A view of Mumbai's iconic salt pans in Maharashtra state. The BJP now wants to build homes on them. Photo: Kanchan Srivastava
A view of Mumbai's iconic salt pans in Maharashtra state. The BJP now wants to build homes on them. Photo: Kanchan Srivastava

The iconic salt pans in India’s financial capital Mumbai could soon disappear as the state government plans to build housing projects on that land.

The eco-sensitive salt pans, which act as lungs for the over-congested city in the western state of Maharashtra, were deemed to not be wetlands following a revision of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government led by Devendra Fadnavis plans to develop the salt-pan land in Malwani, Gorai, Jogeshwari and Mulund – areas around the city’s eastern and western borders – into residential areas in coming decades under Mumbai’s Development Plan-2034. The plan is to construct one million affordable housing units under the ambitious Prime Minister Housing Scheme started by PM Narendra Modi.

But the proposal to develop the salt pans has evoked sharp reactions from environmentalists and urban planners. They fear that gradually the entire 2,100 hectares (5,400 acres) 0f eco-sensitive salt-pans could be opened up for construction, compared to the current 15%.

The salt pans in Mumbai Metro Region cover an area equivalent to about 3,900 football fields. As of now, 330 hectares (15%) of this land has been designated for housing. But state and national government leaders believe that unlocking this land can help make the city less congested, as well as rationalize property prices and boost affordable housing.

But how much can be developed?

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has been asked to survey the salt-pans to explore what land can be developed as per the revised Wetland Rules 2017. A previous survey conducted by the same agency in 2010 stated that only 25 acres of the salt pans could be developed for housing.

The salt-pan land is owned by the national government and was leased out to private parties for the making of salt over a century ago. The lease of all such land expired in 2016, while some were terminated for violations of their contract.

Over the years, Mumbai has lost several acres of salt pans to developers. Activists say that some lessees anticipated the potential of the land and secretly arranged illegal deals with real estate firms.

Vital for wildlife and fighting floods

The salt flats are generally low-lying areas in the inter-tidal lines of the Arabian Sea. “They act as a buffer that protects the city from floods during the monsoon. Disturbing them would be disastrous,” warns Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the environmental group Conservation Action Trust. Mumbai is prone to floods during the wet season and 2005 was the worst in recent history.

“During the 2005 floods, the eastern suburbs were relatively less affected compared to the western suburbs. This was due to the presence of this land and mangroves that absorb the floodwater. On much of the abandoned salt-pan land, mangroves tend to grow back. That land also provides an important habitat for marine species and migratory birds.”

‘Salt pans still protected’

Environmentalists insist the exclusion of these eco-sensitive areas from the Wetland Rules will have little effect because salt pans are still protected under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules.

Goenka said: “There was a lot of ambiguity with regard to CRZ areas in the 2010 Wetland rules, which were cleared in the 2017 rules. Now, the CRZ areas are not covered by the Wetland Rules. But, salt pans are still protected under CRZ rules unless the government further attempts to dilute them as well.”

The coastal zone rules are part of a national law that can’t be overruled by the state. Despite knowing this, the Fadnavis government is hell-bent to give these tracts to builders, Goenka said.

‘Weak basalt underneath’

There are also potential drawbacks to building on salt-pan land, such as increased cost and vulnerability to earthquakes, floods and accelerated corrosion of structures due to high salinity, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay said.

He said Mumbai had basalt beneath the ground level surface, but it was weak and disintegrates when exposed to wind and water; it would take around three years to stabilize such that sort of land for building. And any additional housing on the salt-pan lands would be a further burden on the urban infrastructure of Mumbai.

Milind Deora, a former minister and Congress leader, said: “Any such move should be preceded by an impact assessment study so that we know how badly the environment will be affected and how the government can offset this negative impact.”

The local fishing community is also anxious about building on the salt pans. “Under the guise of affordable housing, the government is helping developers at the cost of both the environment and people,” Nandu Pawar, an environmentalist linked with a fishermen’s organization, said.

Salt pans are used for salt production from October to May, but for the rest of the year they are used for fishing.

‘A plan for builders, not the common man’

Even if all concerns pertaining to the environment are set-aside, the question arises: will the common man be able to afford homes built on this land? Experts say: No.

“As per estimates, an affordable house (one bedroom, hall and kitchen) on this land would cost around Rs 7 million, which is still beyond the affordability of 80% of the population,” a real estate expert said.

Activists also allege that the move aims to help builders, who are major election donors. “The proposal aims to make cheap land available for builders, who will in turn fund the political parties in the elections next year,” Debi Goenka claimed.

The BJP’s bitter ally in the state, the Shiv Sena, is yet to make its stance on the salt pans clear. Its leader Ramdas Kadam, environment minister in Maharashtra, opposes this plan publicly. However, his plan of action and that of his party are still unclear. When Asia Times sought his comment on the issue, he said: “I am inside a temple. Can’t speak to you now.” Later he said, “I don’t want to speak over the phone.”