workers have returned from their villages after the monsoon to work on this lonely edge of the coast. They walk some distance to bring drinking water from a tanker every day. With fishing baskets made of reeds, a young man has caught small “English” fish—as he calls tilapia—and a large white crab. A red flag flutters at a curve ahead, over a tiny shrine to a goddess.
Neither Dharma nor Manoj the fisherman have heard about the government’s plea to turn these pans over to the towers which curve along the borders of this land; nor will they hear about it for some time. A week ago, The Times of India reported that state officials discovered an old official communication from Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government, stating her opposition to the use of salt pan land for development. The newspaper says that Chavan has “decided to withhold the demand for now”.
A train rattles past. Behind us, a cluster of men come by to ask us our business.
“Oh, Press,” says one of them when we explain. “We wondered. We’ve been following you all this while to make sure nothing happens to you.”