“Maranam vareyum samaram cheyum (We will protest till we die),” shouts 71-year-old Marykutty John, a resident of Konthuruthy colony in Kerala’s Kochi, sitting under a tent and resting her legs on a chair. And each time she raises a slogan, the women sitting around her have to remind her to dial down as she has a serious heart condition. But Marykutty does not relent, as for her, this is a life-and-death situation, like the hundreds of families assembled under the makeshift protest tent at the Konthuruthy road in Thevara.
On January 27, based on an eviction order from the Kerala High Court, Ernakulam District Collector S Suhas visited the Konthuruthy colony and asked the 128 families living on the encroached land to vacate their houses within one month. On February 2, the Collector, along with the revenue officials, reached the colony again, measured the land encroached upon and fixed the boundary stones.
Meanwhile, the residents have been sitting on an indefinite protest, demanding to stop the eviction. These residents have been living in the colony for more than 50 years and their livelihoods are based in and around the region. Now, with this eviction order, the residents are in limbo, anxious about what to do or where to go.
Marykutty John, resident of Konthuruthy colony
“We have been paying our taxes to the Kochi Corporation as well as our electricity and water bills. Our children were born here and have been studying in schools and colleges nearby. Many of us even constructed houses here after getting government grants and nobody then said that this was an encroached land. Now they are asking us to move out of our houses. Where are we supposed to go?” Kunjimol, a resident of the colony, told TNM, as the protest entered the 10th day.
According to Suma, another resident, most of the residents work in unorganised sectors, in the same neighbourhood. “Most of the women here work as domestic help in the apartments nearby, while the men are fishermen, auto drivers, daily wage labourers and work at the Thevara market. We won’t even have a life if we go from here,” she says.
Konthuruthy colony, situated in Thevara, just about five kilometres away from the city centre, is a heavy residential area along the canal called Konthuruthy river. The canal, measuring about 620 metres, connects the Thevara canal with the Vembanad Lake. The canal, which was having an original width of 48 metres, has been rampantly encroached over the years and at certain points, it is not more than five meters.
The issue of encroachments came to light when a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Kerala High Court in 2016 by a Kochi native. In November 2019, the court passed an order, directing the Kochi Corporation to remove the encroachments and to retain the width of the waterbody as 48 metres.
Like the Konthuruthy river, encroachments are rampant in the other major canals in the city and the district administration is on a mission to rejuvenate the canals through its project called Operation Breakthrough. The blocked pathways and the encroachments of the canals in the city are said to be the main reasons behind the flooding the city had witnessed last year.
‘Kochi Corporation also at fault’
At present, the 128 families of the Konthuruthy colony have been held responsible for the dilapidated condition of the water body. But the residents allege that the local body, too, was responsible for encroachments.
“One major fault is the construction of a road across the canal, which obstructed the flow of the water body. Instead of the road, if a bridge was built, the canal wouldn't have been in a dilapidated condition,” says Tomy, another resident of Konthuruthy colony.
The residents also allege that the local body has not made any attempt to clean the canal. “After the 2004 Tsunami, silt was deposited in large quantities in the canal, but it was never cleaned,” he says.
The Corporation has also constructed small walkways and seaters on the bank of the canal at some points. “If they knew this is an encroached land and it is illegal, why did they spend this money on this. This construction has given us an assurance that we will not be made to move out from here,” says Tomy.
Seaters constructed by Kochi Corporation in the encroached land
Not ready for temporary rehabilitation
According to the residents, District Collector S Suhas had said that arrangements will be made for them to move to a temporary shelter. But the residents have opposed this offer.
“About 300 families living near Thevara canal were evicted seven years ago. It is only recently that some of them were allotted land of their own. For the last six years, many had been living in lodges. Now, they want the same to happen to us?” asks Suma.
As a solution, the residents have now put forward a proposal to the district administration, stating that the canal can be expanded upto 16 metres and that the residents living within that limit have agreed to vacate their houses.
“Only four or five families will have to be evicted then and they can be relocated in this neighbourhood itself, so that they don't have to go to strange places. We hope that this will be heard by the District Collector,” Tomy tells TNM.