A never-ending battle

After four years and innumerable trips to courts of justice, Kodaikanal's skyline may not look very different. But for the Palani Hills Conservation Council, it is still too early to give up

Published: Friday 31 May 1996

A never-ending battle

A target of eco-destructors: t (Credit: PHCC)NESTLED 7,000 feet above sea level - in a northern offshoot of the Western Ghats called the Palani hills - lies the scenic hill station of Kodaikanal. This mountainous region is a major watershed for the plains below. The forests of the region trap rain water and release it slowly into perennial streams. These perennial streams, however, have been under threat ever since Kodaikanal began mushrooming into a big time tourist centre. The condition portends the destruction of the fragile ecology of these hills. From being home to just 5,000 residents two decades ago Kodaikanal is today a sprawling urban centre with a population of 35,000- 40,000 residents and hosts over a million tourists each year. Anxious about the deteriorating conditions of the environment in the area, concerned citizens of the town joined hands to form the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC).

The destruction of the natural environment by unauthorised construction activities has been one of the many problems addressed by the PHCC. Emboldened by the lax local administration, law-flouting builders hastened to cash in on the boom in the tourist industry, without regard for either aesthetics or building regulations. Problems such as sewage disposal and the availability of electricity and water have also been compounded.

In 1992, when the PHCC launched its protest against illegal construction activities in Kodaikanal, the rqyisM master plan was theoretically in operation. The master plan stated in clear terms that no structure more than 10 m in height, or one-plus-one floors (including the basement), could be constructed within the bounds of Kodaikanal town. The most glaring violation of the plan was a five-storey building - coming up pradically in the centre of the town - ironically named Pleasant Stay Hotel. Repeated appeals by the PHCc to the local administration to discipline the builders went un heeded as construction continued. In August 1992, the PHCC sought legal opinion from a firm in Madras known for its association with cases related to environmental degradation. In September 1992, a stay order on the construction of Pleasant Stay Hotel was obtained from the Madras High Court (HC). This marked the beginning of a long legal wrangle which is yet to see its end.

In the meantime the council had to rush to court to obtain an order of injunction against another hotel, Fernhill, which was being built in a strictly residential area of Kodaikanal. However, the stay orders against the builders did not deter the construction of either of the hotels and this time the PHcc was in court to punish both for. contempt of court. The HC found the developers statement to be "A cock and bull story... which no reasonable man could believe," and punished both. But the fine for contempt was a mere Rs 10,000 of which only half has been paid, and the main writ petition against Fernhill's owners is still pending.

Against the backdrop of these events, the Tomil Nadu state legislature passed a specialised law to deal with the regulation of building activity in the hills. Unde'r this new dispensation, it became incumbent upon the state government (and not the relevant town authorities), in conjunction with the recommendation of a high-powered technical- group in Madras called the Architecture and Aesthetic Aspects Committee (Triple A Committee), to wave the green signal for such projects. In March 1993, the draft master plan for Kodaikanal was approved by the state government according to which, the height of the building (restricted to 10 m) would be calculated from the foundation level.

None of these legal developments seemed to be able to check the unpleasant building of Pleasant Stay which by now had grown seven storeys tall and neared completion. The PHCC once again moved the court demanding that the promoter be brought to book for violating the stay order. Meanwhile, the Triple A Committee unanimously rejected the plan of Pleasant Stay Hotel.

Within months of this decision, the Indian Express made public the fact that the state government of Tamil Nadu had passed an order granting permission for construction to continue and had exempted the Pleasant Stay building from almost all regulations. Upon receiving a copy of the government order, the council immediately challenged it on several grounds. The heart of the matter was disputing the state government's authority to make the decisions it had made.

As late as August 1994, when matters were being argued in court, the state government sought an adjournment and silently achieved two things. Firstly, it amended the law to render itself more powerful in taking such decisions and validated the earlier order. Secondly, it passed another government order to exempt the building from the earlier omissions. In retaliation, the PHCC moved the Madras FIC. In April 1995, a two-judge bench of the court ordered that the five additional floors raised in excess of the sanctioned plan be demolished.

The HC also passed strictures against the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and directed the town's authorities to inspect every building in Kodaikanal and submit a report to the court on the violations and the action they intended to initiate against such violators. Success at last, but was it?

Although the inspection was completed, no further action has resulted. Three appeals each were filed by the hotelier and the state of Tamil Nadu before the Supreme Court (sc) of India. The PHcc demonstrated to the court the illegality of the former's actions and in August 1995, the sc dismissed all six appeals. But it asked the Madras HC to clarify which five floors were to be demolished. The HC once again heard arguments on behalf of both the parties and ordered the top five floors to be demolished. The hotelier had filed appeals to the sc but anticipating such a move the PHCc had filed caveats (a process taken to suspend proceedings) in the sc. The hotelier's appeal was therefore dismissed in December 1995.

It is more than three years since PHCC first went to court against illegal construction in Kodaikanal. The top slab of Pleasant Stay Hotel has been removed, but further demolition work is proceeding at a sluggish pace. The authorities in town are half-hearted in their compliance of the court's orders and have ordered minor violators to halt their activities. Therefore, matters do not stand very different today despite the fact that the PHcc has vindicated its stand. Its task seems far from over.

Furthermore, the PHcc has tried taking a stand against corporate offenders like Sterling Resorts, who have interests in Kodaikanal. The very first Sterling Resort has split Kodaikanal's only wetland into two, causing immeasurable damage to it. The second and third resorts under construction have been cleverly located within the purview of Vilpatti panchayat, outside the bounds of the town.

The problems of Kodaikanal are not its alone and could and are being repeated in several other parts of the country. The mixed success of the 'Pleasant Stay Order'- as the case has become known in Kodaikanal - is evidence of a growing consciousness amongst the public. But a lot remains to be done to match the power wielded by these self-styled 'developers'.

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