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Above: Alfa Ventures Apartments/Photo credit: India Legal

More than 350 familes may be without a roof over their heads as the Supreme Court orders demolition of five apartment complexes built ignoring environmental concerns

BY N V Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

For nearly 350 families that had invested their hard earned money to buy their dream houses on the picturesque Kochi waterfront, it was the equivalent of the proverbial bolt from the blue.  On May 8, the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of five apartment complexes for violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules. A  bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha ordered that the five complexes — Holy Faith Apartments, Kayaloram Apartments, Holiday Heritage, Alfa Ventures, and Jain Heritage —be razed to the ground holding that the state, devastated by the August 2018  floods, cannot withstand another flood on account of illegal constructions.

It and when that happens—the apex court has given a month’s time for the buildings to be razed—the flat owners will have to cope with the fact that there will be no compensation. They plan to move the apex court for a review, but whatever its outcome, the flatowners, mostly upper middle class people, are now pointing fingers at the builders for cheating them. The hapless buyers say by constructing the apartments in violation of the  Coastal Regulation Zone norms, builders connived with government agencies and officials to facilitate the illegal constructions. “Shocked. We had no idea these were illegal. The village and municipal offices, electricity board, fire force all gave us permits and we had no reason to believe these were illegal;l”, said Major Ravi, noted film maker and a flat owner. The apex court’s decision came on a Special Leave Petition filed by the Kerala State Coastal Zone Regulations Management Authority (KSCZMA).  On behalf of the builders, Paul Raj Joseph of Alpha Ventures said they would move review petitions before the court.

It was in 2010, that the builders were issued show-cause notices after an audit revealed irregularities in the land use. But they got a breather when the Kerala High Court stayed the notice. In due course, constructions were completed and flat owners moved in to their dream homes.

According to the KSCZMA,  the five apartment complexes are located in an area notified under the non -negotiable CRZ -3 regulations. Situated along the scenic  Vembanadu lake  which is linked to the Arabian sea, the area has been  coveted by builders as water front apartments have several takers.

Building booms have not only destroyed  the vulnerable eco systems but also invited natural calamities like the 2018 floods from which the state is yet to return to normalcy.  A  recentsurvey along a five kilometer stretch in Maradu Municipality in which these apartments are located revealed that there are over  67 encroachments but the competent authorities have been mere bystanders. It thus became easy for builders to bend the CRZ norms   and even getting caught was not much of a problem as it entailed,  at worst, an unauthorised building (UA) tag  that brought with it a fine. Thus the SC order to demolish is expected to act as a real deterrent to the plague  of illegal encroachment across state.

The genesis of the strong of illegalities lay in a permit that that the Maradu Municipality  issued in August 2006 to  the builders  to construct   commercial multi-storied  buildings  in an  area notified  as CRZ –III. Pointing out the violation of CRZ norms, Advocate  RomiChacko  on behalf  of Kerala State  Coastal Zone  Management Authority (KSCZMA)had argued that   state government should direct the  Maradu Municipality to  revoke all building permits.   As the municipality issued showcause notices to the  builders,one of them challenged it in the Kerala High Court where a single bench  quashed the notices  to the builders saying that the state government had no powers to issue  directions to local bodies. Later, a division bench of the High court also upheld the decision. The KSCZMA then moved the apex court against the  High court order. On 27 November, 2018 the SC ordered that an expert committee be appointed to probe whether the area where the apartments  had been constructed  fell within  CRZ-II  or CRZ-III . As per CRZ  rules, no construction is  permitted within 200 metres from  the coastal  line. As the apartments were situated within the prohibited  distance, the construction was illegal, the committee said adding that the permission to builders by the local body was given without  concurrence of KCZMA , the competent authority. Taking note of the report, the Supreme Court last week directed the authorities to raze the buildings within a month and submit a compliance report. Justices Mishra and Sinha agreed with the KSCZMA stand that the construction on river beds and coastal zones were “an invitation for natural disasters as seen in Uttarakhand and Tamilnadu and violations could not be condoned in view of natural calamities happening in different parts of the country”.

Tjhe SC order came a boost to environment groups in the state who organised a  two day rally across the coastal belt of Kerala from  Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday. “The SC verdict to pull down the five structures will be a blessing for environment protection. If we don’t comply with the SC verdict, then violators will become bolder. Such a scenario will cause to bring more disasters” noted environmentalist CR Neelakandan said.  He added that Green groups would move the SC if the Government did not comply with the SC order. Noted architect and Head of the Department of   Architecture, College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET) Prof. Manoj Kini said it was high time Kerala returned to environment friendly construction.

It is apparent that Kerala is yet to learn lessons from the devastating fllods of last year — a manmade disaster as several low lying areas which had the water holding capacity in the event of floods had been filled for real estate purposes causing water logging. “ Constructions as part of the real estate boom in the environmentally fragile areas has been posing a serious environmental issue in the state “he said.

Responding to India Legal’s query about builders getting permits for the construction even when the land was in the CRZ-III category, CREDAI  national vice president and a local builder Raghuchandran Nair said  Local Self Government Department and Coastal Zone Management Authority , two different arms of the government were at loggerheads and challenging each other’s stand. “ “It is absurd. It is the responsibility of the government to sort this issue out between the departments . After collecting all the taxes and documentation charges, government cannot wash its its hands off and choose to be a mute witness” he said. He said government need to step into save the situation or pay compensation to the allottees and bear all the expenses for the demolition.  According to him,  the allottees are the owners of the property and they could once again construct a house  with more FAR at the same land as the area now comes under CR Z –II category. He said government should apprise the Supreme Court about these facts  when the review petition is filed. The question is: Will the apex court listen?

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