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A concrete jungle in the making

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NO ROOM FOR RULES: Prime locations are acquired for flats and commercial complexes.
NO ROOM FOR RULES: Prime locations are acquired for flats and commercial complexes.

N.J. Nair

STATETRENDS No attempt to ensure growth of infrastructure in tune with the urban outgrowth With a booming construction industry littering every available urban and rural space with buildings of all sizes and shapes, Kerala is fast becoming a concrete maze often in violation of laws, leaving little space for healthy sustenance of human life. Unless the State begins to plan its towns and cities, it will end up with a nightmarish urban experience in a none-too-distant future.

From up there in the sky, Kerala is almost a green carpet, with rivers and streams meandering their way into the sea. To those who cross the State's borders by train on their journey back home from their far-away workplaces, the sudden change in the terrain is as refreshing as the memories of childhood in gay abandon.

But as the plane lands or the train draws into the many stations dotting the State and the traveller gets into city, be it Kozhikode, Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram, the reverie ends and stark reality, constructed tastelessly in brick and mortar, hits the eye. Welcome to Kerala, where unauthorised construction is posing a threat to planned development of cities and towns.

Violation of rules

Across Kerala, commercial and residential complexes are gobbling up prime locations, at times in violation of the provisions of the Kerala Building Rules and zoning regulation norms. Besides causing a real estate boom that is reflected in prices that have shot through the roofs, the new construction patterns have also left scientific space management and infrastructure development a major casualty of so-called development.

Rampant reclamation of paddy fields and wetlands is threatening to trigger ecological problems. Supply of power, drinking water and drainage facilities do not seem to figure in the priorities of the builders. Quite often, imposing structures are raised at the cost of precious road space.

Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode have already started experiencing drinking water shortage and an impending power crisis cannot be wished away for too long.

Frenetic activity in the construction sector is normally taken to be an indicator of economic growth. But, if anything, the present trends indicate that life in the three cities and most preferred destinations of the builders is likely to become miserable within a decade.

Non-Resident Indians and wealthy businessmen being potential buyers, prime locations are being acquired in cities for flats and commercial complexes while suburbs are targeted to construct villas. Zoning regulations and other norms for development in structure plans does not bother builders much. Many buildings do not have the mandatory parking space, frontage or setback and the finished structures seldom comply with the approved layout. Plans are being altered and parking lots converted into shops in anticipation of securing special exemption from the Government.

When civic authorities turn a blind eye to such blatant violations of major builders, the latter escape punitive measures. But individuals who construct houses on a shoestring budget are hounded and heavily penalised for even minor plan alterations, whether or not having a bearing on the development plans of the locality.

Fake orders

This also gives room for corruption and nepotism. Complaints have been aplenty about the system of issuing special orders for buildings constructed in violation of rules. Officials of the Town and Country Planning Department stumbled upon a lobby specialising in the issuance of fake orders in the Secretariat to legitimise the raising of such structures.

The patently lackadaisical approach of the local self-Government institutions and an unholy builder-politician-bureaucrat nexus has provided the culprits with a safe way out.

Alterations to existing structures standing mainly on arterial roads are done during night as well as on holidays. The front of the old structures are retained as a façade and new buildings get constructed behind it. Once the works are completed, the structure would be demolished on a Saturday evening to forestall any legal action. Labourers are engaged to work overnight and the entire construction work gets completed before Monday morning.

Even after getting valuable tip-offs about violations, civic chiefs refuse to crack down on erring builders. There are many builders who have made an art of pocketing benefits galore in lieu of surrendering land for road development. Many take such benefits without surrendering even a square inch in space.

Loopholes

Loopholes in the rules have been cited as one of the main reasons for the spurt in unauthorised construction. From time to time, the Local Administration Department regularises buildings constructed in violation of the Kerala Municipal Building Rules and zoning regulation norms. Unauthorised structures are legalised after levying a nominal fine. This paves the way for corruption and even encourages others to defy the rules.

Decisions to regularise such buildings are made without consulting the planning authorities and often in violation of the provisions of the building rules that empower local body institutions to demolish such structures.

This provision also encourages builders and individuals to construct buildings throwing rules to the winds and then approach the department for getting them regularised. By regularising unauthorised constructions, the Government is itself seen helping the cause of those challenging the law.

The Left Democratic Front Government has expressed its resolve to take firm steps against such violations. Local Self-Government Minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty has directed the officials to crack down on violators and also issued a set of guidelines to prevent such activities.

The department feels that the Kerala Municipality Act and the Panchayati Raj Act are sufficiently armed to prevent such activities, but it remains to be seen how effectively these laws would be implemented.

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