A resort that became hindrance to fishermen of a Kerala island

Published on Oct 22, 2022 11:58 PM IST

For 14 years, fishermen of Vembanad fought a pitched legal battle against the luxury Kapico resort built on the island, arguing that it violated guidelines and disturbed their way of life

Sailan K, who filed a petition, points at Kapico Resort in the Vembanad in Kerala. (Vivek R Nair/ HT)
Sailan K, who filed a petition, points at Kapico Resort in the Vembanad in Kerala. (Vivek R Nair/ HT)

Alappuzha (Kerala): It is 7 am, and clam collectors move slowly across the Vembanad lake in small canoes. The water is serene, the quiet largely unbroken. The work requires focus, and their eyes are peeled, attempting to spot clams, and if they are lucky, pearl spot fish. The only distraction is the sound of hammers and earthmovers from the little island of Nediyamthuruth.

Ordinarily, the sound may have distracted them. But it doesn’t bother them at all; it is the sound of victory.

For 14 years, fishermen of Vembanad fought a pitched legal battle against the luxury Kapico resort built on the island, arguing that it violated guidelines and disturbed their way of life. On January 10, 2020, the fishermen prevailed, with the Supreme Court ordering the demolition of the resort. Two and a half years after the judgement, the sound of two earthmovers and about a dozen workers rose again as they descended on the island and began razing the resort. It was a sound they have long waited for.

The resort

The 96km long Vembanad lake is spread over 2,033 sq km, including well- known backwater destinations like Kumarakom and Pathiramanal on its banks. It is home to innumerable birds and freshwater fish. The water is dotted by houseboats, testimony to a flourishing tourism industry, slowly crawling back to normal after a pandemic shock.

“Once there were more than 25,000 traditional fishermen in Vembanad and they were ambassadors of our ecosystem. Now their numbers are below 5,000 after the fish population began to fall. This is because of a variety of reasons, such as the excessive use of fertilisers in the Kuttanad rice farms, and pollution,” said K G Padmakumar, an agricultural scientist and environmentalist. And as the fishermen argue, over the past two decades, the construction and presence of the resort contributed to the decline.

Till the turn of the century, the island of Nediyamturuth was home to a dozen odd families that used country made canoes to reach their dwellings. In 2000, one of Kerala’s leading chartered accountant groups, Eswaran Pillai and Company, based in Ernakulam, acquired nine acres of land from these families.

“A portion of land was bought from my father who owned 50 cents (100 cents is an acre) of land in the island for 5 lakh . Some families resisted, but they were forcibly evicted. Their nets were destroyed and they were threatened,” said S Sarish, a fisherman from Nediyamturuth.

In 2006, the land was sold to a joint venture between the Mini Muthoottu Group and Kapico that proposed to establish a luxury resort. It is not immediately known how much this transaction was worth. HT reached out to a member of Eswaran Pillai and Company, but he refused to comment.

The project had 54 modern villas and a host of other facilities. It was completed in 2012, but never actually opened to tourists, given the legal complications. Built in the traditional Kuthamablam style, each villa had a swimming pool. The price for one night was initially fixed at 55,000. The project was worth around 200 crore when it was completed, officials said.

The legal battle

At 8 am, a stout middle-aged man approaches the fishermen, rowing slowly in his own wooden fishing boat. Every single one of them raise their oars in salute. For 56-year-old AK Salian is not just one among them, he is the man from Panavally, a backwater village in Alapuzha, who started the legal battle.

Salian said that in 2006, construction at the resort began interfering with their way of life. “We had a dozen-odd stake nets installed in the water for years together. But when construction began, our nets were destroyed ruthlessly. When we protested, saying that these nets were our livelihood, we were intimidated,” said Salian, who has studied only till class 7.

Next to Salian, another fisherman who identified himself as Parthasarathy, is emotional as he talks. “It broke our hearts. Tonnes of building material and boulders were brought in large jankar boats, which constantly crisscrossed the water day and night. They made a boat jetty, and erected concrete structures. We have always known the banks are fragile, but they didn’t care. The mangroves were adversely affected too,” Parthasarathy said.

In 2007, Salian moved a munsif court in Cherthala against the resort on the grounds of destroying his nets. A munsif court in a district deals is the first level of the judiciary that listens to civil matters. According to coastal regulation zone norms for rivers and backwaters, no permanent construction was allowed 100 metres away from water bodies, he argued. But here, Salian said, boulders and rocks were filled in the middle of the island for construction and unutilized wasteland also encroached upon.

His plea was rejected, but he went to the district court in 2010, which said it would not intervene. In 2011, Salian approached the Kerala High Court.

In this time, Salian said he was a victim of harassment. “There were many critics that lost their voices under pressure. I received physical threats, and there were also suggestions that I be excommunicated from the community because I was blocking development,” he said.

But by 2011, Salian and local fishermen began finding support. Influential support groups like the Kerala Fishermen Ikya Vedi and the Jana Samparka Samiti were among those to join cause. “The powerful resort lobby thought they could get away with it. But the battle is a lesson for such people,” said Vedi president Charles George.

After several rounds of litigation, a division bench of the High Court comprising justices K M Joseph and A Harilal passed a judgement in March 2013, saying the resort violated the Coastal Regulation Zone notification of 1991. The order also held true the allegation that the resort encroached upon puramboke land (unlisted wasteland), and ordered its demolition.

Since the violations were found to be true, the promoters would bear the cost of the demolition and dispose waste without affecting the ecologically fragile surroundings, the court ordered. A year later, the same court rejected a review petition, after which action shifted to the Supreme Court.

In January 2020, the apex court upheld the high court’s verdict, but with the pandemic setting in, the demolition was not carried out.

For the petitioners, the court hearings were far from easy. “At one point, they told the high court that the demolition of the resort would leave untold damage to the freshwater lake. But we contended that after inflicting such damage, how could they even speak of the protection of the fragile environment?” said P K Ibrahim, counsel for the fishermen.

“The high court judgment was historic as it upheld the rights of the marginalised, and underlined the need to protect the ecosystem of the sensitive Ramsar wetland site,” said George. A Ramsar wetland site is designated to be of international importance due to its ecological sensitivity.

The demolition

In June this year, the fishermen threatened to move the Supreme Court with a contempt plea because no demolition had taken place, and informed then district collector A Alexander. Alapuzha collector Krishna Teja, who replaced Alexander, then took possession of the property on September 15 . The district administration would carry out the demolition in a staggered manner, without affecting the lake and adjoining areas, he said.

Unlike the Supertech towers in Noida, given the sensitive ecology of the area, and the spread out nature of the project across 13 acres, the demolition itself will last six months, and cannot be done using a controlled implosion. No more than two villas can be pulled down on a day, depending on the size and other parameters of the structure. In two weeks, 12 villas have been demolished thus far.

The state government intended to investigate officials and agencies who approved of the project at several levels over the years, Teja also said.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson of the Mini Muthoottu group, which is based out of Kochi, said they did not want to comment at this juncture. A comment from Kappico group, too, was not available.

VS Vijayan, an environmental scientist and former member of the state biodiversity board, however, said this should only be the beginning. “It is a glorious chapter, but the fight should not end here. Many water bodies are being destroyed due to encroachment, illegal constructions and mining,” Vijayan said. “This verdict should act as a lesson for all such violators.”

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    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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