Illegal shops and militant trade unionism have turned the heritage zone tourist-unfriendly

The melting pot of cultures and bustling tourist spot, Fort Kochi is witnessing a battle for its soul as it confronts the future and the question: how to build a world-class destination.

The answer to the question cannot be postponed because more than two decades of sweat and crores of rupees have only helped Fort Kochi, declared Kerala’s first Heritage Zone in 1990, take a few tentative steps in what is evidently going to be a long journey. And, the hurdles on its way are clear and present.

The rising number of illegal shops has turned the heritage area into a ruthless commercial space in which tourists, especially foreigners, are often heckled and overcharged. Incidents like the one in March in which a shop-keeper allegedly tried to molest a woman tourist have brought it a bad name.

The lack of basic facilities and failure of the authorities to confine activities to designated areas has turned the town’s most attractive spaces into a free-for-all. Autorickshaws and taxi cars are all over the place. Efforts to restrict vending activities to certain spaces have repeatedly failed. There is a deep fear that the place is running to seed and “we are killing the goose that lays the golden egg”, said an observer of the situation in Fort Kochi for several decades now.

The most pressing of issues is the current stand-off between the revenue authorities and people who illegally operate shops along footpaths and on walkways in the heritage area. The stand-off is only the tip of the iceberg of a clash of interests of which the victim has always been the transformation of the area.

But it has turned out to be a battle for the soul of Fort Kochi. This clash of interests has, over the years, acquired undesirable overtones, says an observer of the situation. “Fort Kochi’s strength is also its weakness”, he says pointing out that the historic town is home to such great diversity of cultures, where they have lived in harmony.

He expressed his fears that the issue of cleaning up the town according to the stipulations that bind a Heritage Zone may polarise people along unexpected lines.

But illegal occupation of the heritage area by vendors is not a new problem but a long-standing one, says K.J. Sohan, Town Planning Standing Committee Chairman in the Council of the Corporation of Cochin.

He says that illegal vendors have been evicted periodically but they come back. He recalled that shop-owners who were evicted a few years ago were rehabilitated in a total of 72 shops, allotted at different times. But many of them have left their allotted shops and come out into the open to occupy spaces they were evicted from.

The Fort Kochi RDO had served eviction notice on illegal shops early this month against which the shopkeepers have come out.

Protesting shopkeepers marched to the office of the RDO under an initiative by the CITU.

Dominic Presentation, MLA, says there will be no compromise on the issue. The illegal occupants will be evicted, he said on Wednesday. The Fort Kochi Heritage Zone Conservation and Development Society, of which the RDO is the nodal officer, will meet on Friday to discuss the issue, he said.

But Aneesh Mattancherry, district treasurer of the Social Democratic Party of India, has a different view of the issue. The party has put up a huge plastic hoarding in the town listing what it described as “encroachment” by big businesses on Princess, Lilly, Berger and Rose Streets and on Parade and Town Roads.

How could the authorities close their eyes to these big offenders and evict only the poor shop-keepers, he asked claiming that justice was not being served in the latest efforts by revenue authorities to evict vendors, who had illegally occupied the Heritage Zone.

Mr. Aneesh said that the big businesses had 103 cases of encroachments in Fort Kochi and their buildings occupied road and storm water drainage spaces.

He even claimed that a link road had disappeared entirely because of the encroachments. There are around 250 families that eke out a living by selling refreshments, hand-crafted items and fish, among other things in the Fort Kochi area. The attempt to evict them is unjust, he said.

There were several deserving vendors, who have been bypassed in the allocation of the shops, he said.

E.M. Ashraf, who is a vendor in the area, said that there were people, who had left their legally allotted shops to occupy the Heritage Zone area. However, the authorities could have made a survey of such people and not served a blanket eviction notice, he said.

Mr. Sohan says that the so-called big encroachers have not infringed on public spaces but had violated building norms binding the Heritage Zone. Notices have been served on them and they will be taken to task he said and pointed out that the process of acting on the building rule violations was time-consuming because the title documents were pretty old. Violation of rules by a group of people was no justification for another group occupying public spaces, he said.

True to its fame for staunch trade unionism, tourism business in Kerala’s first Heritage Zone Fort Kochi has given rise to a couple of trade unions that represent tourist liaison workers and even peanut and ice-cream vendors.

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