On Monday, Kerala’s Maradu municipality will report to the Supreme Court on its compliance with the court’s order, passed on May 8, to demolish four posh apartment complexes that have come up close to the backwaters of Kochi in violation of Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) rules.
But around 350 families who live in the apartments have refused to leave, giving up their homes and investments that are estimated to add up to Rs 350 crore.
Flats, builders, residents
The apartments are on the banks of canals that are part of the network of backwaters in Kochi’s highly developed Maradu suburb. The Jain Coral Cove complex was built by Jain Housing and Constructions; the twin towers of Holy Faith H2O by Holy Faith Builders; the Golden Kayaloram complex by K P Varkey and V S Builders; and Alfa Serene by Alfa Ventures. Together, these complexes have 343 dwelling units. Residents include filmmakers, businessmen, professionals, as well as elderly retirees. Members of this roughly 1,500-strong community have been living in the apartments for up to eight years.
2005-07: Early problems
In 2005-06, the then CPM-controlled Maradu panchayat (it became a municipality in 2010) issued five permits to build apartment complexes. No construction took place on one of these permits.
As per directives issued by the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) and the state Science and Technology Department in 2005, self-government bodies were required to obtain the Authority’s clearance for construction in coastal areas. However, then Maradu panchayat secretary M Asharaf failed to forward the applications for the permits to KCZMA for CRZ clearance.
The vigilance wing of the Town Planning Department subsequently stumbled upon anomalies in 31 building permits, including the ones issued to the real estate developers. The state’s Local Self Government Department asked for the revocation of the permits and, in May 2007, the Maradu panchayat issued notices to all the builders.
Case in the High Court
After all four builders moved the Kerala High Court against the Maradu panchayat notices, a Single Judge Bench issued an interim order staying all action by the panchayat, including existing ‘stop’ memos issued to the builders. The interim order gave the panchayat liberty to issue fresh ‘stop’ memos that would be legally tenable — however, neither the Maradu local body nor the KCZMA did anything.
The builders grabbed this opportunity to complete the construction, and then moved court to have the buildings numbered by the local body. Apartments started selling, their buyers confident that all issues would be sorted out ultimately.
In 2013, when the flats were already occupied, Maradu municipality appealed the 2007 Single Bench order, alleging anomalies in the building permits, including violations of CRZ norms. The KCZMA joined the case.
But the Division Bench gave them no relief, and instead blasted the municipality and its secretary. In its June 2, 2015 order, the court said that if the local authority had failed to comply with the KCZMA’s directives on the local authority’s obligations while processing applications for the permits, the permit-holders couldn’t be held responsible.
“We must record our anguish about the manner in which the Maradu municipality and its secretary had conducted themselves. They were merely issuing permits and allowing the builders to proceed with the constructions. After substantial progress was made, the municipality had become suddenly wiser on receipt of a letter from the government. Therefore, this is a situation which has been created by the municipality itself and the entire blame for this should be accepted by them,” the Division Bench said.
Appeal in Supreme Court
In 2016, the KCZMA moved a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the Maradu municipality. It said that the area is part of a tidally influenced water body, a critically vulnerable coastal area where construction is strictly restricted, and that the permissions were given in violation of statutory provisions.
The Supreme Court, after hearing KCZMA and Maradu municipality, said no finding had been recorded either by the Single Bench or the Division Bench on whether the area was in CRZ Category-III, II, or I. On November 27 last year, the court formed a three-member committee to ascertain whether the areas where the buildings stood were in CRZ-III or in other categories. The only question was whether the area falls in CRZ-III, the court said.
The committee, comprising a government Secretary, the Ernakulam district collector, and the Maradu municipality secretary, said in its report that the currently applicable Kerala Coastal Zone Management Plan was approved in 1996, in which Marad was a panchayat area, and hence in CRZ-III category. But since the panchayat was upgraded to a municipality in 2010, the area was shown in CRZ-II category in the draft CZMP prepared as per the CRZ Notification 2011, and submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Until the government approves the CZMP draft, the CZMP of 1996 would remain valid.
What builders say
According to the builders, as Maradu municipality falls under CRZ-II as per the CZMP approved earlier this year, the buildings are in compliance with CRZ norms as of today. They have said that Marad panchayat had passed resolutions thrice before 2010 against CRZ-III categorisation, and had asked the Authority for a correction.
The builders had banked on earlier verdicts related to CRZ violations, in which the courts had generally favoured them. In 2003, while considering a petition against Lakeshore Hospital on the banks of a canal in Maradu, the High Court had said it was “at a loss to understand how this rule (CRZ) could be pressed into service”. The government, too, had told the court that the CZMP had been incorrectly prepared, and that a fresh one would be issued.