Thursday, August 06, 2009

The road to nowhere

Residents of Old St. Augustine School Road, who live beside the railway tracks, near North station, have been using the road for more than 60 years. Suddenly, the Railways closed it down in the name of safety, putting the people to great hardship

Photo: P.N. Pankajakshan Pillai in front of his house on Old St. Augustine School road

By Shevlin Sebastian

On October 2008 residents of Old St. Augustine School Road, who stay beside the tracks near North Railway station, got a shock. Without prior warning the road was closed by the Railways by installing iron beams.

“We could no longer drive our cars to our houses,” says businessman Joseph Vadakkel. Nowadays, the residents park their cars in adjoining roads, exposing the vehicles to inclement weather and thieves.

“Among the people who stay here, there are sick and aged people who need constant medical attention,” says Joseph. “If we are denied motorable access it will be impossible to get medical aid during an emergency.”

Joseph has a right to be worried. His mother, Rosy, who is 83, is a cardiac patient.

Near their house is the hostel of the Muslim Educational Society. When students fall ill they have to be physically carried to the main road, since no car and not even an auto-rickshaw can go past the barrier. “This has caused a great deal of hardship,” says Chairman P.A. Mamoo.

At night, owing to the absence of police patrols, because of the barrier, the road has become a haunt for drug peddlers and anti-social elements. “The Railways say they are worried about safety, but now the road has become dangerous, especially for our school-going children,” says Advocate Mathew Vadakkel.

In a twist of irony, P.N. Pankajakshan Pillai, a retired Divisional Commercial Manager of the Railways says his former organisation is not following the spirit of the law. “Section 16 of the 1989 Railway Act clearly states that no inconvenience should be caused to the occupiers and owners of adjoining lands,” he says.

The Railways have kept insisting there has been no road for long, say the residents. But through a tenacious search, they have managed to obtain the relevant records from the Cochin Corporation and the Village Office. “These documents prove that a road has been in existence for more than 60 years,” says Joseph.

Incidentally, among the 40 families who rented or owned property on the one kilometre-long road, there was a former Supreme Court Judge, (Late) K.K. Mathew, and three High Court judges: Justices K.P. Radhakrishna Menon, Chettur Sankaran Nair and the late George Vadakkel. “Surely they would not have stayed here if there was no road,” says Joseph.

A senior Railway official, who did not want to be identified, says that they were forced to take action because of the likelihood of a mishap taking place. “We are duty-bound to prevent that,” he says. The local people contend that in the past sixty years there has not been a single accident.

Their repeated plea to the Railways to re-open the road was met with anger and contempt, especially by the Assistant Divisional Engineer at Kochi.

When the people approached the local Cochin Corporation councillor K.V. Manoj and senior politicians there was no response.

In desperation the families took the legal route. In February, 2009, Rosy Vadakkel filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court, pleading for maintenance of the status quo.

In April, the court, in an interim order, directed the Railways to “pass appropriate orders remedying the grievance of the petitioner.” In early July, the Railways responded.

“They said that if anybody wants to use the road they can apply for the use of one metre (3’ 3”) or three metres (9’ 10”),” says Pillai.

For one metre there is a one-time payment. If it is for three metres, the railways will measure the area required, and the rent would be calculated at 6 per cent of the market value of the land. Once the amount is fixed, the residents will have to make an advance payment for 10 years.

When Joseph inquired about the cost of using the road and putting up barricades near the tracks, outside his home, he was told it would come to a whopping Rs 17.5 lakh and it covers only five houses. “This sum is beyond our means,” he says. “I can well imagine the cost for the others.”

FACT engineer P. Subramoniam says that in 2007-8, the Railways made a profit of Rs 25,000 crore. “Surely, with such huge profits the Railways can afford to adopt a humanitarian approach towards us,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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