The Supreme Court of India’s recent order to demolish five apartment complexes in Ernakulam district of Kerala for flouting Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms has raised serious questions regarding whether the flat owners or the builders were aware of such norms in the first place.
The SC issued the verdict to demolish these apartment complexes located in Marad within one month, following an appeal filed by the Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority (KSCZMA). Following the verdict, several flat owners said that they were unaware that their builders had violated the rules and that it’s been almost a decade since they have been living in these buildings.
An SC bench comprising Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Navin Sinha added that the state cannot bear the brunt of another flood caused by illegal construction.
TNM got in touch with various lawyers and builders in order to find out the due diligence that should be taken into consideration before buying a property or an apartment located near a river, a lake or any waterbody for that matter.
Each city has a development regulation, which is issued by the planning authority of that particular state or city. For example, in Karnataka, there is a planning authority constituted by the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, but in Bangalore city, it’s the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) that issues various development regulations. Similarly, in Chennai, there is the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) that has issued a master plan for the city.
And in Kerala as well, there are various bodies such as the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) for Kochi and the Thiruvananthapuram Development Authority (TRIDA) for the state capital. But being a coastal region, Kerala also has a separate Coastal Regulation Zone department, the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority, which is in charge of construction activities along the waterbodies.
Identify CRZ areas
As far as Kerala is concerned, Ashkar Khader, a lawyer who specialises in environmental issues, said that the basic task that an individual can do before buying a property or a flat near a waterbody is to check whether the area falls under the CRZ area.
Under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) passed a notification for the regulation of activities in the coastal area. As per this notification, a coastal land up to 500 metres from the High Tide Line (the maximum point of the land where the water's surface touches) is called the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ).
And according to a Coastal Zone Regulation notification in 1991, coastal stretches of seas, bays, creeks, rivers and backwaters have been declared as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) and they have been classified into four different categories - CRZ I, CRZ II, CRZ III, CRZ IV - which segregate the land according to their ecological sensitivity.
“An easy way to identify CRZ areas is to refer to the CRZ map, which is published by the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA). Through the map, one can also check, under which category of the CRZ does a certain land fall under,” said Ashkar.
Ashkar tells TNM that another way to identify the distance up to which CRZ is applicable depends on the extent of tidal influence. According to Coastal Zone Management Plan of the Kerala Government, the distance up to which the tidal influence is experienced is dependent on the salt concentration: if it is 5 particles per million (ppm) or more (during the driest month), the waterbody is considered to be influenced by tidal action.
Ask for building permit
Buyers have to check whether the area, where the project has been proposed, falls in a Poramboke land (land that belongs to the government). Ashkar explains that the buyer can access this information by checking the records in the village office.
“When we buy a flat, we, generally, do not look beyond the title deed. And especially if it’s a big project, we tend to go ahead with the assumption that everything is in order,” he said.
He says that the buyers should also ensure that the builders have the building permit for the required area. “The buyers can ask the builders to show the total area and verify whether they have the building permit for so much area. They are obliged to show the buyers the documents they ask for,” he explained.
Be aware, get legal advice
G Deepak Raj, a real-estate practitioner with a Bengaluru-based law firm, Poovayya & Co. explains that buyers can access all information related to purchasing a flat, such as the CRZ maps and other legal information, online.
“Buying an immovable property runs on a concept of awareness of all the procedures. At a time when all the information is available at your fingertips, a buyer needs to be aware of the details of the property and the credentials of the seller before making any transaction,” Deepak tells TNM.
Deepak goes on to state that it’s not just about buying a property near a waterbody, but there are certain factors that the buyer must keep in mind. “There are some basic checks that the purchaser must carry out, including the title check, the development and the extent of the development of the project, and these have to be verified by a competent lawyer. Only after receiving clearance from the lawyer, should they proceed with the purchase, rather than merely depending on the representation of the developer,” he added.
Why builders get away
TNM also got in touch with the marketing manager of a prominent home builder in Kerala, who did not wish to be named. According to the manager, every builder who has ever flouted the CRZ norms knew very well that they were doing just that.
“It’s the architect who comes up with the plan of the buildings. And all architects are aware of the CRZ norms. But the builders, sometimes, feel that they can get away with all of that using the power of money,” says the marketing manager.
He says that back in the early 2000s when these particular apartment complexes were being constructed, there wasn’t much of a “flat/apartment culture” in Kerala as such. “For that matter, Marad, the area where these apartments are built, was not a prominent location in the city. All these factors ensured that the builders could easily ignore a few rules,” he told TNM.
Now, with the lack of land and the rise in demand for flats, followed by the devastating Kerala floods, the authorities have tightened the noose on environmental laws and have become strict about it, because of which, all these builders are being taken to task now.