Mumbaiche Meethache Vaphe

-Rashi Kondwilkar, Vrushali Shirke

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 Hard at work in the Vasai salt pans (Source: Jagdish Agarwal)

A salt pan or ‘Meetha che Vaphe’ is a large area of land covered with salt (Meetha in Marathi) and other minerals. Salt pans form in areas where large water bodies have dried up over thousands of years leaving behind salt as a remnant. Mumbai was always known for its salt pans. The city’s salt pans are spread from Wadala to Mahul, Kanjurmarg to Vikhroli in central Mumbai; Ghatkopar, Turbhe, Kanjurmarg, Bhandup, Nahur and Mulund; and from Goregaon to Bhayander in the western suburbs; Malvani, Dahisar, Mira-Bhayander and Virar in Palghar district. Some of these salt pans are connected to the Arabian Sea through Vasai creek. The interior of this creek is bordered by rich mangrove vegetation and the land around is used for cultivation. 

Salt pans played an important part in generating revenue during the rule of the Portuguese, British, and even earlier during the Maratha rule. In the British colonial times, these salt lands were initially owned only by the government; later these lands were purchased by Muslims, Parsis and some other communities and then rented out to manufacturers. During the initial years of British rule, Indians were disbarred from working in salt production, and the monopoly on the business of salt remained with the British. Eventually, the British colonial administrators started employing Indians to work for salt production, mostly from the Agri community in Vasai. The word ‘Agri ’ is derived from the word ‘Agar’ meaning ‘A land where salt is produced’ in Marathi.

Since then, several other communities in Vasai have started working in these salt pans. Workers who work in salt production find the work incredibly taxing. 10-12 workers are required to work on the farm each with different time allotments. The workers on the farm work early in the morning from 4 am to 7:30 am. After 8 no one is allowed to work on the pans due to the baking hot sun.  Tikubhai Pratap, a 52 year old owner of a salt manufacturing company, lives in Papdi, a village in Vasai. The salt pan land has been owned by his family for more than 150 to 200 years. “My great grandfather had purchased this salt pan from a private landowner in 1800. Since then we have been practicing the salt business for generations.” The business has been flourishing through these years and is successfully handled by Tikubhai Pratap.

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A salt farmer holding a Daatya (Source: Jagdish Agarwal)

He explains the method of salt farming, and the intricacies involved in it. “Salt farming starts with preparing salt fields soon after the monsoons. Sea water is collected by creating a channel directed towards the field. As spring tides flow into the channel with high pressure, water flows through the channel and is collected in a reservoir called ‘Meetha-ghar’. The salt water in ‘Meetha-ghar’ is kept for 2-4 days till the impurities in the water have settled. Clean salt water is then diverted into square pans called ‘Meetha che vaphe’ when the temperature of salt water reaches 24 degrees. Small channels in different directions are created for sea water to travel from the reservoir to the last pan of the land. After the water fills each pan or ‘Meetha che vaphe’, it is mixed with the help of ‘Dhopatna’ to take out the heat.  ‘Dhopatna’ is a long bamboo stick with a flat panel at the base. After the process of mixing, the salt is set for crystallisation. The salt becomes hard once it is crystallised, it is then scraped out with the help of ‘Daatya’ and is collected into a heap of salt. ‘Daatya’ is a long bamboo stick with curved rods at the base with pointed head like teeth. Now the salt is ready for export.” He adds, “At the end of the above process we are ready with the white salt, but when the sea salt water is directly transferred through the channels into ‘vaphe’ the salt that is produced is black salt. Black salts are generally used for medical purposes and sold by few local stores.” 

 

In addition to livelihoods, salt pans support thousands of species of migratory birds. The spread of salt-pans act as a natural buffer along coastlines and are part of an ecosystem that includes estuaries, wetlands and mangroves. Together, these form a natural barrier that prevents flooding of coasts. Rising urbanisation and land prices have made these salt pans a coveted property by developers. Rising sea levels, and increasing toxicity in the sea waters also threaten this fragile ecosystem. These salt pans have become one of the last eco-sensitive barriers between the sea and the land in Mumbai, and one of the last vestiges of enduring community history in Mumbai. As land, water and air combine to create salt, so do our histories, memories and existences combine to make Mumbai what it is. 

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A salt farmer holding a Daatya (Source: Jagdish Agarwal)

Bio:

Vrushali Shirke and Rashi Kondwilkar are third year students of IES College of Architecture