With the discussion around using a large part of salt pan land in Mumbai and surrounding cities for affordable housing, environmentalists and activists were gearing for another battle. But they got a significant boost when Maharashtra's Housing minister Jitendra Awhad and Environment minister Aditya Thackeray unitedly opposed using ecologically sensitive land for any construction purpose. This has put the proposal to raise affordable houses at salt pan land in clod storage for some time. Yet, the story is far from over.
Mumbai and its surrounding cities, known as Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), have 5300 acres of salt pan land. There has been a consistent push from the 'pro-builders' lobby to use this land for affordable houses.
The issue was first discussed during the 2004-09 tenure of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Even the Central government (United Progressive Alliance (UPA)) at the time was looking at this option. But, it couldn't progress due to opposition from citizens and environmentalists.
In 2016, when Devendra Fadnavis was the chief minister (CM), the proposal again came into discussion due to the Narendra Modi government's push for Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) to provide affordable houses for the urban population. To implement such a scheme in a city like Mumbai, the price of land was a vital issue. Therefore, the salt pan land again became a central point.
MMR Development Authority (MMRDA) surveyed the region to find suitable land for the affordable housing scheme. It was revealed that only 25 acres of land are viable for construction as the rest is wetland and can't be used for housing.
Meanwhile, the current state government had asked MMRDA to prepare a detailed planning report (DPR). DPR for Mumbai 2034 is also getting cleared. The use of salt pan land for housing projects is reportedly mentioned in the DPR.
But as files started moving to clear this proposal, state's Housing minister Jitendra Awhad announced on Twitter that no salt pan land would be used for construction.
"Salt pan land in Mumbai should not be given for construction purposes, for residential or commercial," Awhad tweeted.
He later told media that he had a word with CM Uddhav Thackeray regarding the use of salt pan land.
"Global warming is a serious issue. Mumbai's ecological protection is our responsibility. Use of salt pan land will put the city in danger of flood. So, the housing ministry will not clear any project on salt pan land. Be it commercial or affordable housing or anything," said Awhad.
Within hours of this announcement, Environment minister Aditya Thackeray took to Twitter to support the move.
"Being asked about allowing residential/ commercial construction on salt pan lands, I reiterate that there will be none of such residential or commercial construction allowed on salt pan lands. There is more than enough space apart from these lands to construct on," Aditya Thackeray tweeted.
Though the decision to put a full stop to the discussion about using salt pan land has come now, there is more to the story. There is buzz that the MVA government moved fast because it wanted to check the Modi government's position on Metro Car shed at Kanjurmarg.
The Union government has refused to give the plot to the state government for the metro car shed. Shifting the car shed to Kanjurmarg from the Aarey colony has been a politically sensitive issue between Shiv Sena and BJP. As the Modi government tried to create hurdles in CM Uddhav Thackeray's decision, the MVA government did a similar thing on salt pan land.
Environmentalists welcome the MVA position on salt pan land, irrespective of its politics.
Stalin Dayanand of Vanshakti, an environmentalist who vigorously fought the Aarey metro car shed issue, welcomed the MVA decision. "Salt pan lands are very sensitive for Mumbai's ecosystem. I welcome MVA's decision to not allow construction on it. I expect this to come as Government Resolution (GR) soon so that the salt pan land will get legal protection," he said.
Every year, the severity of floods in Mumbai is increasing. The city has seen devastating floods in 2005, 2017, 2019. Salt pan lands surrounding Mumbai protect this city.