In 2020, the Kerala government kickstarted its ambitious housing project — Punargeham — aimed to permanently rehabilitate close to 19,000 coastal families in the state. It was considered a solution to the reeling problem of coastal erosion in various parts of Kerala. So far, the government says it has constructed 3,000 houses as part of the Rs 2,450 crore project. However, last month, scores of residents in the coastal village of Ernakulam’s Chellanam gathered and burned copies of the government order on the Punargeham, calling the project ‘unfair.’
The village has been witnessing severe coastal erosion for the past many years, with many families witnessing flooding of their houses, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents have been constantly protesting, demanding the construction of a seawall. From the meagre compensation of Rs 10 lakh to buy land and construct a house, to certain contentious clauses ordering people to pay interest for the financial aid, the residents alleged that many provisions of the project are unfair.
According to the government order issued on January 7, 2020, 18,685 families in the state have been identified to be living 50 metres within the High Tide Line, the mark up to which the highest waterline of the tide reaches the land. They were declared beneficiaries of the project. With the financial aid of Rs 10 lakh provided by the state government, the families can construct new houses or apartments. However, there is a catch: These families will have to relinquish their original land.
One of the clauses of the rehabilitation project that a section of residents of Chellanam has contended is that, for a region close to the Kochi city, the prescribed financial aid is Rs 10 lakh. This amount is given to beneficiaries regardless of how much the land they own or the market price of their property. Using this amount, the family is to purchase land and construct a house or identify other beneficiaries to construct an apartment.
“How can a family buy land and construct a house using Rs 10 lakh. As per the norm, Rs 6 lakh is meant to buy the land and Rs four lakh for the construction of the house. Moreover, if the construction of the house does not get completed within 12 months after receiving the first phase of the financial aid, the family will have to give 18% interest to the government. This is like pulling a peacefully living family into a debt trap,” says VT Sebastian, a member of Chellanam Janakeeya Vedi, a group of Chellanam residents protesting for a solution to the issue of sea erosion.
Watch houses in Chellanam getting inundated due to coastal erosion:
Moreover, residents also point to the differential treatment for people who possess less than five cents of the land. According to the project guideline, to be part of the rehabilitation project, families have to demolish their houses at their own cost, and, if one owns less than five cents of land, it should be relinquished. But if the land is more than five cents, the family will be given permission, with restrictions, to use the land for agricultural activities, without making any constructions in the plot. The rest of the plot will be maintained by the government as a green cover to protect the shore.
“We have been treated like this earlier as well, including when the state government announced compensation that is two to four times the market price for those who will be displaced by the Silver-line rail project. This is discriminatory,” says Sebastian.
According to the order on the Punargeham project, families who live within 50 metres of HTL but do not want to be part of the rehabilitation process, will not be given any financial aid from the government for the damages incurred to house or land due to coastal erosion. “The clause is equal to forceful eviction. With the meagre amount given in return, this is like forcing a person to be homeless and landless. There could be vested interest behind this,” alleges Sebastian.
As per the project, the families have the option to find land on their own, where they wish to be rehabilitated. Under corporation or municipality limits, the land should not be less than two cents and if it is within gram panchayat limits, the land should not be less than three cents. However, the beneficiaries of the project cannot hand over the ownership of the land to anyone else within 12 years of registration of the land. “If ownership is handed over, such families will not get any further aid from the state government’s housing projects,” the order states.
Incidentally, the residents say they are not against the Punargeham project as such, rather it is some contentious clause that they are sceptical about. “We are not standing against the project, because scores of people living in coastal areas have already lost houses and many houses are dilapidated in such a way that they will not sustain another phase of coastal erosion. The project is needed. We are only trying to point out how unfair the rehabilitation package is,” said TA Dalfine, convener of West Kochi Coastal Protection Forum, a group that works towards the development of coastal regions in West Kochi.