Come October 11, four Kochi apartment complexes will be brought down as the Supreme Court goes by the letter on stringent coastal rules. The Indian Express finds 1,500 people without home and at a loss for options.
“Amma, you can’t lie down today. You’ll have to sit around somewhere. We will figure out something for you by night,” the domestic help tells Shantamma. On the 90-year-old’s bed are suitcases and assorted rods, and plaster chipped off from the adjoining wall, where workers have just removed the air conditioner. The large balcony window, by which she had spent countless evenings looking at the ferries and boats carrying honeymooners from the Le Meridien suite down the waterfront, is now a skeletal aluminium frame, the glass dismantled.
Shantamma blinks back tears and, wheezing as she leans heavily on her quadripod walking stick, mumbles, “Enne kondu bharam matram (I am of no use, just a burden).”
It was in 2011 that Shantamma and her daughter Maya Premmohan moved into this three-bedroom apartment in Holy Faith H2O, an upmarket residential building by the Kundanoor backwaters in Kochi city, one of four apartment complexes that are now under the demolition hammer over alleged violation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules.
“Maya bought this flat after selling her share of her late husband’s ancestral property in Thiruvananthapuram. Her elder daughter in Kuwait pitched in with some money too. When we moved here, I thought Maya could finally relax. She was in her 30s when her husband died, leaving her with her two daughters and a lifetime of struggle,” says Shantamma, adding that Maya is out looking for a flat to rent. “She is not young either… 60, not the age to be running around like this.”
Supreme Court tries to set an example
many high-profile projects have fallen foul of CRZ rules in the past — the now-abandoned POSCO steel project in Odisha, the Navi Mumbai airport project, the Adarsh housing society in Mumbai. They were all dealt with in different manners. With the Kerala apartments, the Supreme Court is clearly trying to set an example of strict implementation of environmental laws. The hope is that henceforth violations of environmental laws would be detected and stopped before the start of the project itself.
On May 8, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha ordered the demolition of four apartment complexes, with 343 flats in all — of which 326 are occupied — in the Maradu municipality area of Kochi in Kerala’s Ernakulam district over alleged violation of CRZ guidelines. These buildings, like several others in the municipality and the larger Ernakulam district, are by the banks of a network of canals and backwaters that snake their way through the region before draining their waters into the Vembanad lake further south.
With days left for the court mandated deadline of October 11 for the buildings to be brought down, and with at least two review petitions struck down by the apex court, most of the families in H2O and the other three buildings — Golden Kayaloram, Alfa Serene and Jains Coral Cove — have decided that they have little option but to move out.
They hope to take along anything they can salvage before the “controlled explosion” that the district administration is preparing to carry out.
“It shouldn’t take more than half a day. We will evacuate people in about 11,000 homes in a 1-km radius of each of these apartments, and they can come back after the dust has settled down. It will all be done very scientifically,” says an official in the Ernakulam district administration. “See, we don’t want to use force,” he says of the residents, some of whom have decided to dig in for as long as they can. “We have told them they can take whatever they want, but must leave within the deadline. We don’t have a choice, our hands are tied by the court order.”
By now, Shantamma has slowly made her way to the living room, settled down on the sofa and caught her breath: “What was wrong with this house? Why do they want to bring it down? And where will we take all this?”
The workers look up at Shantamma, smile. The doors and glass panes of windows have been stacked in a corner, a worker lies down on one of the beds for a break, and the walls have been stripped of everything except the wallpaper and the nails that once held memories of better times.
Two floors below, in the ritzy lobby of H2O, residents discuss their moving-out plans, and submit their documents — ownership papers and bank accounts, among others — to municipal authorities who come calling every now and then. On September 30, with the Supreme Court striking down another writ petition filed by the flatowners from H2O that morning, there is little hope. The makeshift protest site, where some residents had turned up until the previous day, has been wound up. Outside the gates are banners and flags put up by political parties in solidarity.
Among the few still left with some fight is Shamsudeen Karunagapally, an H2O resident and chairman of the Maradu Home Protection Council. “The court order is like the blow of a hammer on our heads. They have dismissed all our petitions without even considering the worth of the paper on which they are printed,” he says.
While the administration has agreed to help the house owners find temporary accommodation, apart from the Rs 25 lakh that the apex court ordered as interim compensation, Karunagapally alleges the promises are “baseless”. “Yesterday, after a meeting, the district administration gave us a list of 50 high-class flats as temporary accommodation. But when we called on the numbers listed, the property owners denied that they were letting out their flats. In fact, some of them yelled, asking why we were calling them again and again. We won’t move out unless we get alternative accommodation.”
The administration, however, denies the list is faulty. “First of all, they should have gone through us, instead of calling on the numbers themselves. Some of them even started negotiating with the property owners, telling them to waive off the rent till they got the compensation from the government. Now, why would anyone let out his flat for free?”
As the hammers come down on the remaining air conditioners, wardrobes and other fittings, the beguilingly still Vembanad waters carry their echoes far beyond the four apartment buildings. The demolition and the Supreme Court ruling have raised questions over the interpretation and implementation of CRZ rules that mandate the minimum distance between a water body and any construction activity, and which have seen successive amendments and multiple court rulings.
In its May 8 ruling, the court had upheld the contention of the Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority, the agency responsible for implementing CRZ rules in the state, that the area on which the four buildings stood fell under CRZ-III, making them critically vulnerable and thus forbidding construction within 200 metres of the high-tide line. Experts say it’s a condition that would render several buildings in the city illegal.
Additional Chief Secretary (local self-government) T K Jose had earlier said that while an exercise to identify CRZ violations was still on, they suspect at least 800 such violations in Maradu alone.
In the lobby of Golden Kayaloram, a 40-flat building along the Champakara canal and the least adorned of the four slated for demolition, neighbours Shubha Rajmohan and Tara Anup John discuss how their building has been unfairly clubbed with the others since their facts and pleas are “distinct” — the basis for a curative petition pending in the Supreme Court. Behind them, an indoor plant holds up a child’s poster: “Save My Home”, it reads.
“What you see here is Champakara canal. It’s a man-made canal. There’s also a public road and a municipality building (an anganwadi) separating us from the canal. How can it fall under CRZ-III?” says Tara, adding that since the Supreme Court order, they have spent countless evenings here in the lobby discussing what can possibly save their homes.
“Our lives have come to a halt. Nobody wants to cook or do anything else. It all seems so pointless. Some of the younger children haven’t been going to school and some of our children, who have settled in other cities and countries, have had to rush home to help their parents move out,” says Shubha.
Around her, as residents make multiple rounds to their cars, filling trunks with cardboard cartons and photo frames, she adds, “It’s just so hopeless. Do you think there’s any chance that our homes won’t be pulled down?”
While that’s the most pressing question among residents, the impending demolition has also raised questions of whether there could have been another way out.
Harish Vasudevan, an advocate who specialises in environmental law, says questions of whether the constructions are legal or illegal and if illegal, should they be regularised or demolished, need to be addressed by the executive, not the judiciary. “If there was a CRZ violation, someone should issue a notice saying the construction is illegal. If the other party has an objection, they have a statutory remedy now in the NGT. If the authority thinks it is bad in law, they can decide whether to demolish or regularise. That process was totally absent here. The Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority never issued a notice to the builders or directed them to stop construction. When the Supreme Court took up the matter, the question before them was whether the notice issued by Maradu municipality is right or wrong. The SC’s power stops where the notice starts. More than the environmental damage, I am worried about this dilution of the system/procedure. When Parliament gives a statutory right for you to challenge a notification affecting you, how can those procedures be taken away by the Supreme Court without reasonable orders?”
P S: Maya has sent Shantamma to a “centre” nearby. “That way, I don’t have to drag her through all this. I have been spending the nights at a friend’s home, and go back to the flat every morning,” she says.
Came up in 1995-9
Total apartments- 40 (all occupied
Total area- 0.47 acr
Number of floors Ground- + 1
Distance from canal- 10 metres
Thomas Kariath, 35
It was in 2016, just as his wife Blessy was going into labour, that he got a call from the owner of the house in Golden Kayaloram where they had been staying on rent. “He asked if we wanted to buy the flat. We saw it as some kind of sign and quickly said yes. Eva was born soon after,” smiles Thomas ‘Tony’ Kariath about the run of serendipity, that barely lasted three years.
The house, the first the architect couple bought together, cost them over Rs 40 lakh, besides the registration fee. “When I bought the house, I was aware of the CRZ ambiguity in this area, but then I saw that there were these two High Court verdicts earlier that were favourable and I thought it was a safe investment to make,” says Kariath, who moved from Mumbai, where he grew up and his parents still live, to Kochi some years ago because “there was more scope for building projects here”, unlike Mumbai, where he mostly did interior designing.
As secretary of the housing society, these days Kariath spends much of his time collating residents’ documents to be submitted to the municipality and helping them with moving-out formalities. “My work has suffered — I had to let go of two projects. Blessy has been working on a book with the Preserve Alleppey Society and has anyway been busy of late with that. So we have been spending very little time with Eva. She hasn’t been going to her playschool since the Onam break,” he says.
For now, the couple plan to rent a flat near Kariath’s uncle’s home. “Eventually, we will have to move to a place closer to my daughter’s school in Edapally,” he says.
In the midst of this uncertainty, there is another hope — a plan — that keeps Kariath going. “Blessy and I want to build a home all by ourselves, even get Eva involved. Actually, if planned well, it’s not that tough. Here’s how it goes…
Came up in 2012
Total number of apartments-80
Total area- 1.71 acres
Number of floors- 2 towers with 13 floors each
Distance from canal-21 metres
Smita Joy, 43
Homemaker, Alfa Serene
When Smita, her dentist husband and their two daughters came home to Kochi after five years in Kuwait, she says she thought there would be no place like home. “Everywhere else you feel like a second-class citizen, you are never sure for how long you can stay. Once I moved to Kochi and to this house, I thought I would never move out,” says Smita, now preparing to move in with her parents-in-law and brother-in-law’s family at their ancestral home in Udayamperoor in Ernakulam district.
Smita lived in the family home for three years after they came back from Kuwait, while interior designers worked on their four-bedroom house in Alfa Serene. “Now I am going back. There is enough space for all of us there, but it hurts to lose a home. It’s cruel to take our home away from us,” she says. What she is left with are memories of the seven years she spent here — the kitchen where she spent long hours baking, the bake sales that were a hit with her daughters’ friends and neighbours, the shelves she designed for the curios she got back from Kuwait.
“My daughters’ friends are going to miss this house as much as we do. They would come here and spend all day taking pictures on the balcony. And upload them on social media of course,” laughs Smita.
Workers and packers move about, clearing out the bedrooms and the balcony, leaving behind only that splendid view of the backwaters. “These days, people simply walk in and out of the house. We have been reduced to a spectacle. The other day I was packing my clothes when I saw a few people inside. I asked them if they were workers… they said they were the media. I was shocked. I said this is a home, there is a bell to ring. You can’t just walk in,” she says.
Though the carpenters suggested that she remove the bedroom wardrobes, she preferred to leave them intact. “These are things we planned with a lot of love and effort. I don’t want to rip them off and damage them. If it all has to go down in the mud, so be it. But I am still hoping for a miracle. If they don’t pull my home down, I’ll come back for sure… even if no one else does,” she says.
P S: The family has still not moved out. “The kids refused to leave. They said they wouldn’t till the last possible day.”
Holy Faith H2O
Came up in 201
Total number of apartments- 90 (all sold
Total area- 1 acre, 6 cent
Number of floors- 1
Distance from canal-22 metres
Mathew Chandy, 64 & Shoba Chandy, 54
Retired banker, Holy Faith H2O
In his 40 years as a banker Mathew Chandy says he moved 22 homes. “I thought this would the last. It wasn’t to be,” says Chandy, who bought the second-floor waterfront house in Kochi for Rs 1.25 crore in April 2018.
“If I had paid some cash component, I could have bought a flat like this for under Rs 1 crore. But I didn’t want to do it, neither did the gentleman who was selling me the flat. So much for honesty,” he shrugs.
As he sits by the balcony window, he says, smiling, “I can spend hours here, Bible in hand, the cool breeze… This is paradise.”
With the demolition thrusting H2O and its occupants under the harsh glare of the spotlight, Chandy, who, post retirement, has been working as CEO for a palliative hospice in Bengaluru, says, “People call us crorepatis. Say we deserve this. Anybody who understands how compound interest works, wouldn’t say this. I have spent all my life savings — 30 per cent of my salary every month. If saving is not your habit, I can’t help it. When we were just married, we used to get a festival advance once a year. That, and the new clothes I would buy my two children once a year were our only indulgences.”
With days left for the deadline, the curtains have been taken off and clothes packed into suitcases. “A lot is still left to be done. It’s just the two of us. We will do what we can, take what we can. But how much?” says Chandy’s wife Shoba, adding that she will miss her morning walks on the Kundanoor-Thevara bridge in front of the apartment.
As he leaves with a worker to buy packing material, Chandy says, “I am not some 30-year-old who can start all over again. I have no clue what I am going to do next.”
P S : The Chandys have for now moved to Shoba’s sister’s house nearby. On October 21, Shoba is flying to the US for six months to be with her son and daughter-in-law who are expecting their first child. Chandy will go to Bengaluru and wait for Shoba to come before deciding what to do next.
Jains Coral Cove
Came up in last 10 yr
Total number of apartments-12
Total area-1.7 acre
Number of floors-16 (plus 2 parking floors
Distance from canal-13 metres
K V Sudhan, 63
Jains Coral Cove
When Sudhan moved into his third-floor house in Jains Coral Cove in 2013, he knew the view from the balcony would help his wife. And it did. “She had been under medication for depression for several years. Once she came here, her mood lifted instantly,” he says.
Now, as he and his wife prepare to leave, Sudhan says he is worried about his wife slipping back again.
“What will I do if that happens? Where will I go now? How will I find the money to start afresh? I have no answers to any of these questions,” says Sudhan, who, after his catering contract for Lakeshore Hospital in Kakkanad came to a close 2017, has been largely without any work.
He has in the past worked with the Taj Group as an executive chef and has also had stints in other countries — in Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, among other places.
While an angioplasty in 2010 had slowed him down, Sudhan says he never thought twice before buying the Kochi flat.
“After all, it’s just the two of us. Our children are settled abroad (daughter in the UK, son in Australia) and we have few needs. So even when I pooled in all my savings and the money from my share of the ancestral house to buy this flat, I didn’t think I was doing something risky. Who would have thought we would be so thoroughly duped?” he says.
Sudhan has more questions: “Why did the government sanction this building if there was a problem? And how can the court pass rulings like these? How could the administration disconnect electricity in the middle of the night like that? Are we terrorists? Of course we will raise our voice, ask questions, but in the end, we are leaving, aren’t we? Where was the need to treat us like this?”
P S: He has sent his wife to Chennai, where her sister lives, and has moved his furniture to a godown in Aluva, over 30 km from the Kochi flat.
“I am staying at a friend’s home. I still can’t believe it — I don’t have a home. Can you imagine?”