Insights into Editorial: Climate justice through judicial diktat
A Supreme Court order for demolishing a set of apartments in Maradu, a suburb in Ernakulam, has caused a legal and political crisis.
The deadline for demolishing the four backwater-facing high-rise apartments ended. However, the 350-odd families residing there have refused to move.
Residents of these four complexes were on a hunger strike at the Maradu Municipality office.
Based on various committees and other inputs, the Environment Ministry issued fresh CRZ Rules in December 2018, which removed certain restrictions on building, streamlined the clearance process, and aimed to encourage tourism in coastal areas.
Background of the Issue:
- In 2006, the Maradu panchayat had granted building permissions for constructing the apartments.
- However, after a directive from the local self-government department, the panchayat issued a show-cause notice to the builders for violating Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) rules.
- The builders got a stay order from the Kerala High Court in 2007 which allowed them to continue construction.
- The High Court ruled in favour of the builders stating that they can’t be held responsible for the failure of local authorities to comply with statutory provisions.
- The Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) approached the Supreme Court, which constituted a three-member panel to examine whether the buildings violated CRZ norms.
- Based on the panel’s report that the buildings fell within CRZ-III, the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of the apartments.
- After dismissing the review petitions, the apex court ordered the demolition to be completed by September 20.
- During a suo motu hearing on the lack of action on the part of the State in carrying out its order, the apex court pulled up the Kerala Chief Secretary, accusing the State authorities of “playing with nature”.
Coastal Regulation Zone rules:
- CRZ Rules govern human and industrial activity close to the coastline, in order to protect the fragile ecosystems near the sea.
- They sought to restrict certain kinds of activities, like large constructions, setting up of new industries, storage or disposal of hazardous material, mining, or reclamation and bunding, within a certain distance from the coastline.
- The basic idea is: because areas immediately next to the sea are extremely delicate, home to many marine and aquatic life forms, both animals and plants, and are also threatened by climate change, they need to be protected against unregulated development.
- The government notified new CRZ Rules with the stated objectives of promoting sustainable development and conserving coastal environments.
- For the so-called CRZ-III (Rural) areas, two separate categories have been stipulated.
- In the densely populated rural areas (CRZ-IIIA) with a population density of 2,161 per sq km as per the 2011 Census, the no-development zone is now 50 m from the high-tide level, as against the 200 m stipulated earlier.
- In the CRZ-IIIB category (rural areas with population density below 2,161 per sq km) continue to have a no-development zone extending up to 200 m from the high-tide line.
- The new Rules have a no-development zone of 20 m for all islands close to the mainland coast, and for all backwater islands in the mainland.
Supreme Court adopted Technocratic Proceduralism for Demolition:
While the demolition is ostensibly for protecting the environment, the Supreme Court order doesn’t sufficiently explain how the constructions in question damage the environment.
Instead of a jurisprudence on environmental justice, it adopted technocratic proceduralism for arriving at its verdict.
Ironically, more serious environmental damage is likely to be caused by the demolition of the apartments.
A report by IIT-Madras has highlighted that air pollution caused by the demolition would pose severe health hazards to those residing nearby, besides the long-term environmental costs of the debris generated.
Fearing the “collateral damage” of the demolition, a person residing close to the apartments has filed a petition in the Supreme Court opposing the unplanned implosion/explosion of the buildings.
The case highlights the pathologies of executive and judicial decision-making on environment and urban development in India.
While State authorities and courts were complicit in allowing the buildings to be constructed in the first place, liability is now being placed squarely on the apartment owners.
In some regards, it is a continuation of the jurisprudence based on court-appointed committees rather than hearing affected parties that resulted, especially in Delhi, in the demolition of numerous “illegal slums”.
Though many cases are pending before the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court regarding the encroachments on backwater islands, the state government has not effectively presented its arguments facilitating the encroachments to continue.
The state government should put pressure on the Union Government to restrict the relaxations on CRZ to the coastal community.
For environmental justice, what we need is a strong environmental governance system that enables all stakeholders to prevent violations instead of the court becoming India’s new demolition man.
We need to promote safe housing, residential places and promoting responsible tourism which will be helpful for the development of the coastal community.