Residents of four apartment buildings in Maradu demand fair hearing as SC's demolition deadline nears
The flats, Supreme Court ruled, had come up in violation of Coastal Regulation Zone norms.
Today, he is a home-owner facing eviction from his flat in an 18-storey high-rise overlooking the backwaters. Only this is real life and there is no director to yell “cut!” and end the nightmare for Shahir and a thousand others.
They are the aggrieved residents of four apartment complexes in Maradu near Kochi, some costing more than Rs 1 crore, which the Supreme Court has ordered must be demolished by September 20.
The flats, it ruled, had come up in violation of Coastal Regulation Zone norms.
On September 9, Shahir and many others were on the steps of their building, Holy Faith H2O, holding a placard and protesting the court order and a notice by the municipality that they must move out in five days.
“If I am there, the media focuses on me and people start saying: ‘Oh, he is a film star; he can easily buy another flat. It is very upsetting,” says the 35-year-old, who has cancelled his shoots as he struggles to come to terms with the eviction order.
“This is the first property I bought since I started earning, and that too on a bank loan. If I had any idea there was something wrong with it, would I’ve bought it?” Others too are at sea. On the second floor of the same high-rise, Maya Prem Mohan, a 60-year-old widow who is staying in a three-bedroom apartment with her 90-year-old mother, says she bought the flat after selling another property to spend her twilight years in a safe dwelling. The SC judgement, she says, was like a bolt from the blue. “How do we move out in five days? Where will we go?”
The plight of the residents is the result of a SC verdict on September 6, which took the Kerala government to task for failing carry out its May 8 order to demolish the four buildings — Holy Faith H2O, Alfa Serene, Jain’s Coral Cove and Golden Kayaloram by builders Holy Faith, Alfa Ventures, Jain Housing and KP Varkey & VS Builders.
These are hardly the only projects found to have violated CRZ norms in Kerala. But the judgement has sent shockwaves through the state as this is the first demolition order on this scale. Last year, DLF’s 180-unit luxury flat project along the backwaters in Kochi was also found to have broken CRZ norms. But in DLF’s case, SC upheld a Kerala High Court verdict ordering the building’s regularisation after imposing a fine of Rs 1 crore.
The SC judgement on the flats in Maradu has revived the debate between conservation and construction. Maradu was once a backwater island with mangroves and canals flowing into the Vembanad Lake. But due to its proximity to the city of Kochi, there has been large-scale urbanisation, including two five-star hotels, a super specialty hospital and several commercial establishments.
The present case dates back to 2007, when the vigilance arm of a local self-government department instructed the Maradu panchayat (now a municipality) to cancel 31 building permits over various infractions, including CRZ norm violations. The latest SC verdict came in a special leave petition filed by Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority (KSCZMA) three years ago, challenging a Kerala High Court verdict, against Maradu municipality for not taking its clearance while issuing permits and letting buildings come up too close to the backwaters in what it says is a CRZ III area.
However, the defendants’ contention all along has been that Maradu, being highly-urbanised and without a proper coastal zone map (as admitted by the state government in an older case) comes under CRZ II. “The panchayat submitted an affidavit in the high court acknowledging this is a CRZ II area. If there was any violation as KSCZMA alleges, why didn’t it say anything all these years when it was a party to the case instead of waiting till 2016?” says Mathew Kurian, a lawyer representing builder Alfa Ventures.
The flat-dwellers insist that till May 8, they had no idea that there were court cases over building permits. At a hunger strike on Onam — a powerful symbol considering the highlight of the festival is an elaborate feast — homeowners reiterate they are being victimised.
“We have not illegally occupied the land. We have never broken the law but overnight, we became criminals,” Saira Banu, a resident of Golden Kayaloram says in an impassioned speech at the sitin.
“We sold our old flat and bought this for our retirement. We are still repaying our loan. You know what government employees earn.” Banu used to be a senior official in the state fisheries department.
Ajai Peter, a resident of Alfa Serene, says he and his wife had given up their US Green Card to return to Kochi. “I had said: Let’s not live in another country as second-class citizens. But now I feel betrayed in my own country.”
The Maradu municipality says it sympathises with the residents, but has no choice other than to carry out the Supreme Court order.
Bobban Nedumparambil, the municipality’s vice-chairman, says the high court, while giving the builders interim relief in 2007, had given the panchayat officials the right to issue a “stop-memo” order to cease work. “But they did not.
What does that tell you about whether there was collusion?” CR Neelakantan, a well-known environmentalist in Kerala, says that in Maradu, CRZ norms were consistently breached. While he says he is never a votary of any eviction, he points out the current case reflects a common feeling in Kerala that if one is powerful, any violation can be justified. “The violators are the builders and the officers who colluded with them. They must pay. The flat owners must be compensated.”
As the deadline for demolition draws closer, all political parties in the state have come out in support of the home owners. On September 11, offering a dim ray of hope, the Supreme Court admitted a curative petition by the flat-owners of Golden Kayaloram.
The residents, meanwhile, are digging in their heels. “We have done nothing wrong. We will not move out,” says Saira Banu, echoing the sentiment of hundreds of other residents, like Shahir.