While the Kerala government has started an exercise to look into all buildings which do not comply with norms, will it take on powerful politicians and businessmen who are the violators?
By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
The Kerala government has started a state-wide exercise to enumerate apartments constructed in violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms in the wake of a Supreme Court order to demolish four such apartments in Maradu municipality in Kochi. Several hundred hotels and resorts have mushroomed near rivers, backwaters and inland waterways in the state in violation of the CRZ norms.
The Court had directed the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) to put on record how many such buildings existed and what action it proposed against such violators. Following this, the cabinet met on September 26 and asked Additional Chief Secretary (local self-government) TK Jose to conduct a survey.
In the preliminary survey itself, Jose came across 800 suspected cases of CRZ violations only in Maradu municipality. “An examination of 325 buildings has revealed that besides the four complexes which the Supreme Court has ordered to be demolished, there are eight buildings clearly violating CRZ norms. Now we have to examine 475 more constructions in Maradu municipality to ascertain if they violated CRZ norms,’’ Jose told mediapersons. Asked whether there was any data on CRZ violations, he said the government did not have any clear data. “We have to examine the entire coast and areas covered by the backwaters to arrive at a clear picture.’’
The KCZMA had revealed that there were 65 violations by resorts and apartments across Kerala by the end of 2017. This list was prepared in answer to a Rajya Sabha question. But this figure was based on complaints it had received or based on court cases related to alleged violations. It is yet to have a full-fledged examination to ascertain the actual figure. The environment ministry has not taken a decision on the proposal the state government sent it. It has also hampered identification of CRZ violations.
Officials attached to the Authority are conducting only a preliminary examination, sources in the KCZMA said. Meanwhile, sources told India Legal that hotels, resorts, apartments, malls and business centres dominate the list of flouted CRZ norms. Most of them are owned by influential business groups. In certain districts, medical colleges have been set up by religious groups and minority institutions reclaiming wetland spreading over hundreds of acres.
Judicial intervention has also been hampering demolition of illegal structures. When VS Achuthanandan was the chief minister, he had ordered that the illegal structures be razed. But his party, the CPI(M), with Pinarayi Vijayan as state secretary then, came out strongly against the move saying it would alienate the party. The High Court was also against the demolition drive when some influential advocates challenged the razing of their properties. This prompted ordinary people to assume that the judiciary was hand-in-glove with land sharks and builders.
Most often, the modus operandi of the builders is to lend credibility to their business by identifying powerful politicians, bureaucrats, celebrities, opinion-makers and even judicial officials and provide them plush flats free or at nominal prices to attract buyers. It is only now that it has been revealed that even Vijayan’s media adviser and MD of Kairali TV John Brittas has a flat in one of the Maradu towers facing demolition. Speaking to India Legal, Ambika Padmanabhan, one of the residents at Alpha Serene apartments, which is being demolished, said she had paid Rs 1.23 crore to buy her flat besides paying taxes and stamp duty. “When I purchased the house, there was no anomaly. The builder provided us all valid papers to convince us of the authenticity of the clearances. Now I have no faith in the state and central governments. This is the end. I don’t think I will ever vote again.” Another resident alleged: “All of a sudden, we are being treated like Nazis. The state government is doing nothing to mitigate our agony and the local people are coming and taking away everything. It is daylight looting that is taking place here.”
In the state capital alone, there are 15 such illegal constructions violating CRZ norms. Most are on Kovalam beach. There are also apartments which have encroached on government land. The UDF government under Oommen Chandy gave clearance to a building by Artech Group at Pattoor in the city. Though the then opposition CPI(M) was in the forefront against the construction, the protests subsided when it was found that two CPI(M) leaders had allegedly got free flats. A high-rise building in front of Kawdiar Palace, which was in violation of the heritage zone norm, also got regularised.
In Kollam, Hotel Raviz, a five-star hotel constructed close to Ashtamudi Lake, has also been cited by the media as a clear case of coastal zone violation. Then, there is Hotel Beach Orchid constructed within 200 m of the sea. But as there is a road separating the property from the beach, the hotel group avoided attracting provisions of the CRZ norms.
A hotel owned by NRI businessman Ravi Pillai got blessings from politicians of all hues during the construction. To top it, the then president, Pratibha Patil, was invited to inaugurate it. It is believed that she, her staff members and relatives stayed in the hotel for a day after the inauguration. This is the first time that a president during a visit to Kerala has stayed in a private hotel. Thus, in one stroke, the NRI businessman got legal sanctity for his violations. One of the biggest business tycoons from Kerala, Yusuf Ali, of the Lulu group is also facing charges of violations and encroachment on ecologically fragile areas in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. His Lulu Mall at Edappally in Kochi was constructed after blocking a main canal. The mall, in fact, has become a permanent impediment for the widening of the national highway, besides blocking the natural drainage of the city.
Another Lulu mall, considered Asia’s biggest and spread over 25 acres, is coming up in the capital alongside the NH bypass and is constructed on a marshy site. Few questions will be asked about these violations as Ali is close to many politicians, including Vijayan. During the tenure of Chandy also, he got the same treatment. He is also on the board of Cochin International Airport Limited and sits with the CM in his capacity as vice-chairman.
In the strategically important Marine Drive area of Kochi, there is not an inch of open space which can allow the free flow of sea breeze to the city. Ironically, the Kerala High Court is situated close by. When the Vypin Bridge was constructed in the city some 20 years back, the ecologically sensitive Bolgatty area and other places close to the islands were filled and over 100 acres were reclaimed and later sold off. Even a hotel of the Taj group and several others have come up on the waterfront. There are also over 20 such high rises on the waterfront, blatantly violating norms. However, it was the construction of Cochin airport, CIAL, which caused severe flooding in Aluva and Ankamali area during the monsoon as it was built on reclaimed paddy fields.
Though 1,800 structures have been identified as illegal in the preliminary survey conducted across the state, the number is likely to be reduced to two-digit figures, making the entire exercise a farce.