Not just the Kochi builders! Panchayat permits were illegal, Kerala HC order helped

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Published: January 14, 2020 1:19:46 AM

In September 2006, the Maradu panchayat issued building permits to four companies to construct apartment complexes in an area designated as CRZ III.

A technical committee set up by the SC in 2018 found that the Maradu panchayat had violated the CRZ rules in giving the permission. (PTI Image)A technical committee set up by the SC in 2018 found that the Maradu panchayat had violated the CRZ rules in giving the permission. (PTI Image)

The demolition of the flats in Maradu municipality in Kerala’s Ernakulam district are, without doubt, a ringing endorsement of the sanctity of the country’s environmental laws. The Supreme Court ordered the demolition of all structures in the area built in violation of the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) regulations. In doing so, it also invoked expert studies showing how the devastating floods faced by Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu in recent years could be blamed on “uncontrolled construction activities on river shores and unscrupulous trespass into the natural path of backwaters”. But, the Maradu affair is also evidence of the complex maze that is the Indian administrative system, and the rather sordid way in which the government/courts remain insulated from the consequences of poor decisions while the masses and business pay the price.

In September 2006, the Maradu panchayat issued building permits to four companies to construct apartment complexes in an area designated as CRZ III. This itself was illegal, and twice over. First, CRZ III does not allow any construction within 200 metres of the coast; second, a panchayat is not allowed to give such permissions. After the panchayat permitted the construction, the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) asked it to issue a show cause notice to the builders since the construction violated CRZ III; in other words, at least one part of the official machinery was doing its job. The builders, however, obtained an interim order in July 2007 from the Kerala High Court and resumed construction; indeed, in 2012 and 2016, the HC ruled in favour of the builders, saying that they couldn’t be held responsible for the failure of the local government. The KCZMA had then approached the SC. A technical committee set up by the SC in 2018 found that the Maradu panchayat had violated the CRZ rules in giving the permission.

The new CZMP, the CZMP 2011, it is true, classified the area as CRZ II, where construction can be permitted beyond 50 metres from the coast; this, in fact, is the argument the builders used. But, the permission by the panchayat was given before this—in 2006—when it was a CRZ III zone. Also, even though the draft CZMP 2011 was made in that year, it was approved by the central government only in February 2019. Not surprisingly, then, in May last year, the SC ordered the demolition of the flats within a month, saying the permission granted by the panchayat was illegal and void. In September, the SC, taking up the matter suo motu, issued an ultimatum to the state government on the demolition. Since the flat-owners bought the flats at higher values than the Rs 25 lakh compensation the SC had said they must get—the state is to collect it from the builders—there can be little doubt that they have been short-changed by the panchayat and the legal process.

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