The 350 owners of five apartment buildings in Maradu that are marked for demolition held a protest fast in front of the municipality. Image Credit: Supplied

Kochi: On Wednesday, when the rest of the state relished lavish meals for the Onam festival along with family and friends, 350 owners of five apartment buildings in Maradu that are marked for demolition held a protest fast in front of the municipality.

India’s Supreme Court has ordered five buildings in the Maradu municipality to be demolished for violating the Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) norms which prohibit construction of buildings within 200 meters of the coastal line.

What is the problem?

According to India’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification of 1991 and the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Plan 1996, the location of the buildings came under CRZ III. As per the CRZ notification 1991, no construction was permitted within 200 metres from the coastal line in CRZ III.

Authorities in Kerala seemed to be dragging their feet in implementing the apex court’s order to demolish the buildings, but the apex court hardened its stance last week. “Your state is known for not following the orders of this court. We know what you are doing. We want to set a precedent now,” observed Justice Arun Mishra, who heads the bench considering the case.

That nudged the state government and the local bodies to move towards demolition of the buildings that together have nearly 1,200 residents. Showing its intent to move forward to demolish the buildings, the Maradu municipality on Tuesday issued notices to the apartment owners to vacate their residences within five days, to enable demolition.

The municipality also released advertisements calling for companies with expertise to demolish the buildings. The buildings are likely to be brought down by controlled implosions, supervised by experts.

What do the apartment owners say?

When authorities came knocking to issue eviction notices to residents in the five buildings, the apartment owners confronted them with slogans and placards. For many residents, their apartments represent their lives’ earnings.

“What will we flat buyers do after everyone took bribes?” asked one resident when state chief secretary Tom Jose went to inspect one of the buildings. “The notices should really be issued to the builders, not us. We’ll jump from our flats if they go ahead with demolition,” said another.

“We have not violated rules; we bought flats that were approved by the local municipality. How can you throw us on the streets?” asked another.

One of the placards read: “A lifetime’s earnings lost in a matter of legality”, while another resident held up a poster stating, “We trusted the authorities, so don’t we deserve humanitarian consideration?”

Could the case have been argued better?

Jacob Xavier, a consultant with expertise in the real estate sector, said: “The home buyers should have pleaded that they were misled by the local authorities and the builders on the CRZ norms. Also, there should have been better coordination among the builders when they went to court.”

Is it too late? Xavier says the chances are “extremely bleak” that the apex court will consider this matter again, after it issued a series of ultimatums to the authorities to demolish the buildings.

What next for the apartment owners?

As the apex court hardened its stand on demolition, so has the local municipality moved towards implementing the court order.

The state government, builders and the local body have all empathised with the apartment owners, but the latter’s hope seems bleak.

Builders had placed their hopes on the fact that the location of the buildings is now in CRZ-II as per the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA), where construction is legal. The change to CRZ-II was enabled through an amendment in 2018 which allows the government to give post-facto clearance for activities that are otherwise permissible.

The apex court, however, was not persuaded by that argument and the court said the question was whether the constructions were legal when they were made, not whether they are legal now.

In other words, the apartment owners have to go back to another well-known legal dictum — let the buyer beware.

The case of Kochi’s ‘illegal’ apartments

Police personnel deployed outside the residence of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister and TDP President N Chandrababu Naidu after he was not given permission to hold Chalo Atmakuru programme, at Undavalli in Guntur district. Image Credit: PTI

The five luxury apartments in Maradu municipality in Kochi that are facing demolition as per India’s Supreme Court order — for violating Coastal Regulation Zone provisions — are Holiday Heritage, Holy Faith, Jain Housing, Kayaloram Apartment and Alpha Ventures.

The buildings are on the banks of the Vembanad Lake. Waterfront apartments have always attracted a premium, but in this case, the question of legality of construction is confronting the flat buyers.

In the future, this will make waterfront home buyers think twice before purchasing them. It is also an advantage for premium national builders like DLF who have riverside apartments that are not violating CRZ norms.

In 2006, permission was granted to construct the buildings at Maradu. At that time, Maradu was a panchayat (village council). Currently, Maradu is a municipality.

The gist of the case is that the construction was carried out when the Maradu area was classified in the Coastal Regulation Zone — III category where construction was illegal. A later amendment brought it under CRZ-II, but the apex court pointed out that the relevant point was that the construction was illegal when it was done.

The flat owners were elated when a single bench and then a division bench of the Kerala High Court gave a verdict in favour of the builders. But the Coastal Zone Management Authority challenged the verdict and approached the Supreme Court, which held that the constructions were illegal when they were done.

The Maradu municipality says it has neither the expertise nor the financial capacity to carry out razing of the five buildings. The state government has assured the local body all help to facilitate their demolition.

The Supreme Court wants the demolition to be done by September 20 and has asked Kerala’s chief secretary to be present before the bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra on September 23.