A lake in the cross-hairs of development

Residents of four high-rise apartment complexes along the Vembanad lake in Maradu, Kerala, are protesting against a recent Supreme Court order to raze down their homes, reportedly built in flagrant violation of CRZ guidelines. K.S. Sudhi chronicles the controversy
Following a Supreme Court ultimatum in early September, life has taken an unexpected turn for I. Balachandran, 63, and Parvathy, 55, a sprightly couple who were leading a sedate life at a premium luxury river-view apartment in Maradu, Ernakulam. The duo turned protesters probably for the first time in their lives on September 6, the day the order came, to protect their dwelling at Alfa Serene, an apartment complex on the banks of the Vembanad lake, a wetland designated under the Ramsar Convention.
The apex court’s directive called for the demolition of the complex, and of three other high-rise residential structures, by September 20, for violating Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) guidelines. Following the ruling, the couple, along with 350 other families, have been plunged into deep gloom.
The order came as a rude shock not just to residents living in the four complexes — Alfa Serene, Holy Faith H2O, Jain Coral Cove and Golden Kayaloram — all built along the lake in the Maradu municipality, but also to the State government. The Supreme Court judges, annoyed with the non-implementation of earlier court orders, asked the Kerala government to complete the task by September 20 and file a report on September 23, when the court is to consider the case again. From the State secretary of the ruling CPI(M) to MPs and MLAs of various political shades, all have thrown their weight behind the apartment owners. However, former Chief Minister and veteran CPI(M) leader V.S. Achuthanandan, former State Congress president V.M. Sudheeran and CPI State secretary Kanam Rajendran have struck a different note, demanding the strict implementation of the order and action against the erring builders.
As discussions on the issue dominate the State’s social and political spaces, the residents of the apartments have defied the eviction notice served by the Maradu municipality and resolved not to move out. Some have even threatened to end their lives if their homes are demolished, making it a volatile issue for the authorities.
Noted filmmaker Blessy, a resident of Holy Faith H2O, who is originally from Thiruvalla, bought his apartment here as “most of the work related to the film industry was taking place in the city [Kochi].” However, unlike most apartment owners, who bought directly from the builders, Blessy bought his flat from a long-time acquaintance.
“Before buying it, I got all the documents vetted by a lawyer. Some of the banks had also issued loans for other apartments in the building. I checked the legal status of the buildings with Major Ravi, another filmmaker who was the president of the association of the residents. He too gave the green signal and I purchased it,” says Blessy. “The Maradu municipality had issued all the relevant certificates. I had also been paying the property tax. One tends to count on these certificates as proof of the genuineness and the legal validity of the structures,” explains the filmmaker.
“We had no inkling of the legal tangles until news about the court cases began trickling in,” says Shamsudheen Karunagapally, a lawyer coordinating the protests. “Would anyone knowingly pay for a building that is likely to invite invite legal trouble for its residents?” he asks. Interestingly, the list of owners of these structures includes some lawyers, who are also now actively involved in defending their homes from being destroyed. The residents are knocking all doors in their desperate efforts to save their homes and have appealed to the President, the Prime Minister, the Kerala Governor, and MPs and MLAs from the State, seeking their intervention.
Legal battle on since 2007
It all began in 2007 when the Maradu panchayat, which was later elevated to a municipality, issued a show-cause notice to five builders, citing violations of CRZ norms, Floor Area Ratio and other rules. The vigilance wing of the Local Self Government Department of the State government had detected anomalies in the issue of building permits and directed the local body to revoke the permits. When the case reached the Kerala High Court the same year, a Single Judge allowed a writ petition filed by the builders. Later, a Division Bench ruled that the builders could not be taken to task for not referring the building applications to Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) for a ‘No-Objection Certificate’ — a mandatory clearance. Though the Authority sought to review the decision, the High Court didn’t entertain it.
It was a Special Leave Petition filed by the KCZMA in the Supreme Court against the Kerala High Court’s order that turned out to be the game-changer in Kerala, whose 580-km long coastline is dotted with thousands of constructions including homes, hotels, commercial buildings and resorts.
Incidentally, the Supreme Court had, in 2013, highlighted the ecological importance of the Vembanad lake system in a verdict in which it upheld a decision of the Kerala High Court to demolish some illegal constructions made along the lake. Following the decision, a resort on the Vettila Thuruthu — an island in the lake — demolished parts of its structure identified as illegal. The case of Kapico resorts, another massive structure erected on the Nediyathuruthu island in the lake, is still pending.
The court had then observed that the lake was “undergoing severe environmental degradation due to increased human intervention.” However, an official of the Authority feels that the two cases aren’t comparable as DLF had applied for CRZ and environmental clearances from the State government. But, in the Maradu case, no one had ever applied for a clearance, he says.
He also dismisses the argument made by some builders that once the more accommodative provisions of the CRZ 2019 notification become applicable, new buildings could be constructed at the same site after demolishing the existing buildings. Such construction can only be along the building line of a structure which was authorised and constructed before February 19, 1991, the cut-off date specified in the 2011 notification, he points out.
While earlier, Maradu was a ‘panchayat’ and hence fell under CRZ-III, at present, it is a ‘municipality’ (developed area) and comes under CRZ-II, applicable for urban areas. As per the 2011 norms, construction is allowedThe Kerala government, after being pulled up by the apex court, has obtained a demolition impact assessment report from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, which has cautioned it about the possible environmental impact of bringing the buildings down, including contamination of the lake due to the debris. The local body, says T.H. Nadeera, the chairperson of Maradu municipality, will wait for instructions from the State government in the case. “We are waiting for the directions,” she says. It would be a crisis of an unprecedented nature, with constitutional, ecological and humanitarian implications, that the State government may have to tackle if it fails to satisfy the Supreme Court’s instructions as the latter takes up the case on Monday. For now, the critically vulnerable coastal area of Vembanad lake is in the cross-hairs of development and politics.
under CRZ-II areas towards the landward side of the authorised buildings or roads approved and completed before February 19, 1991.

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/a-lake-in-the-cross-hairs-of-development/article29473266.ece

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