The salt pan dilemma of Mumbai

In the last week of April this year, news broke out that the city of Mumbai will lose its salt-pan lands to urban development (read: real estate development). A series of reactions was heard. Environmentalists, builders, financiers, common public – everyone had his/her own take – ranging from disgust to delight to indifference. Unfortunately, neither of these could be said to be completely right or wrong.

Mumbai does not have a way out, anymore. It is, arguably, the densest city in the world. Let us look at the basics.

The land area of Greater Mumbai is about 437 sq km. Of this, after accounting for slums and non-developable lands like salt-pans, mangroves, port-trust, forests & hills, coastal regulated zones, etc.; as well as its industrial zones, we are looking at a residential population density of approximately 60,000 – 70,000 people per sq km. Further deep-dive into statistics can lead to even higher density assessments. However, for the current purpose, we may stop at these densities and build our arguments.

The realty check

Hardly any global-city of such significance lives as much under the pump as Mumbai does. If we calculate per person space, we find that a human being living legally in the city has an average of less than 150 sq ft space for his living needs. Per household space is, therefore, just about 600-700 sq ft. Let us also remember that population addition is taking place at the rate of about 0.41% per annum*. Conversely, this can also be read as the rate of space reduction per person per annum. Simply put, this implies a 33% reduction of space in ten years. That is, just about 100 sq ft per person in ten years from now. This will go on, albeit at a slower rate. In a generation from now, given an unchanged habitable land area and progressing demographic densities, the offspring of the current generation will have just about 90 sq ft of living space per person.

A fight of this nature demands consuming reserves, lest a greater socio-economic tragedy strikes – much before any long-term disaster. While it is beyond debate or doubt that preservation of environment is paramount, a steadily sinking vessel has little luxury of worrying about its long-term journey. It must think of surviving the moment than worry about its final destination. The luxury of environment-friendliness has, unfortunately and undesirably, progressively withered.

Having said this, it must be noted that the speed of deterioration will only get accelerated if we did not care for the ecologically & environmentally sensitive parts of the city. The cusp that we are at, demands a careful balancing between consuming small ‘bites’ of land-reserves, while profusely enriching the remainder to prolong the life of the city.

Ultimately, the economic power of the city can be sustained only if there are other urban centers attracting populations. Migration into larger urban centers is almost as natural a phenomenon as the biological growth of a living being. There is little use erecting artificial barriers to stop migrations.

The game changer

Not just for Mumbai, but for the sake of 7-8 large Indian cities and their burgeoning populations, we must start creating alternative migration centers. This can happen only if secondary and tertiary industries begin to strike new roots. India did create a string of industrial set-ups during the early decades after independence. We created migration centers like Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar, Bhilai, etc., on the back of new industrial set-ups. Unfortunately, the impetus was lost within three decades, as the focus shifted towards tertiary industries. It is time to turn the clock and complete the half-cycle of industrial development. They will certainly help create new urban settlements, around which upcoming migrations can be absorbed. Services, or tertiary industry, is already working at a relatively good pace, and hence, the speed of increment in that sector will complement the speed of manufacturing.

Undoubtedly, the moment for relieving our cities like Mumbai of their densities has arrived. Or else, sacrificing precious eco-sensitive reserves in our high-octane cities will become our only refuge. The time to act is now. 

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