SC had ordered demolition of four illegal skyscrapers by 20 September.
NEW DELHI: If last September it was the Sabarimala issue that the Left Front government in Kerala was grappling with, this September it is the daunting task of demolition of four residential skyscrapers in Kochi for violating environmental rules that the government is confronted with. And on both occasions, it is the Supreme Court, which has put the state government in a tight spot.
If in the case of Sabarimala, the Communist government went all out to implement the court order, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government is doing everything in its capacity to circumvent the court order on demolition of the buildings. While in the case of Sabarimala, the government claimed it was “duty-bound” to follow the Apex Court order allowing women of all ages entry into the Ayyappa shrine there despite mass protests against the ruling, in the case of demolition of the buildings, the same government now claims that it cannot be a mute witness to the destitution of 400-odd families occupying those buildings, violation or no violation. So the government is doing everything it didn’t bother to do in the case of Sabarimala: a committee has been formed to study the implications of implementing the order, an all-party meeting called to discuss the matter and finally it was decided to move the Supreme Court one last time to get a reprieve for the residents. All requests to do the same at the time of the Sabarimala ruling had fallen on deaf ears.
The court deadline for demolishing the buildings ends on 20 September. But the government has not bothered to lift a finger against the builders, who flouted all norms and are still active in the business elsewhere in the state, one doing even government construction. Why such concern? The answer is simple: the builders are close to the present rulers and many of the flats, it is said publicly and not denied by anyone yet, are owned by those close to the ruling CPM or are benami owners. This apparently includes one of the many advisers of the Chief Minister.
In 2005-06, the then CPM-controlled Maradu panchayat had issued five permits to build apartment complexes along the backwaters that come under the Central Regulatory Zone (CRZ) rules. As per rules, the panchayat should have forwarded the applications to the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) for scrutiny. The panchayat simply ignored the Authority’s circular regarding rules. Whether money changed hands is not known. However, the misdeed came to the notice of the Vigilance Department, which swung into action. But the builders went to the High Court and obtained an interim stay to vigilance proceedings and went on to construct the high-rises. The legal tussle that had begun in 2007 has now culminated in the demolition order. In between, the Maradu panchayat was upgraded to a municipality in 2010.
On 8 May this year, the Supreme Court had ruled that five apartments located along the backwaters in Maradu municipality in the suburbs of Kochi in central Kerala were built in violation of CRZ rules. While four of the apartment buildings, Holy Faith, Kayaloram, Alfa Ventures and Jain Housing, are occupied by residents, one plot is lying vacant. The apex court observed that none of the apartment complexes had obtained permission for construction from KCZMA. Then it was ordered that the apartments, occupied by around 400 families, should be demolished within one month from the date of the verdict. However, as litigation continued, the government dithered over taking any action. But on 6 September, the court gave an ultimatum to demolish the four buildings by 20 September. The bench headed by Justice Arun Kumar Mishra also directed the chief secretary of the state to present the demolition report directly to the court on Monday, 23 September. The chief secretary has now sought an exemption from personal appearance while promising to oversee implementation of the court order.
At the all-party meeting, it was the CPI, one of the ruling partners, who questioned the government’s inaction in regard to the SC order. Its state secretary, Kanam Rajendran, said if the government could go ahead with implementation of the Sabarimala verdict, what was stopping the government from doing the same in the case of these buildings. By taking a lenient view on such blatant violation of environmental rules, it would only encourage other builders to ignore norms in future, the CPI contended, to the shock and dismay of the chief minister. But those activists sympathetic to the CPM are now crying hoarse about the dangers to environment by pulling down the buildings.
It is interesting to note that these voices were never heard at the time the builders were merrily violating environment rules. Now the state government has sought the Centre’s help in stalling the demolition. But the Centre does not seem to be keen on taking up the issue. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s contention that “no government can take a stand of building homes for homeless on the one hand, and demolish homes on the other” sounds hollow.
Critics of the government point out that this concern was not there when successive governments, including the present one, drove out thousands of landless who occupied government lands in Chengara, Moolampilly or Muthanga. At the time no tears were shed for those hapless children. Instead of forcing the builders to provide alternative housing to those who occupy these buildings, the ruling and opposition parties are shedding crocodile tears, all in the name of serving the people. The people are watching.