The demolition of five illegal high-rise apartment buildings in Kochi has snowballed into a major controversy, with some of the state’s prominent politicians who openly supported the illegal buildings now coming under fire from social media and even their own colleagues.
The initial response of the political community in the state was one of support to the 350 or so people who invested in the five apartment complexes ordered to be demolished by the Supreme Court.
First to rush to the defence of the flat-owners were CPIM party chief Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Congress veteran Ramesh Chennithala, who is also the leader of opposition.
Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who was in the news recently for his uncompromising stand on implementing the Supreme Court order on Sabarimala, termed as “brutal” the court’s latest decision to demolish the illegal structures, while Congress’ Chennithala urged the government to legalize the structures to save the ‘victims’.
The case relates to permits obtained by Mukundan Menon, his wife and two daughters in 2006 to build multi-storied buildings near the waterfront in Maradu Panchayat.
The flats were constructed by Alpha Ventures Pvt Ltd, Holy Faith Builders and Developers, Jain Housing and Construction and KV Jose.
Even as the construction was in the initial stages, Maradu Panchayat cancelled the building permits in July 2007 after an inspection by a vigilance official attached to its town planning division found deviations and violations.
However, the very next month, a single judge bench of the Kerala High Court stayed the cancellation notice and allowed the construction to go on. When the building permit ran out in 2010, Justice K Surendra Mohan of the Kerala High Court again ordered the local administration to stop rejecting the applications for renewing the building permits.
The case finally reached the Supreme Court, which recently held that the buildings were constructed illegally and directed the local administration to demolish them.
The estimated 400 or so apartment units, each costing Rs 40-60 lakhs each, are considered to be towards the upper end of the price spectrum.
Many of them have been snapped up by NRI investors, who viewed them as a long-term investment in Kochi’s real estate market. Others have been purchased by relatively well off, middle class buyers.
The flat owners, who were supposed to vacate the buildings over the weekend prior to demolition, have steadfastly refused to abide by the directions of the Maradu Municipality as well as the courts.
Last week, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Ramesh Chennithala both rushed to flat complexes to lend their support to the residents.
While the initial reaction from the public was one of ambivalence, strong media coverage and social media posts have turned the tide against the developers in recent days.
Social media posts, such as one mocking residents for holding up a placard saying “Coastal Lives Matter”, have questioned the generous approach demonstrated by Kodiyeri and Chennithala in the matter, contrasting it with the uncompromising stand taken by Kodiyeri in implementing the Sabarimala order of the Supreme Court.
The posts have largely been created and spread by ordinary citizens as BJP, which usually never misses a chance to ‘expose the hypocrisy’ of the Congress and the Left, seems to have chosen to hold back its formidable social media army on this matter.
With the emergence of a strong reaction on social media, voices of dissent are also starting to come from within the political establishment.
Two prominent politicians — VS Achyuthanandan of CPI-M and VM Sudheeran of the Congress — have now come out strongly against the builders.
Deviating from his party chief’s stand that Supreme Court’s order was a ‘brutal one’ and that the government should take a ‘humane approach’ in the matter, VS Achyuthanandan said the Supreme Court’s decision was taken in light of the laws prevailing in the country.
“There is a section of builders whose modus operandi is to carry out illegal constructions,” Achyuthanandan said in his statement today.
“First they give some flats free of cost to some biggies in the society, and then use their names to convince other buyers to buy into their project,” Achyuthanandan said. He, however, did not clarify whether any of the big politicians who have reacted on this subject received any favors from the builders.
Achythanandan also came out strongly against the suggestion by party chief Kodiyeri Balakrishnan that the government should ensure adequate compensation to those who purchased the flats.
He said thrusting the responsibility for compensation on the taxpayer in such matters is tantamount to supporting corruption and illegalities.
Another leader who saw a conspiracy behind recent political maneuvers around the matter is CPI chief Kanam Rajendran.
CPI, part of the ruling dispensation, has opposed any use of taxpayer funds to pay compensation to those who have invested money in the Maradu flats.
Over the weekend, party chief Rajendran reportedly conveyed his displeasure to Kodiyeri and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at “attempts being made to surreptitiously shift the onus of compensation to the taxpayer by creating needless controversy”.
He is reported to have taken the stand that if CPI-M led government could implement the controversial Supreme Court order on Sabarimala, there was no reason to make an exception for this one.
Congress leader VM Sudheeran, who often articulates his stand on major issues irrespective of the ‘party line’, too came out strongly against the construction today, and said the flats must be demolished as the Supreme Court ordered.
“The cost of demolition and compensation for the flat owners should both be recovered from the builders who illegally constructed these buildings,” he said today.
TN Prathapan, a Congress MP from the Dheevara fishing community that bears the brunt of large-scale coastal construction, also protested the stand taken by his party in this matter.
He was the only Congress MP who did not sign a petition to the prime minister by MPs seeking “urgent intervention” of the central government to ensure “humane treatment” of the flat owners.
NK Premachandran, from Congress’ ally Revolutionary Socialist Party, was the other MP who refused to sign the petition, and expressed his consternation that the Congress has declared the position of the United Democratic Front on the Maradu issue without consulting the allies or hearing what they have to say.