A gentle breeze nudges the leaves of a solitary mangrove tree struggling to find foothold along the banks of the Kochi backwaters near northern Maradu in Kerala’s port city. It’s one of the last mangrove trees on this stretch where the Champakkara canal meets the Chilavannur lake – most others have been hacked down, or taken over by cemented bunds. Across the canal and in the background loom two high rises; one named Golden Kayaloram is more than ten years old. Despite the concrete jungle, there is something peaceful about the ripples that form on the dark blue waters of the canal and the lake, a view that Golden Kayaloram’s residents wake up to every day.
Yet there is nothing peaceful about the debate going on in the common room at Golden Kayaloram on May 14. Its residents are in a state of shock: theirs is one of the five buildings that are to be razed to the ground for violating Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms. In its judgement on May 8, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the Golden Kayaloram, Alfa Serene, Jains Coral Cove, Holiday Heritage and H2O Holy Faith apartments, all located on Maradu island in south Ernakulam, should be demolished in a month. However, while the judgement may be hailed as a strong statement against illegal constructions, will it translate into action? And would this suffice to curb the numerous CRZ violations that the burgeoning Kochi city and its outskirts are seeing?
What the verdict says
The judgement, by a bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha, is clear in its verdict: all five buildings violate the CRZ notification and the state’s Coastal Zone Management Plan, which delineate coastal areas across India into specific zones to regulate human activity in these fragile ecosystems. It adds that the buildings should not have been constructed in CRZ-III, a zone that includes relatively undisturbed areas where no construction is allowed unless specific prior permission is granted.
The apex court observed that none of the apartment complexes had obtained permission for construction from the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA), the state body that implements the CRZ notification along Kerala’s coastline. Then how did the buildings spring up? The owners and builders of the complexes claim that they obtained valid building permits from the Maradu panchayat more than ten years ago.
“The then-panchayat officials should have forwarded the builders’ applications for construction in these areas to the KCZMA for permission,” said the current Municipal Secretary of Maradu, Subhash P.K. “That was not done.”
A panorama of the Golden Kayaloram flats (on the left), and the Champakkara Canal that merges with the Chilavannur Lake in south Kochi. Photo by Aathira Perinchery.
In 2010, Maradu was upgraded to a municipality, and an entirely new governing body took over. As the administration changed, so did the CRZ category: as per the latest draft of the Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP), drawn according to the CRZ amendment of 2011, the apartment complexes stand on CRZ-II, an area that faces fewer restrictions. C.M. Varghese, an owner of an apartment in Golden Kayaloram and its flat association president, claims that this is the CRZ category that applies to their apartment.
“We are not violators,” he said.
However, a three-member committee (including the District Collector and Maradu Municipal Secretary) constituted by the Supreme Court last year found that until the CZMP draft is approved by the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, it is the CZMP drawn in 1996 (which categorises the zone as CRZ-III and not CRZ-II as per the 2011 draft) that applies to the area. But even once the approval is through, there could still be no respite for the flat owners, according to an official at the Department of Environment and Climate Change. The year in which they obtained their building permits – 2006 – dates to the time when Maradu was still a panchayat and the land was then a CRZ-III zone, said the official.
Decline of mangrove cover
The judgement also stressed on the environmental and ecological significance of implementing these CRZ notifications, citing the example of the devastating floods that the region saw in 2018 which “had taken place due to such unbridled construction activities”. The apartment complexes in question also stand on the shores of backwaters that “support exceptionally large biological diversity and constitute one of the largest wetlands in India”, noted the judgement.
Mangrove ferns, a group of ‘mangrove associates’ that occur alongside true mangroves, in the foreground. In the background stands Golden Kayaloram (the building in pale orange and cream), one of the five stuctures that have to be demolished as per the Supreme Court directive. Photo by Aathira Perinchery.
This wetland, the Vembanad – the largest in the state and the longest waterbody in the country – is also a Critical Vulnerable Coastal Area according to the CRZ amendment of 2011, and a Ramsar site as per the Ramsar Convention (an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands ratified by India too). Apart from traditional paddy fields and fish and shrimp fisheries, the shores of the backwaters are home to mangrove systems that support a diverse array of wildlife, including nearly 200 native and migratory bird species. And more are being discovered every day. A research group headed by Dr. Bijoy Nandan, of the Cochin University of Science and Technology’s School of Marine Sciences, discovered a new species of crab and shrimp from the mangrove forests in Kochi’s backwaters over the last two years.
“Mangrove cover has depleted around the Kochi backwaters,” admitted Nandan, whose teams have also studied mangrove structure and communities in the area. “Some of our latest research shows that urbanisation is one of major reasons for this decline, followed by reclamation of these areas for developmental activites such as construction and unsustainable tourism.”
Demolition not a first for India
While the judgement is important for it recognises the importance of wetland ecosystems, he is “not hopeful” about the judgement, said Harish Vasudevan, an environmental lawyer at the Kochi High Court.
“It does not talk about several important aspects including holding the officials, who granted permissions to the builders, accountable for their lapse,” said Vasudevan.
According to lawyer Prakash C. Vadakkan, currently an expert member of the KCZMA, the judgement also fails to mention the authority that should implement the demolition. Moreover, there are so many cases of CRZ violations across the state that a separate department dedicated to dealing with them is urgently required, he added.
While it should be appreciated that the Supreme Court has looked into this specific CRZ violation, state coastal zone management authorities should not have to wait for court verdicts to identify violations and take appropriate action, said Pooja Kumar, a researcher who studies CRZ violations at Chennai’s Coastal Research Centre.
“They are already mandated to do so within a specific time period,” she said.
Moreover, it could be potentially dangerous to limit the definition of a “violation” to one that does not have the concurrence of the state Coastal Zone Management Authority, she adds. There are many instances where the state CZMAs have granted paper clearances, knowing it violates the law of nature, said Kumar.
Ironically, in this specific case of the Maradu violations, even if the existing flats are demolished, anyone would be permitted to build in the same location because the area now falls under CRZ-II as per the 2011 CRZ rules, added Vasudevan.
If the demolitions do occur, it will not be a first for India, or Kochi. In 2014, the District Tourism Promotion Council’s Rainbow Restaurant on the banks of the Periyar was razed down after a ruling by the Supreme Court that it had violated CRZ rules.
In 2014, a bench at the Kochi High Court ordered that the DLF Riverside apartments on the banks of Kochi’s Chilavannur backwaters be taken down. However, this was later stayed by the High Court and Supreme Court and the builders paid a penalty of one crore. Similarly, the Bombay High Court’s decision to demolish the Adarsh Colony flats in Mumbai was later stayed by the Supreme Court in 2016.
In what sets another unfortunate precedent, the Kapico resort in Alappuzha which was ordered to be demolished in 2013 by the Supreme Court has not been razed down yet, pointed out Dr. K.P. Laladhas, an expert member of the KCZMA and former Member Secretary of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board. And with the latest 2019 amendment that dilutes the CRZ rules further, there is not much to look forward to, he adds.
“We will just have to wait and see what happens,” he said.
For the time being at least, the judgement seems to be reviving interest in numerous other CRZ violations on which action has been delayed or not taken. For instance, focus has turned to the Kochi High Court’s instructions in 2017 to identify possible CRZ violations from among nearly 1,900 cases in the Maradu municipality; the KCZMA has constituted three teams to assist the municipality in this, said a KCZMA official. The judgement seems have also made local bodies more vigilant.
“We are now scrutinising each application intently and if any violations are noticed, the municipality will take strict action,” said Subhash.
Meanwhile, the owners and builders affected by the Supreme Court’s orders plan to approach the apex court soon for a review petition.
“There is a state-run anganwadi (child care centre) between us and the Champakkara Canal,” said Varghese, of Golden Kayaloram. “How can this CRZ regulation apply only to us? We will definitely appeal for a review petition because we were not given a chance to be heard.”
The state-run anganwadi that lies between the Golden Kayaloram flats and the Champakkara Canal. Photo by Aathira Perinchery.
(This story was first published on Mongabay)