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The Mumbai region’s already limited open spaces could be squeezed further if the salt pans in Bhandup, Kanjurmarg, Mira Road and Bhayandar make way for “development".

For some years now, there have been plans to convert “no development zones" to “residential commercial zones". If these do come through, yet another buffer between the Arabian Sea and the mainland will be lost, with houses, offices, roads and parks replacing the salt pans. This won’t just displace salt pan workers and hundreds of slum dwellers, it will hit mangroves as well as migratory birds.

The plan is now being looked at afresh. “This is a proposal. There is no notification yet," says a Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) official, who could not be named due to the institution’s policy. But, he adds, “The finer points for this proposal are being worked upon."

A report in The Hindu last month said a master plan for the development of salt pans would be presented to the Union government soon. In October, a report in the Business Standard had quoted state minister for salt pan lands Girish Mahajan as saying: “The state government will soon appeal to the Centre to release it so that housing for the poor and economically backward classes can be taken up on a priority basis." Salt pans come under the Central office of the salt commissioner, which is under the Union ministry of commerce and industry.

At present, workers spend about seven months in a year pounding the damp fields where sea water crystallizes into white unrefined salt. Many of them have come from other states, especially Gujarat, in search of work and live in shanties nearby. They earn a pittance. “We will move to another salt pan," says one worker, when asked if he knew about the proposal.

Harvesting salt needs some degree of skill, and some of the workers who have spent a lifetime doing this can be seen guiding younger workers as they pound, scrape and collect the soil, learning exactly when to open and close the water inlets. Work starts after the monsoon in September and salt takes form in the conducive weather conditions from January-March.

Environmentalists say construction in these areas may have wider ramifications—and could well worsen the chronic problem of flooding during the monsoon. “These salt pans form the lowest part of the city. If there is construction at this place where salt pans hold water, this water could flood the city," says Stalin D., conservationist and director, projects, of Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based not-for-profit that works on issues related to forest, mangrove and wetland protection.

“Mumbai and Chennai are similar. If there is too much construction around the coast, the water passageways get narrower and the rainwater has no way to get out," says R. Ramasubramanian, principal scientist at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. “Generally during construction, the level is raised and if this happens near the coast, obviously it traps water within the city." This happened along the coast of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, with some of the salt pans on private land having been sold off in the last few decades, says Ramasubramanian.

Will Maharashtra be able to walk the tightrope between the city’s needs and its natural spaces?

A mound of discarded salt set aside at Mira Road.
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A mound of discarded salt set aside at Mira Road.
Salt workers separating brine from sand at Bhayandar.
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Salt workers separating brine from sand at Bhayandar.
Salt lined up in a khari (salt field) in Dahisar.
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Salt lined up in a khari (salt field) in Dahisar.
Coarse salt being collected in Dahisar.
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Coarse salt being collected in Dahisar.
Real estate projects are coming up around areas like Bhandup and Kanjurmarg.
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Real estate projects are coming up around areas like Bhandup and Kanjurmarg.
Workers at Bhandup pounding the ground at dawn to allow the water to seep in so that the salt can rise up through the day.
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Workers at Bhandup pounding the ground at dawn to allow the water to seep in so that the salt can rise up through the day.
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