When Kerala’s Revenue Department began dismantling an illegally constructed seven-star resort worth ₹200 crore at the Nediyathuruthu island in the backwaters of the ecologically sensitive Vembanad lake on Thursday, 15 September, it marked the culmination of a protracted legal battle by fish worker AK Sailan.
It took almost 14 years of intense legal war for Sailan to get the final nod from the Supreme Court to demolish the tourism property of Kapico Kerala Resorts Private Limited (KKRPL), established by gold-loan giant Muthoot Group in the ecologically sensitive area of the backwaters, in violation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules.
Sailan is among the 56 traditional fish workers who used — with governmental permission — to instal stake nets where the resort is currently located to engage in the traditional mode of backwater fishing.
“Till 2007, when the KKRPL bought the 11.5-acre island by manipulating and fudging documents, it was the sole source of our livelihood. We together had 13 stake nets there,” Sailan told South First.
“When they began construction, they carried raw materials to the island by boat. And they unilaterally removed all our stake nets saying they cause inconvenience to the construction. That was when we decided to take on the rich and the powerful behind the construction, including Kerala’s foremost private money-lending company, Muthoot Finance,” recalled Sailan.
“Come after six months to see all our 13 stake nets back in place,” he said proudly.
“For generations, fishing in the Vembanad lake was the only source of livelihood for most of us. We feel proud that the apex court found our demand genuine and ordered the resort’s demolition. The court also directed the restoration of our nets,” he added.
How is Kapico Resort being demolished?
The demolition drive over the structure — spread over 36,000 sq ft — began after the Revenue Department took back possession rights of a chunk of the poramboku land (land that doesn’t fall under revenue purview, and essentially no one owns it) from KKRPL.
In the first phase, two among the 54 villas would be dismantled.
The whole structure would be removed over the next six months, and the resort owners would have to bear the expenses, District Collector V Krishna Theja informed South First.
He said the district administration would supervise the demolition, and the debris would be transported out of the island in a way that it did not pollute the backwaters.
Though the final order of the Supreme Court on the demolition was delivered in 2020, the execution was delayed because of the lockdowns induced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, photojournalists who attempted to take pictures of the demolition had to retreat following threats from the resort staff.
David vs Goliath fight
It was on January 11, 2020 — exactly a day before the start of a massive demolition drive of five luxury flats constructed illegally on the shores of the Vembanad Lake in Maradu on the outskirts of Kochi city, violating coastal zone regulations — that the Supreme Court ordered the razing of the seven-star Kapico Resort located on the shores of the same lake in the neighbouring Alappuzha district.
When the fish-worker families lost their livelihood, Sailan’s relative KR Ratheesh moved a local munsif court in 2008 alleging that the whole resort was constructed in clear violation of the CRZ Act; the court summarily dismissed the petition.
It was then that Sailan intervened. He approached the Cherthala sub-court and obtained a stop memo against the construction.
When the resort owners refused to obey the memo, the legal battle reached the High Court of Kerala.
Sailan’s legal war received the backing of some environmentalists and the Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi, an umbrella organisation of fish workers in the state. They impleaded in the case and informed the court that the resort was coming up in a critically vulnerable coastal region.
Convinced by their arguments, the high court ordered its demolition in 2013, but the owners decided to appeal it in the Supreme Court.
Sailan approached the apex court with his modest income, raising his concerns. Though it took several years, the Supreme Court upheld the high court verdict, and now Sailan has the last laugh.
“This demolition is a warning to all who attempt to destroy the environment and people’s livelihood. In the case of the resort owners, they undervalued our ability to fight the case in the high court and Supreme Court,” said Charles George, the president of the Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi.
“The illegal resort usurped paddy fields and backwater portions of the island, and has already caused irreparable damage to the Vembanad and its extremely vulnerable ecosystem. The promoters of the resort depended too much on local politicians and the bureaucracy, who fudged rules,” he added.
The Panavally Gram Panchayat, which earlier permitted the resort construction under pressure from political leadership and a corrupt bureaucracy, is now overseeing the demolition.
In Nediyathuruthu, the biggest challenge is demolishing nearly 2,500 RCC (rubble-cement-concrete) subsurface piles along with several sub-surface structures and retaining walls. During such a process, the lake waters might surge from all sides and hit the island severely. The emission of fugitive dust might affect the air quality of the region as well.
The Vembanad lake
Spread across Kerala’s Ernakulam, Alapuzha, and Kottayam districts, the Vembanad lake is the lifeline of Kerala’s world-famous backwater tourism.
Eco-tourists from across the world spend considerable amounts to board luxury boats to move around in the backwaters, quietly experiencing peace, tranquillity, and the best of Kerala’s seafood.
Vembanad is now a recognised Ramsar site. Ramsar sites are wetlands of global importance, as defined by the Convention on Wetlands held in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.
Major rivers — Periyar, Meenachil, Muvattupuzha, Manimala, Pampa, and Achenkovil — merge with this backwater ecosystem at different locations.
In addition, Vembanad is a complex network of waterways: coastal backwaters, lagoons, marshes, mangroves, and reclaimed lands, interlaced with natural and artificial channels.
Most of the reclaimed lands lie below sea level in the Kuttanad region, making it a recipient of nutrient-rich alluvial soil when floodwaters recede.
However, illegal resorts and apartments have mushroomed here in the last three decades, depending mainly on the vast money flow from Gulf countries, and have started adversely affecting the Vembanad and its very existence.
In the post-Maradu demolition drive, the Kerala government has identified 26,000 cases — both big and small — of suspected CRZ violations, most of which have been spotted on the shores of this sensitive ecosystem.
Discharges from numerous houseboats and waste disposal by nearby local bodies have also contributed immensely to the worsening of the lake’s condition.
Soil erosion happening in the catchment areas of the rivers linked to the lake is also a significant issue.
Plastic wastes in large quantities can be seen floating on the backwaters, which were once clean and hygienic.