Activists warn of eco disaster if bldgs come up on salt pans

In a move that will have long-term implications for over 5,400 acres of salt pan land in the city, the Centre has decided to shut down salt departments across the country , including Mumbai.The decision comes at a time when the state government has plans to open up large chunks of these eco-sensitive sprawls in Mumbai for “affordable housing“. For over a decade, builders have been eyeing salt pans for development, claiming that salt production is negligible. Activists have warned of an environmental disaster.

The Centre has ordered that the Salt Commissioner’s Organisation, headquartered in Jaipur, be shut in a phased manner, according to a note issued by the department of industrial policy & promotion last July . The Centre’s decision to shut down the salt commissionerate will impact over 61,370 acres in nine states, including over 13,000 acres in Maharashtra, out of which over 5,400 acres are in the city.The organization currently has five regional offices in Mumbai, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Kolkata, besides field offices to monitor production, distribution and supply of salt.

Sources said in Mumbai, there were complaints of corruption, high-handedness and vexatious litigation against officials of the salt department who have filed dozens of “frivolous” cases against salt pan owners.They said in several cases, officials allegedly misused the Public Premises Eviction Act against private owners, who have been in possession of salt lands for decades. One owner said he had to approach the Supreme Court to get an FIR quashed against him.

The DIPP note, accessed by TOI, said work of the salt department, including collection of data of salt production, will now be handled by its economic adviser. The shutting down of the Salt Commissioner’s Organisation was recommended by the Expenditure Reforms Commission.

Last month, the Union industry ministry asked for the addresses, contact numbers and emails of salt manufacturers. “The ministry wants to obtain the names and addresses of all the salt manufacturers that have the maximum privately owned salt works and land. Though the Deputy Salt Commissioner’s Office in Mumbai has all the details, officers claim they don’t. This is a ploy by the Central government to send noticessuits easily and in bulk,“ said a Mumbai-based salt land owner.

India is the 3rd largest saltproducing country after China and the US. When India attained Independence in 1947, salt was being imported from the UK and Aden. Today , the department claims it has not only achieved self-sufficiency , but exports surplus salt. The production of salt during 1947 was 1.9 million tonnes; its increased 10-fold to 22.2 million tonnes during 2011-12.

But in Mumbai, said BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, salt production stopped decades ago.The state government is eyeing large chunks of salt pans for development. One of the plans is to build 1.5 lakh houses to rehabilitate project-affected persons and slum dwellers. It also wants to build houses for middle and higher income people to solve the affordable housing crisis in the city.

Allegations abound, however, that hidden in the proposal to create public amenities is a plan to commercially exploit salt pans to build towers and malls. Environmentalists remind that the lands constitute Mumbai’s last oxygen reservoir and should be left untouched.

TIMES VIEW:

The sprawling salt pan lands act as a natural buffer along Mumbai’s coastline and are part of a contiguous ecosystem which includes estuaries, wetlands and mangroves. They are free of human habitation and afford the last few tracts of open space and clean air available around the city. Any move to change the status quo with regard to their management and custodianship must be viewed with caution and questioned in public interest. Given that the state has eyed salt pans in the past for development and it’s never had a creditable record in environmental conservation, there is no reason for civil society to let its guard down.

Nauzer Bharucha

ePaper, The Times of India (Bombay), Oct 05 2016, Page 2 :
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