Environmentalists say the ordinance has watered down regulations for a whole set of buildings.

Houses on the banks of a canal in Kochi
news Controversy Sunday, February 28, 2021 - 08:53

In February, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan signed two ordinances —  the Kerala Panchayat Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance and the Kerala Municipality (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2021 — which made crucial changes to how one obtains permission for construction for some buildings. The ordinance came into force on February 12 and there hasn’t been furore or much discussion regarding the changes in the state, but environmental and social groups are raising concerns. The changes brought about by the ordinance, they say, can have a repercussive effect on the environment.

The Kerala Municipality Act and the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, both of 1994, have rules pertaining to the provisions through which building permits are given by local body authorities for the construction of any new or existing structures, other than huts, in its limits. In simple terms, as per the rules (before the amendment), once a local body secretary is given an application for a building permit, the officer assesses the application, makes sure no laws are violated and passes or declines to issue the permit, and has to do so within 30 days.

However, a provision in the ordinances allows people to self-attest, along with an ‘empanelled licensee’. If all laws are abided by, the local body secretary is to give his sanction for the project within five working days.  An empanelled licensee here implies any institution, architect, engineer, building designer, supervisor or town planner registered under the Regional Joint Director of Urban Affairs or deemed to be registered under the Kerala Municipality Building Rules, 2019.

However, this amendment applies to only a set of buildings that the ordinance has termed as ‘low risk buildings’. This includes: residential buildings with a built-up area of less than three hundred square metres and height less than seven meters and limited to two storeys; hostel, orphanage, dormitory, old age home, seminary having built-up area less than two hundred square metres; educational buildings having a built-up area less than two hundred square meters; buildings where persons congregate for religious and patriotic purposes having built-up area less than two hundred square meters; buildings having built-up area less than one hundred square meters; buildings without any nuisance and not dangerous and having built-up area less than one hundred square meters.

Only huts earlier did not have to abide by regulations, but the ordinance has watered down regulations for a whole other set of buildings, environmentalists say.

“Normally, if one person applies for a building permit, a local body engineer will inspect and verify all aspects of the structure, existing laws, including whether the land is wetland or not etc, and then only will provide sanction. The ordinance is giving people permission to start construction anywhere, just by self-attestation. Not only will this have environmental repercussions, but it will also provide loopholes to the real estate sector to get past the existing laws,” says Muraleedharan AP, President of Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), a prominent science forum in the state.

Objecting to the ordinance, Muraleedharan said huge housing complexes have been built in the state on wetlands by procuring multiple small plots of land. For example, if a person gives an untrue affidavit and begins small construction by filling up a wetland, this could very well be later brought by real estate companies and huge structures could come up there, he says, adding that this has been happening in the state even under existing laws.

“This has destroyed a system of regulation which was streamlined through various court orders, amendments and experience with the practice of law,” says environmentalist and advocate Harish Vasudhevan. He also adds that he could quote umpteen examples where various norms, including Coastal Regulation Zone and town planning norms, are violated even when local bodies are asked to directly verify the applications.

“It is a difficult process to find out the legality of the land with respect to various provisions of other laws. Then how can a layman find out all these correct and state in the affidavit?” asks Harish.

Although the ordinance states that self-attestation is to be made jointly with an empanelled licensee, Muraleedharan says this is not effective. “For someone who wants to consciously violate norms, they can even influence empanelled licensees to give a favourable affidavit,” he says.

According to the ordinance, if things mentioned in the self-attested affidavit are found to be false, the empanelled licensee can be barred from practising in the state for at least five years, and fines ranging from Rs 2-6 lakh depending on the structure will be levied on both the empanelled licensee and the owner of the building. However, the ordinance does not mention if construction will be halted when laws are flouted.

“This could be one of the loopholes. Those who have money and want to flout rules can easily do that by paying a fine,” states Muraleedharan.

Advocate Harish also opines that merely penalising a person will not help at all. “If the activity is not permissible, then the government does not have the power to permit such construction by penalising the person. This will defeat the purpose of other enactments like Coastal Regulation Zone and Town planning norms,” he says.

Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad officials have approached the government to voice concerns about the ordinance. “We should note that such an ordinance has come into force without even a discussion, despite the state’s fragile environment and witnessing two massive deluges,” adds Muraleedharan.

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