For ‘a person who has dedicated his life to teaching students, guiding them to restoring monuments and preserving our built heritage, I never dreamt that my home will one day be demolished.’
IMAGE: A view of flats built on the coastal zone in Maradu, Kochi. Photograph: PTI Photo
All the 40 years Dr M S Mathews was a professor of civil engineering at IIT-Madras, he was involved in the restoration of temples, monuments, and other heritage structures.
For his incredible effort, the Construction Industry Development Council bestowed Dr Mathews with the Vishwakarma Award in 2013.
The irony is that the home of the man who restored so many monuments is being demolished now.
His house was located in one of the five waterfront apartments in Maradu in Kochi which the Supreme Court ordered to be demolished for violating Coastal Regulation Zone rules.
“The current worth of a flat similar to the one I bought here is Rs 1.2 crores. We got only Rs 25 lakhs as compensation. I cannot buy a flat I want with this amount. I accept that I will have to live in a one room rented apartment for the rest of my life. We hope that on January 22nd, the Supreme Court will give clear orders so that the owners will be fully compensated,” Dr Mathews tells Shobha Warrier/KhabriBaba.com.
When you booked the flat, were you aware that the flats were being constructed in the vulnerable coastal area coming under the CRZ iii category though the panchayat had given permission to build apartments there? According to the panchayat, it came under the CRZ ii category.
No, we were not at all aware in 2006 as the coastal regulations were not very serious or clear then. It became a serious matter only much later. By 2010, we had finished paying for the flat.
Reports say the panchayat gave permission to the builders in 2006, without getting necessary clearance from the Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority.
We were in the dark about what was going on between the builders and the panchayat. They were supposed to get permission from various authorities and the owner did not come into the picture.
Nine months after issuing permission, the panchayat sent a notice to the builders alleging that they had violated CRZ rules. But the builders got an interim stay from the high court in 2007.
One of our assurances and strengths was that whenever the builders went to the high court, they won. So, there was no anxiety on our part that something was amiss.
In those days, the maps were also not properly drawn up. They were to a 1:50,000 scale in which it is not possible to identify with certainty coastal zones i, ii or iii.
In fact, some of the cases were dismissed by the high court saying that sufficiently accurate maps were not available. It was much later that the concerned authorities made proper scale maps.
Now, we have a map of 1:5000 where things are very clear and this happened as recently as February 2019, but before March 8th 2019!
IMAGE: Dr M S Mathews.
Now, does it come under CRZ iii or CRZ ii like the panchayat said earlier?
Right now, it comes under CRZ ii where such buildings are allowed, and not in CRZ iii.
How did the Supreme Court order the demolition of the flats?
That is because the judgment was based on the fact that when it was constructed, it was under CRZ iii, as stated by the committee.
But in the new map, it is under CRZ ii and it is legal to construct buildings there…
Yes. It is buildable as per the new map.
The fact that it is legal in the new map did not stand in the Supreme Court?
To the best of my knowledge, it was not brought to the attention of the Court that it is under CRZ ii now.
In your case, and perhaps with many others too, you purchased the flat with your retirement money and your house is gone now…
My life’s entire savings except for the monthly pension I get has been put into this flat. Now, I have no hope of owning a flat like this. I am too old to start working again.
The current worth of a flat similar to the one I had bought here is Rs 1.2 crores and we got only Rs 25 lakhs as compensation.
I am grateful that I got Rs 25 lakhs, but I cannot buy a flat I want with this amount. I am accepting the fact that I will have to live in a one room rented apartment for the rest of my life.
We hope that on January 22nd, the Supreme Court will give clear orders so that the owners will be fully compensated.
Do you feel all this is unfair? You taught future generations for decades. You helped build an IIT. You restored many temples…
I feel it is unfair on two points. It is a personal irony for me that my entire life has been spent in restoring houses of worship in India, Cambodia, etc while my own humble house is being demolished now.
Another important point is when the government gives me a thousand rupee note, it says it promises to give the bearer Rs 1000.
Similarly, any instrument given to me by my government, I place absolute trust that it is a valid document. This is based on the legal principle of Promissory Estoppel.
Which document are you talking about?
The receipts of the property tax I have been regularly paying. When I am given the tax receipt, it is similar to giving me a thousand rupee note.
When I am given a receipt for the tax paid, I inherently assume that it is a valid construction, valid flat and it belongs to me and it is my personal property.
It is beyond my comprehension that overnight, it became illegal.
Even if it is declared illegal, I must be fully compensated for the trust that I have placed in the receipt.
The trust was not between two private parties; it was between a private individual and the government.
This event has shaken my trust in government documents!
Who is to be blamed in this situation? The panchayat gave permission to the builders in 2006 without getting the permit from the Kerala coastal authority. But the high court gave an interim order in 2007 for the builders to continue with the work. The only losers are the people who invested money in the project…
There are several participants in this: The owner, the builder, the municipality, the Kerala coastal zone authority and the government of Kerala.
But the owner has been punished in the whole saga when all the others have to share the blame for whatever has happened.
IMAGE: One of the five waterfront apartments in Maradu, Kochi.
After your retirement, you were assigned the task of setting up IIT-Palakkad. After the assignment was over, you came here to relax…
After my retirement from IIT-Madras, I was appointed as a professor at IIT-Palakkad with special permission from the President of India as you cannot work after 65 in IITs.
So, for me along with five other professors to work in IIT-Palakkad to set up the institution, the authorities had to get express permission from the President of India.
We successfully set up the IIT, using our cumulated knowledge in introducing the IIT culture there.
After that, I thought I would have a peaceful retired life in Kochi and write books based on the knowledge I have accumulated over the years. But it was not to be.
My days were spent meeting various government officials in Kerala and Delhi, also going to the court in Delhi. But all the efforts the other owners and myself made, could not save the apartment.
Currently it is being demolished while a year ago, a bench of similar strength asked another apartment builder close to us that had violated the same guidelines, to pay a fine, and it was not demolished.
Is there any precedent like this?
There are precedents of demolitions here and there, but not to such magnitude. Here, they were demolishing four 20 storey buildings. This is demolishing property worth about Rs 400 crores. Technically also, it is a humongous task.
In fact, IIT-Madras had proposed various alternatives to demolition. One is the principle of Polluter Pay which is an internationally accepted concept.
Those who are responsible for the violation pay a fine as determined by the authorities, and use that money to compensate for the problems created by these illegal constructions like afforestation, creating more mangroves, urban forests, etc.
It is better to compensate than destroy human habitats.
Also, even if the owners were asked to leave, instead of demolition, these buildings could be used for public purposes, converting them to hospitals for children, modern digital libraries, and research laboratories.
The authorities should have opted for constructive options rather than destruction?
Yes, there are various internationally accepted norms in situations like these. In the US, instead of destroying, they ask the owners to stay there and pay a rent to the government which would be used to compensate problems caused to the environment.
By destroying these many buildings, you increase the carbon emission to the environment. The carbon dioxide released is harmful for the people and the planet, contributing to climate change and global warming.
Another important point is we are a poor country and we are in an extreme shortage of housing nationally. So, instead of destroying what is already there, you can have the Polluter Pay principle applied at the highest possible level, so that it will put the fear in the minds of future violators.
I am of the view that the environment must be protected and violations should not occur.
Do you feel generally owners tend to ignore the coastal regulation rule?
In fact, many other flat owners have taken loans from banks and while giving the loan, all the documents were scrutinised by the legal departments of the banks.
The very fact that the banks gave approvals for loans show they did not find anything illegal in the documents, besides the three positive judgments of the Kerala high court.
How do you think the legal departments overlooked this?
Kerala is an estuarine state with a complex coastal zone, not having a regular sea coast like, for example, Tamil Nadu. Kerala has a complex system of backwaters seeping into the land.
That makes the study, the documentation and the gazette notification a far more complex process.
Only in the last decade or so have the satellite maps and geographic information systems been fully developed, by which the accurate study of the backwaters and water bodies became possible.
Only after that, zones could be demarcated accurately and properly gazetted maps could be released by the authorities.
The Supreme Court asked a technical team to assess the area before giving its verdict.
In my opinion, a technical team consisting of 3 or 4 persons cannot determine in which CRZ zone the area belongs to.
That is because just like in earthquake maps of India, a 3 or 4 member committee cannot determine whether an area in India is in Zone 2, 3, 4 or 5.
These determinations are done by several statutory bodies through several iterations, standardised, evaluated, validated and released by the Bureau of Indian Standards, and other government bodies.
Against the backdrop of such national evaluations, a 3-member state committee cannot come to a place and say, yes, this comes under CRZ iii or CRZ i. It is not clear on what basis the 3-member team decided that the area was CRZ iii.
The same area has been notified to be in CRZ ii in February 2019 by ministry of environment and forests. The committee has also not adhered to the legal dictum Audi Alteram Partem before submitting its report as mandated by the Supreme Court.
How emotional was it for you to see your home being demolished?
Emotionally, it is quite shocking to me, to a person who has dedicated his life to teaching students and guiding them to restoring monuments and preserving our built heritage.
I never dreamt that my home will one day be demolished. We do not know whom to turn to for succour.
I fail to understand why only these four buildings are being demolished when there are hundreds — if not thousands — of buildings in Kerala and elsewhere that are in violation of coastal regulation zone rules.