Crisis along the coast

An aerial view of the Kapico Resorts built on an island in Vembanad Lake. The Supreme Court has ordered the demolition of the 54 seven-star villas of the resort. (Below): Raju, a fisherman in Kochi, stands on the banks of a canal that flows next to his hut in Nayarambalam in Kochi. He could not build a pucca house on the holding as the authorities denied him a building permit citing the Coastal Regulation Zone rules.Thulasi Kakkat  

Squatting on the floor of his one-room hut in Nayarambalam, a coastal village in Kochi, Arayakulam Raju rummages through the documents that he has fished out of a steel cabinet. An old pedestal fan, the only luxury he owns, whirrs laboriously as he searches for something. The roof of his rickety house is covered with asbestos sheets. The walls are lined with wooden planks. Household utensils are strewn all over a small extension of the room, which doubles up as the kitchen.

A decade ago, the fisherman had bought a three-cent holding on the banks of the Punchayil Canal, which is today a near-stagnant waste ground with overgrown weeds and garbage. Raju pulls out a copy of a building plan. “Though submitted for approval two years ago, it was not considered. The officials say I have to construct the building at least 10 metres away from the canal considering the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notifications, and submit a fresh plan accordingly. After setting off the mandatory space, only a narrow strip of land will be left,” he says. Though Raju’s application for financial aid under Mission LIFE, a housing scheme of the State government, was cleared, construction could not begin for want of an approved building plan.

A list of violators

As Raju’s wait for a home continues, Kerala is grappling with over 26,000 reported instances of CRZ violations in the State. Billionaire industrialists, hoteliers and riverside resort owners are on the list of violators. The magnitude of the violations and possible legal actions are likely to snowball into a socio-economic and legal crisis in the coastal State, which is yet to recover from the shock of the recent demolition of four skyscrapers constructed at Maradu in Kochi in violation of the CRZ rules, following an order from the Supreme Court. Four illegal apartments, which came up on the banks of the Vembanad Lake, a Ramsar site, were pulled down in two days after evicting its residents.

But things did not end there. On January 10, on the eve of the demolition of two apartment complexes, the Supreme Court struck another blow for CRZ rules by ordering the demolition of Kapico Resorts, 54 seven-star villas built on an island in Vembanad Lake. The nearly Rs. 600 crore resorts came up by illegally reclaiming Nediyathuruthu, an island in the lake, which has been classified as a Critically Vulnerable Coastal Area.

The ecological significance of the Vembanad Lake system has been reiterated by the CRZ notifications time and again. The 2019 notification too listed Vembanad as a Critically Vulnerable Coastal Area and clubbed it along with the Sundarbans of West Bengal and the Gulf of Khambhat and the Gulf of Kutch of Gujarat. Section 3.1 of the CRZ rules states that critically vulnerable coastal areas should be managed with the involvement of coastal communities, including fisherfolk who depend on coastal resources for their sustainable livelihood.

The present list of violations was drawn up after an affidavit was submitted by the Kerala Chief Secretary in the Supreme Court during the Maradu case hearing. The court was assured that all such violations would be identified, and the officials and builders who facilitated them taken to task. Incidentally, this is the first time there is judicial scrutiny by the apex court of CRZ violations in the State.

Going by the rulebook, Kaduvankasseri Ajeesh, a traditional fisherman, who has set up a 900 sq ft home on a small holding near Puthen Kadappuram in Vypeen, a coastal village in Kochi, is also a violator. The local body has refused to assign a door number to the house which he constructed using financial aid from Matsyafed, a fishermen’s cooperative. The reason? He had not obtained prior CRZ clearance for constructing the house on the holding, which is surrounded on three sides by Pokkali fields, an ecologically important area where paddy farming and fish culture are carried out in turns. A canal flows hardly 20 metres away from his house. There is no direct road access to the holding. A narrow and slushy path that meanders through a thicket of overgrown weeds and mangrove vegetation for about 500 metres leads to the place. “My house was denied the door number as I had constructed it before obtaining CRZ clearance,” says Ajeesh. “We don’t have any other place to go to. Half the holding has been assigned to my brother Aneesh, who is also finding it difficult to construct a house. The hitches caused in the name of CRZ clearance are preventing him from fulfilling his dream of having a house,” says Ajeesh.

Categories under CRZ

Since the notification issued on February 19, 1991, the development paradigm of coastal areas has been defined by CRZ norms. The CRZ rules were notified by invoking Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The notifications were issued “to conserve and protect the unique environment of coastal stretches and marine areas, [the] livelihood security of fisher communities and other local communities, and to promote sustainable development” by taking into account the dangers of natural hazards and sea-level rise due to global warming. The notification “declared the coastal stretches of the country and the water area up to its territorial water limit, excluding the islands of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep and the marine areas surrounding these islands, as Coastal Regulation Zone.”

The CRZ-1 areas are the most environmentally critical. They are further classified as CRZ-1(A) and CRZ-I(B). CRZ-1(A) covers mangroves, corals and coral reefs, sand dunes, biologically active mudflats, inter-tidal zones, and nesting grounds of turtles and birds. It also includes national parks, marine parks, sanctuaries, reserve forests, wildlife habitats and other protected areas, biosphere reserves, salt marshes, sea grass beds and areas or structures of archaeological importance and heritage sites.

The CRZ-1(B) category includes the intertidal zone, the area between the Low Tide Line and the High Tide Line. The High Tide Line is defined as the line on the land up to which the highest water line reaches during the spring tide. The line is demarcated by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management.

The notification also prescribes restrictions and regulations for construction and development activities in each zone. There are permissible and non-permissible activities in each zone. Prior clearance from the State Coastal Zone Management Authority is to be obtained before initiating any development activity. The third notification, the latest, was issued on January 18, 2019.

A no objection certificate from the State Coastal Zone Management Authority is a prerequisite for a coastal local body for approving a building plan in the CRZ area, explains a senior functionary of the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA). Maradu demolitions and the Supreme Court order in the Kapico case, he says, are defining moments in the State’s environmental history, where the long arm of law caught up with the violators, though a decade later.

The dust may have settled on the Maradu demolitions, but processing the nearly 26,000 cases of suspected CRZ violations will be a backbreaking exercise for the Environment Department. Special teams may have to be formed for scrutinising the list, which was compiled by the district committees formed in the 10 coastal districts.

With local body elections due in the State in another eight months and Assembly elections next year, both the ruling front and the opposition are likely to tread a careful path on this sensitive issue. With the list of violations to be submitted before the Supreme Court, the State will have a lot of explaining to do. Tough questions are likely to come up in the courtrooms in the coming days.

Lack of experts?

At the same time, there is criticism over the manner in which the list of violations was drawn up. Though committees were constituted to identify the violations, they didn’t have any experts familiar with the CRZ rules, says K.V. Thomas, former head of the Coastal Process Group of the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Thousands of cases of illegal reclamation of coastal wetlands might have escaped the attention of the committee members as the focus was on the buildings that came up in the CRZ areas. The absence of experts would have helped major violators escape scrutiny, he says.

As the CRZ notifications have classified the coastal areas into different zones based on their ecological significance, the violations should also be classified based on the zones where they have been identified. There should not be any compromise on the violations reported in Zone 1, says Thomas.

The violations which are listed as prohibited activities in the CRZ notifications should be treated separately, he says. The list should be critically evaluated by expert teams comprising representatives of the Coastal Zone Management Authority, the Chief Town Planner, and various stakeholders. Also, the draft list should be put up for a social audit, Thomas suggests. Charles George, the State president of Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi, who has been in the forefront of many a battle against the CRZ violations, says the list was drawn up mostly by revenue officials. The team was handicapped by the absence of CRZ experts, he says.

Ecosystem people

Trade unions of fishermen and ecologists are now demanding that the traditional coastal dwellers and fishermen be treated as ecosystem people and be allowed to construct houses and other social and livelihood facilities on the shores and waterfront areas. Earlier, a committee constituted by the KCZMA had recommended that fishermen and coastal communities be permitted to construct homes on the banks of filtration ponds as their lives and livelihood options are inextricably linked to the ecosystem. Such an approach should be adopted in case of CRZ rules for fishermen too, suggests Thomas.

While scrutinising the violations, says Charles George, a distinction should be made between violations by powerful business groups and resorts and those by traditional fishermen. Relaxations should be provided exclusively to ecosystem people. The laws governing the coastal ecosystems need to consider the population density of the coastal areas and the livelihood options of the traditional communities, he says. A people’s commission on CRZ violations has started collecting complaints from the general public. It will collect complaints from all the coastal districts, compile them and submit them to the authorities, he says.

Considering the gravity of the situation and the sociopolitical and economic turmoil the actions against the CRZ violations can trigger, officials are taking a guarded approach. They are waiting for the State government to take a call. “We will have to discuss the issue with the State government before proceeding with the list of violators. This is an issue which will have far-reaching consequences,” says a senior functionary of the government.

Geographically, Kerala is sandwiched between the hill ranges of the Western Ghats and the sea, says the official. There are many environment laws that cover both the mountain chain and the coastline, placing curbs on the areas available for development. Regarding CRZ violations, the law makes no distinction between small-scale violations and larger ones by commercial groups. The question before the government is regarding the approach to these violations, says the official. The CPI(M), the leading partner in the LDF government in the State, is yet to take a call on the sensitive issue. The party has not discussed the issue, says P. Rajeev, the CPI(M) State Secretariat member and a former Member of Parliament.

Concerns of further harm

Meanwhile, the demolition drive has not gone down well with a section of ecologists who fear that razing the structures would further harm the ecology of the region. Coastal ecosystem experts feel that the focus should be on reinstating the ecological rights of the ‘ecosystem people’ and on eco-restoration of the affected areas. While the violations in Zone 1 should be sternly dealt with, the government should take over the buildings that have come up in other zones and adopt a liberal approach to the cases of ecosystem people, suggests Thomas.

V.S. Vijayan, former chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, says demolitions will be a colossal blunder as they will take a toll on the ecology. The people who will be forced out of the illegal buildings may again construct houses and villas, leading to increased demand for granite and other construction materials. This will lead to further destruction of the Western Ghats, which is already facing serious environmental challenges. Before pushing for demolition, the authorities should take stock of the ecological footprint of such acts, he says.

The houses that have been built in violation of the rules should be given to the ecosystem people and the homeless. The officials who aided such constructions should be awarded exemplary punishment and those who built the homes and structures should be allowed to construct only eco-friendly homes without taxing the environment, Vijayan suggests. At the same time, those at the Authority question the logic behind these arguments as no law empowers the State to take over such buildings. The State can act only in accordance with the provisions of the law, says the official.

P.B. Sahasranaman, a lawyer specialising in environmental law, says the Central government is bound to check how the violations have taken place and decide on remedial measures. Only the Central government can decide whether to demolish the structures or adopt remedial actions as prescribed in the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, he says. A hurried preparation of the Coastal Zone Management Plan, the vision document spelling out the development paradigm in coastal stretches, will lead to improper implementation of the CRZ notifications, and will be blamed for the present fiasco, he says.

Baby John, a former member of the KCZMA, feels that violations by industry majors, hoteliers and resorts and those by the fishermen should not be treated alike. While dealing with the violations committed by fishermen, a humanitarian approach should be adopted. They should be provided adequate compensation and rehabilitation, he says. Though the Authority had earlier identified 65 cases of major CRZ violations by resorts, business houses and others, no action was initiated on these cases. The crackdown should focus on the major violations that were identified earlier, he says. Most of the nearly 12 lakh fishermen of Kerala, including the marine and inland fishermen, reside near the waterbodies and they cannot be thrown out of their dwellings citing the CRZ violations, he argues. Even after the KCZMA decided to act against several instances of CRZ violations, no action was initiated at the ground. The violations continue due to the unholy nexus between politicians and civic officials. This nexus should be broken and the erring officials and politicians taken to task, he says.

The scrutiny on the CRZ violations could trigger widespread protests and resistance in the state. How the coastal State will tide over the impending crisis remains to be seen.

Violations by industry and those by the fishermen should not be treated alike. While dealing with violations by fishermen, we need to adopt a humanitarian approach. They should be provided adequate compensation.

Baby John

Former member of the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority

Though committees were constituted to identify the violations, they didn’t have any experts familiar with the CRZ rules. The absence of experts would have helped major violators escape scrutiny.

K.V. Thomas

Former head of the Coastal Process Group of the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram