As many as 357 apartment owners in Kerala's Kochi are sending mercy pleas to the President of India and the Prime Minister to save their buildings from demolition. The last-ditch move comes after the Supreme Court rejected a review petition and ordered the Kerala government to raze down the flats before September 20 and submit an action taken report on 23rd.
The flats -- Jains Coral Cove, Golden Kayaloram, H2O Holy Faith and Alfa Serene - were built illegally, violating the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms, the apex court had ruled. But the flat owners argue that they have been denied natural justice as the real wrongdoers have not been punished yet.
The builders have gone scot-free, the local body officials who colluded with the builders aren't brought to the book and the state government hasn't been held responsible for the vicarious guilt on its side. Regular homebuyers, most of whom spent a life's savings to buy the flats, are going to pay the ultimate price.
What makes this issue complex, from legal, moral and environmental angles? There are some curious contradictions in the case, to begin with. First and foremost, as per existing regulations, new high-rise apartments can be built on the land if the current structures are demolished. Under norms established in the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification issued by the central government in February, there is no ban on construction on this patch of land.
There are many more contradictions in the case. Before coming to that, a recap of the latest events. On May 8, the Supreme Court said the flats must be razed within a month. A month later, the residents moved the Vacation Bench for a stay. Justice Arun Mishra called this an 'absolute fraud' on the part of the residents. On July 10, a review petition filed by the residents was rejected by the Bench. Finally, on September 6, the court laid down the strictest timeline for the demolition, throwing out the state government counsel's request for 30 days to implement the order.
"Not a day more. Ten days is enough... Your State is known for not following the orders of this court. Do not disobey our order. We know what is happening and what you people are doing. Tell your Chief Secretary to be present here," Justice Mishra said, according to the Hindu.
For the environmentalists fighting for the preservation of ecologically vulnerable coastal zones for years, this verdict is a watershed. But more than 1,000 residents believe that they have been unfairly victimised. They say the court did not hear them before the May 8 order and that it's a denial of natural justice.
A look at the long, vexing annals of the case reveals that the residents have been dealt an unfair deal. Violation of norms have happened but who are the real perpetrators? When flats are razed, it's only the residents who suffer. How about the builders? How about the state government? How about the local government officials who issued permits at various stages of construction? And how about the High Court verdict ten years ago, which allowed completion of the buildings and the issue of Occupancy Certificate?
Ten years after they occupied the flats the owners have realised that the case against the buildings was pursued by the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) and they have an irrefutable court order to deal with. The residents weren't respondents in the case. For most of them, the May 8 judgment was a bolt from the blue.
The residents say the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) misled the Supreme Court. As per the KCZMA report submitted to the apex court, the buildings fell within the CRZ-III limits, where no construction is allowed within 200 metres of the coastline. However, as per a 2011 CRZ notification the land falls in CRZ-II, where construction is allowed.
So that's a complex situation. The court's decision is full and final and it has to be respected inasmuch as it takes into account the fact that the construction was illegal as per existing norms. But the travesty is that the buildings aren't illegal under current law and new buildings can be constructed in the same place.
Jurisprudence experts hope the supreme court can invoke the Article 142, which provides that "the Supreme Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction may pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it."
Justice B Kemal Pasha, eminent jurist and retired High Court judge, is one of them. "These flat owners have not violated any rules, as they have paid every tax to the state government before they got the flats. Hence, the state government is morally liable to provide all the necessary help to these people," he said.
Former union minister Jairam Ramesh highlighted another contradiction on Wednesday. "Supreme Court has ordered demolition of apartments in Kochi that violate Coastal Regulation Zone rules. Yet, in a similar case of violation, it imposed penalty on DLF & regularised. It had stayed the demolition of Adarsh housing complex in Mumbai. Why such differential treatment?" he tweeted.
The Maradu municipality has gone ahead with the demolition process and has invited tenders for from entities specialised in carrying out controlled explosion to bring down structures. The residents hope the supreme court, which accepted their correction petition on Wednesday, will give them a final chance to explain their plight.