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The clouds have rolled in to Maharashtra from the Arabian Sea and the coast has experienced the first showers of the Monsoon season. The clouds, grey and laden with moisture bring with them the close of the salt making season across the western coast of India.
The steps of Suman and his co-workers are hurried, as they almost run from the pans to the salt mounds to ensure they collect as much dried salt as possible.
Even as one pair transfers the salt, the others are busy sifting the salt that is crystallizing after being in the sun for a period of four days.
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Salt making is more than just collecting salt from evaporated sea-water. It is fact an exacting practice that has been refined over thousands of years.
India’s history – both ancient and modern have specific instances of salt being pivotal to developments of historic events.
Suman, in fact comes from the same state in which the movement to liberate salt from the clutches of the British Raj began – Gujarat.
Britain’s Salt Act of 1882 prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt. Indians were forced to buy salt from the British, who, in addition to exercising a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of salt, also exerted a heavy salt tax.
The Salt March, which took place from March to April 1930 in India, was an act of civil disobedience led by Mohandas Gandhi to protest British rule in India. During the march, thousands of Indians followed Gandhi from his religious retreat near Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea coast, a distance of almost 500km. Most historians see Dandi as a key turning point in India’s struggle for freedom.
Suman and his coworkers hail from a village in Silvasa. Every year in October Suman journeys from his village to Mankhurd in Mumbai to make salt.
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For nine months a year, Suman toils hard over a three acre area.
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When Suman comes to Mankhurd in the beginning of October of each year, the area has been taken over by mangroves and weeds. The first month is spent clearing the area. Mangroves are cut and dried to be used as fuel by the men.
By November the rains are gone and it will be mostly dry weather until May next year. Then begins the process of creating small canals to direct the flow of sea water into the pans that have been divided into holding areas.
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The Making Of Salt
Salt-making from sea water is an exact process. Water only between the temperatures of 18 degrees Celsius to 35 degree Celsius produces salt that can be further processed for industrial or retail use.
Suman specifies that three natural elements are absolutely necessary for the making of salt, “The right temperature of sea water, sunlight and wind. If any one of these elements is missing, the salt won’t form.”
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During high-tide Suman opens the canals to let sea-water in from the Thane creek. Once they have the required amount his team works quickly to close off the supply to prevent flooding.
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The three-acre area is used on a rotational basis so that the blocks are at different stages of salt-making.
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Depending on the weather, for the next few days Suman uses his separator to break salt crystals forming on the surface of the pans.
Over a period of 5-7 days the cycle of salt-making goes through the following stages:
Brine to Crystalization to final evaporation. In an ideal situation, every 100gms of saturated brine solution contains almost 27gms of salt 73gms of water.
The crystalised salt is raked over for 10-15 days before being collected in a heap. Each mound contains anything between 8-12 tonnes of salt. This heap is transferred every 7 days to the processing plant.
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Suman has been doing this for 17 years now.
After almost two decades of making salt, Suman says he wants to quit and go back to farming full time. But, he is paying off a debt he had taken from his employer. But if BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation has its way Suman will have no choice but to go back to Silvasa.
In its new development plan for the city, the BMC plans to acquire 510 acres out of the 5500 odd acres under salt pan use in the city. The reclaimed land is to be used for slum rehabilitation projects.
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After much ado, Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation released its revised Development Plan 2034 on May 29. The earlier plan had been scrapped due to protests against proposed hawker zones, omission of landmark architectural sites like the Siddhivinayak temple and incorrect categorization of others (Mahalaxmi Temple categorized as commercial zone).
A revised development plan was demanded as environmentalists had raised an uproar on BMC’s intentions towards open spaces and reclamation of no-development zone land for development purposes. The new plan envisages reclamation of 2100 hectares of land from no-development zone and salt pan lands, of which 2,100 hectares will be used to create 10 lakh affordable homes in over two decades.
Reclamation of salt pans across Mumbai has been an ongoing feature of BMC’s development plans since 2004 – when the UPA government gave an in-principle approval.
Mumbai’s saltpans are spread across the eastern suburbs of Ghatkopar, Chembur, Wadala, Kanjurmarg, Bhandup, Mandale, Turbhe, Nahur and Mulund, and the western suburbs of Dahisar, Mira Road, Bhayander, Malvani and Vihar.
Mumbai and Thane alone manufactured about 1,50,459 kg of salt in 2014-15. The saltpans of both the districts have been leased out to private organisations to manufacture and produce salt on behalf of the Government of India.
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The Konkan coast around present-day Mumbai was ideal for the manufacture of salt; indeed, salt works have been in existence here for as long as people can remember. Since 1850, however, the saltpans began to be acquired for various public purposes, and little by little, they ceased to be used to produce salt.
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Although most of these lands are privately owned, since 1960 the Central Salt Department in Jaipur has taken the view that salt work lands belong to the central government, and that the salt manufacturers only have right of use to the land to produce salt under the terms of the licence.
As per the state government’s estimate of the total 2,177 hectares, only 360 hectares is available at the moment. Almost 460 hectares have been encroached and locked in various legal disputes. It believes 700 hectares of land would have to be dealt with differently as it comes under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). It would have to review the CRZ new guidelines and ascertain how to get it for development.
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Environmentalists have reacted sharply to the government’s decision to construct on salt pan land. “Under no circumstances should there be any construction on salt pan lands. Sea water flows into the salt marsh land during tides and disperses. If it is built upon, it will only cause destruction,” said Navroz Modi, Bombay Environmental Action Group.
D Stalin of NGO Vanashakti, said the government has been working to find ways to dilute the CRZ notification. “Without even demarcating the high tide line, a basic protective step, plans for destruction of inter-tidal wetland zones are being pushed ahead. Floods will worsen.”
Photography: Akshay Nair, Jayprakash Kewat, Rhunal Rane