At the very great risk of driving my many environmental friends to acts of unspeakable violence (though emboldened by the knowledge that I get to write this column and they don’t): the case against development of the city’s salt pan lands is unconvincing and irrational.
“Salt pans are natural barriers against flooding”, goes one argument. Our salt pans are not natural barriers against anything. By definition, they are unnatural. They are all manmade. And they are not “barriers” of any sort, least of all against flooding, because they work only on flooding. As far as I know, there is not a single study that shows that manmade salt pans used in salt manufacture are natural barriers against flooding. These salt pans are not like those we find in nature — the Makgadikgadi Pan in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, for instance, or those in Utah and Nevada. And to say that they are barriers against flash floods assumes that we have flash floods with regularity and that there is no technology known to man that can be used to protect human settlements against sudden floods. Neither is correct. These salt pans are also not “open spaces” for the city. A salt pan is nobody’s idea of an evening out with the family. The ones in use are privately managed and gated. They have no ecosystems to speak of.
What these arguments overlook is the geography and topography of the city, and questions of social, economic, spatial and urban justice. The poor in slums should be rehabilitated, we are told; but elsewhere. Elsewhere, where? Miles from their homes and workplaces, with no transport systems? If reclamation to the west is opposed and land development to the east of this funnel-shaped chunk of land is also opposed, the poor must be condemned forever to slums and shanties and sidewalks. There is no ‘elsewhere’. We should also not forget that the same lobby also opposes the development of the hinterland and its connection to the city by a trans-harbour link. This is the kind of shoddy thinking that makes environmentalism stink.
When you do ask where this rehabilitation is to take place — and remember this is conversation between people who are on the same side — the answer is always a shrug. “That’s not our problem,” I am told every time. “The government should think of something.” Why? So that when it does, we can oppose it all over again? The formula seems to be this: we don’t want reclamation to the west. Leave the east alone. And we don’t want slums. This is a sort of environmental fascism and it helps nobody: not the poor, not the well-off, not the city and no, not even the environment.
For the opposition is not only anti-poor, it is also anti-environment. If you do not increase the stock of affordable housing in the city, and have no housing policy, you will continue to have slums. These, as we now know, have become profitable ventures in their own right. But every slum damages the environment of the city and hurts everyone. How is the cause of the environment helped by keeping the poor in slums without adequate housing, sanitation and health facilities? To oppose this development on environmental grounds, one must show that it is an environmental hazard while allowing slums to continue and grow is not.
Another argument from the anti-lobby is that, left alone, these salt pans will soon be dense with mangroves. This is very peculiar. It suggests the stoppage of salt manufacture and doing nothing with the land. Certainly the law protects mangroves that exist; not ones yet to come into existence. What should be our priority? The poor of today or the mangroves of tomorrow?
What is perhaps not so obvious is that these anti-salt-pan-development arguments play very well with the interests of the builder/developer lobby to keep realty prices unnaturally high. A shortage of land ensures high realty prices, and only benefits one sector. The unsold stock of overpriced housing should not blind us to reality: over 60% of this city’s people are forced into slums. The huge salt pans area is well-connected by rail and road. It could provide for more than enough housing at affordable rates. Development, properly done, will force down realty prices everywhere. There is only one lobby that does not want this. We should not be supporting it.
The arguments are less about the environment than our distrust of governance and planning. This is something to worry about. These lands represent a cash value of over 200,000 crores (multiplying 5000 acres by 40000 sq ft by Rs.10000 per square foot). That requires us to be very careful in what we plan and what we do, given that nothing in our collective experience indicates that the development of these lands will be anything except more malls and luxury towers. But there are those who can show us how to get it right: mixed income, affordable housing, mixed use development that allows easy commuting to the workplace, public open spaces, and efficient public transport systems. Done correctly, opening up these lands will ensure a massive drop in realty prices across the city; the restoration of our public parks and green spaces; a policy that prevents the resurgence of slums; perhaps, at last, a livable city.
Our salt pan lands cover over 5000 acres. That is nearly ten times the size of the Mill Lands area, and the makeover of that area was once seen — before the Supreme Court in an astounding display of myopia decreed otherwise — as the most vital urban rejuvenation project in the city’s history. Time very quickly proved the Supreme Court wrong; we must live with the consequences. It would be foolish to make the same mistake twice, on a scale ten times as large.
Every few years the issue surfaces only to be buried. It happened again last week: [The Chief Minister floated an idea of opening up Mumbai's salt pan lands] for affordable housing and slum rehabilitation. A few days later, the idea was dropped. Once again, the backpedalling was the result of our Queen Mum's view on things. [This U-turn was triggered by some letter] she wrote many years ago. If Madam has spoken, who are we to even dare to think?
: http://flashnewstoday.com/index.php/free-salt-pans-for-slum-free-mumbai-cm/ "Free salt pans for slum-free Mumbai: CM
Times of India, 28 September 2011"
: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-10-01/mumbai/30232934_1_salt-pan-land-sonia-gandhi-land-shortage "Sonia's letter halts salt pan development
Sandeep Ashar, Times of India, 1 October 2011"