The deadline is set - September 20. The Supreme Court, on September 6, gave the Maradu Municipality an ultimatum to demolish four multi-storeyed apartment buildings that stand on the banks of Vembanadu Lake. The apex court observed that the buildings violated the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules and were constructed within 200 meters of the High Tide Line (HTL). In simple terms, these buildings are closer to the coastline and pose an ecological threat to the wetlands in the area.
With the clock ticking, the municipality officials are clamouring to carry out the order and demolish the building by controlled implosion — a demolition technique that strategically places explosives in the building to let the structure collapse on itself or within its perimeter.
However, according to the environmental experts TNM spoke to, irrespective of the techniques, the demolition of four structures will cause a huge environmental impact, incidentally, on the very element that SC is trying to protect through its order - the Vembanadu Lake, which is an ecologically sensitive area, nationally and internationally. In addition to polluting the wetland ecosystem, the structural impact on the buildings nearby, air pollution and scientific disposal of debris are the other environmental factors to be considered in the wake of the demolition.
Impact on Vembanad Lake
The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules - the bone of contention in this case - have been formulated to protect sensitive ecosystems near the sea, including aquatic animals and plants. These rules put restrictions on constructing large buildings and storing or disposing of hazardous material within a certain distance from the coastal stretches of seas, bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwaters.
The four apartment buildings viz. Jains Coral Cove, Golden Kayaloram, H2O Holy Faith and Alfa Serene are located on the backwaters of Vembanad Lake, which was declared as a Ramsar site (a wetland site designated to be of international importance) in November 2002.
Harish Vasudevan, a Kochi-based lawyer and environmental activist says that Environmental Impact Assessment report should be prepared before demolition. "All these buildings are very close to the lake. Hence, when these buildings are demolished, pieces of debris are bound to fall into the lake and wetland, even if temporary structures are erected to prevent it. As a result, waste and dust will mix with the wetland and thus affect the wetland ecosystem,” says Harish Vasudevan, a Kochi-based lawyer and environmental activist.
“This will be a violation of another judgement by the Supreme Court to protect Vembanad Lake from any such impact,” he adds.
Impact on other buildings
Among the four buildings, the H2O Holy Faith apartment especially, is situated very close to the lake as well as the national highway. The impact of its demolition will be felt on the bridges near the Maradu junction.
Apart from this, when the structure is demolished, the shock wave caused by the detonators is likely to impact the structural safety of buildings within a 100-meter radius of the buildings being demolished.
“Kochi is a marshy region. One has to dig 30-60 metres deep to get solid structural stability. Hence, when detonations send shock waves, its impact goes deep and affects the foundation. The effects of this, however, will be known only a few years later,” says Harish, explaining the second largest environmental impact of demolition.
Where will the debris go?
This is one question that environmental experts and even authorities in Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) do not have an answer to. Taking an example from Chennai, a 11-storeyed building in Moulivakkam, Belief, was demolished by controlled explosion in 2016. However, according to those who were associated with the demolition, the debris is yet to be cleared.
According to an environmental scientist of the Environment Department, Directorate of Environment and Climate Change, “Kerala does not have a designated area or rules to handle large-scale construction and demolition debris.”
Harish adds, “The municipality does not even have public lands to dispose of the debris. If these are dumped on wetlands, it will cause another environmental impact.”
Demolition debris not only includes concrete and metal waste but electronic waste too, such as electrical wiring, copper and air conditioners. There are no facilities to handle e-waste here, although Kochi topped the list of highest e-waste generators, according to a survey by the Clean Kerala Company Limited.
Air pollution, negligible impact
Demolishing four buildings will send up a cloud of concrete dust, exposure to which is not considered dangerous. Although, chronic exposure may cause airflow obstruction and increased mucous secretion.
“Air pollution will have negligible impact among all. Kochi is a coastal area with high humidity. Although the dust will spread to about 100 metres, it will settle within five to six hours. In a state like Tamil Nadu, which has dry air, the dust will linger,” says Harish.
No time to assess environmental impact
According to experts, the impact can be alleviated if the state has sufficient time to carry out an environmental assessment (EA) and chalk out mitigation measures. But authorities have only a few days in hand.
In fact, the Maradu case harks back to the 2013 High Court judgment, asking state authorities to demolish Kapico Kerala Resorts Limited at Nediyathuruthu and Vaamika Island (Green Lagoon) in Vettilathuruthu in Alappuzha within three months. In October, the Supreme Court also upheld this judgment, asking Vamika Island to be demolished in 10 days.
The officials then were faced with a set of challenges - a way to demolish the structures, transport the debris completely, and restore the ecosystem of the islands.
“Unfortunately, the statutes only prescribe demolition if there is an environmental violation. No current provisions prescribe a timeframe and procedures to follow. The demolition or its impact on the environment were never discussed in any of the judgements,” he points out.
The EA of demolition has never been carried out in Kerala. According to the environmental scientist, a rapid assessment will take at least three months. The study includes analyses of the water samples from the wetland, where the debris will be dumped, the wind pattern to assess which direction the dust will flow. Another month is required to put in place measures, such as constructing barriers to mitigate the dust issues.
While the cottages of Vaamika Island were demolished in 2014, Kapico resorts is yet to be razed to the ground, as an expert committee according to reports, could not find ways to manage the environmental impact.
According to Harish, as a result of the tight deadline, the debris of Vaamika Island is yet to be cleared near the wetland, although the company that undertook the demolition should ideally clear it.
In the Maradu case, he says, “The state, which is the custodian of wetlands and other ecosystems, should approach the SC with a separate petition, stating they are ready to comply with the order but there are environmental issues. It’s time that Kerala formulates standards for EA for such scenarios.”