Above: Alfa Serene is one of the four apartment complexes that will be demolished by the Kerala government
More than 2,000 residents in 334 apartments in four high-rises stare at a bleak future as the Supreme Court stays firm and orders demolition of structures built in violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules
By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
Ever since the Supreme Court in May this year ordered the demolition of four high-rise apartment complexes, near Kochi, in Kerala, for violating Coastal Regulation Zone rules, the state government has found itself caught between a rock and hard place. Known for his ability to weather political storms, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan suddenly found himself with two unenviable options—act on the apex court order and pull down over 334 apartments, leaving over 2,000 people homeless, or earn the wrath of the Supreme Court by soft pedalling on the matter.
After dillydallying for more than three months during which it was lambasted by the apex court on numerous occasions, the state government presented before a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and S Ravindra Bhat an “action plan” for the process of demolition. There was much speculation whether the Court would once again pull up the government for tardiness, but this was quickly put to rest by the Court which granted the state the 138 days it had sought to complete the process of demolition. According to the action plan, the process would begin on September 29 with the evacuation of the residents which would take four days. The actual demolition of flats would take place from October 11 to January 9. The next one month would be spend on clearing the debris.
The apex court also directed the payment of Rs 25 lakh as an interim compensation by the state government to each flat owner within four weeks. The amount would be recovered from the builders. The Court also ordered the setting up of a one-member committee of a retired High Court judge to oversee the demolition and assess total compensation besides directing freezing of assets of builders and promoters involved in the construction of illegal buildings in the coastal zone areas of Kochi.
The state government on September 28 set in motion the process of evicting the residents from the 334 flats in the four apartment complexes of Alfa Serene, Holy Faith H2O, Jain Coral Cove and Golden Kayaloram in Maradu. This, in turn, has triggered questions whether other builders and buildings which have been found to have violated the said norms will meet the same fate.
While political parties from the right to the left closed ranks in support of the residents, the state’s Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress questioned whether there were different laws for different builders. He was speaking about instances wherein various builders who were found to have flouted environmental norms were let off by the Supreme Court after asking them to pay a huge fine as penalty. “Illegal constructions by various builders in the past were regularised by asking them to pay a fine. Why can’t we do something like that here as well? Is there a separate law for different builders here?” he had asked.
Chennithala was specifically referring to the case in 2014 when the Kerala High Court had ordered the demolition of a waterfront property built by the Delhi-based construction giant, DLF. It was built along the
eco-sensitive Chilavannur backwaters in Ernakulam. However, a division bench of the Kerala High Court in 2016 stated that although the construction was illegal, the demolition of the buildings would cause more damage than letting them remain. Hence, DLF was asked to pay a fine of Rs 1 crore to the local administration.
Following the verdict, the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) had approached the apex court requesting for an order to demolish the building. However, the top court upheld the order of the High Court and allowed DLF to regularise the construction and pay the fine.
Earlier, the apex court had been unrelenting in its attack on authorities in Kerala for wanton disregard to its directives. When the chief secretary of Kerala appeared before the Court in person on September 23, three days after its order on demolition deadline had passed, the bench said that it was shocked over the state government’s attitude.
“You are in patent breach of law. Your attitude is of defiance. Do you have any idea about how many people have died due to floods and devastation caused to the environment. You are playing with nature. Thousands of people have died in devastation. How many houses have you built for victims? Yet illegal structures continue to come up in coastal areas,” the bench said. Even eminent lawyer Harish Salve’s appearance on behalf of the state could not shield the chief secretary from the wrath of the bench.
The Court’s anger had much to do with the voluminous evidence placed before it that pointed to connivance at every level between unscrupulous builders and municipal and environmental officers to get several projects going even if it meant violation of a clutch of laws. When the projects were granted permission, Maradu was a gram panchayat. Later, it was upgraded to a municipality. The Maradu panchayat, based on a complaint by KCZMA, issued a show cause notice to builders revoking the building permit. Simultaneously and surreptitiously, the panchayat officers were also doing everything to facilitate the builders to challenge its own decision in the court which stayed the notice.
It may be noted that the changed CRZ norms allowed the construction of high-rise buildings with more floors on the same area. As long as Maradu remained a gram panchayat, it could not grant permission for 20-storied buildings within 200 metres of the water front. But when the panchayat was upgraded to a municipality, the site where the four apartments came up fell under the CRZ-II category instead of the previous CRZ-III category, thus facilitating the construction. Under CRZ-II zone, construction can be done up to 50 metres of the water front, points out Raghuchandran Nair, a prominent Kerala builder and vice-president of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India.
The controversy over the Maradu demolitions has opened up a can of worms and reports are now emerging that as many as 1,800 buildings across the state that have been built in violation of the CRZ norms may have to be pulled down. The director of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) has submitted a report stating that 66 high-rise buildings in the state, including hotels, resorts, hospitals and even houses of high-net-worth individuals are violating CRZ rules. The 66 buildings named by MoEF in connection with a question raised in Parliament on violations across the state also include the four apartment complexes in Maradu that are due for demolition in the next few days.
The tough stance of the apex court should now send a strong message to the politician-builder-official nexus in Kerala.