KOLLAM — At the end of an entry-restricted bridge spanning a canal that links the ecologically sensitive backwater regions of Kerala’s Kollam and Alappuzha districts lies Amritapuri. This is the spiritual headquarters of Mata Amritanandamayi, revered by her followers in India and abroad as Amma (mother) and the “hugging saint”.
Amritapuri, located in Kollam, is one of India’s busiest pilgrim centres. But till four decades ago, it was just a nondescript fishing village that went by a different name: Parayakadavu. When Amritanandamayi became a global figure and started embracing thousands into her fold, the village took her name. Similarly, the bridge—100 meters long, 5.8 meters wide, and inaugurated in 2006—is called the Amrita Sethu.
From humble beginnings, Amritapuri now houses the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, the Embracing the World NGO with special consultative status to the United Nations, and a 30,000-square-foot darshan hall. According to the math’s official website amritapuri.org, this pillar-less darshan hall is the largest such space in all of South India. The peninsular village also has high-rise apartments, office complexes, schools, colleges, temples and hostels. The bridge connects it to Vallikkavu village on the mainland, an extension of the spiritual empire that houses the headquarters of a multi-campus private university, a hospital and commercial establishments owned and operated by the math.
Sixty-six-year-old Amritanandamayi—who has reportedly hugged over 36 million people so far, —counts some famous names among her admirers, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hollywood actor Sharon Stone once called her a “remarkable angel” while presenting her with an award for her humanitarian work. Devotees at her ashram sing her praises, pointing to her transformation from the daughter of an ordinary fishing family into a supposed miracle worker who can, by her own account, turn water into milk and cure a leper by licking his wounds.
In stark contrast, her math stands as a much-criticised symbol of rampant illegal construction. Officials at the Alappad gram panchayat, under which Amritapuri falls, say the math has repeatedly violated Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules. These rules define a Coastal Regulation Zone as an area up to 500 metres from the high-tide line. There are restrictions on certain human and industrial activity, including large constructions, in such a zone. The objective is to protect these sensitive spots that are ecologically fragile, home to many life forms, and increasingly threatened by climate change.
Ironically, the math portrays itself as environmentally conscious and exhorts its followers to be judicious about the use of natural resources. “In the past, nature was like Kamadhenu, a wish-fulfilling cow. Today, that cow has become sick and old and is stumbling towards death. We alone are responsible for this. Our indiscriminate exploitation of nature can be likened to sawing off the tree branch on which we are seated,” Amritanandamayi is quoted as saying in a post on amritapuri.org.
“Amma and her math are very vocal about environmental issues. But in our highly vulnerable panchayat, the math is the biggest threat to [the] environment. They violate all rules and consider Amritapuri a free republic,” said panchayat president and Communist Party of India (Marxist) activist P. Saleena. “We are preparing for a David versus Goliath fight. Hope we win.”
Multiple attempts by HuffPost India to get the math officials to comment on the allegations of construction in violation of CRZ rules did not elicit a response.
Incidentally, the allegations against Amritanandamayi’s math are similar to charges against another spiritual leader with a mass following. As reported by HuffPost India on January 14, residents and activists in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, have accused Jagdeesh Vasudev and his Isha Foundation of flouting environmental rules, causing ecological damage, and getting away with it because of his alleged connections to the central government.
In Alappad, the panchayat office has identified 508 CRZ violations involving encroachments and illegal constructions, its secretary T. Dileep said. Among these, “there are 83 large-scale constructions violating all laws. All those 83 illegal buildings are owned by Amritanandamayi’s math”, he said.
According to Dileep, in April 2005, the math submitted building plans for only 10 of the 83 buildings, but the plans lacked approval. For those 10 buildings, the panchayat gave the math numbers in the “unauthorised buildings” category. This means that the math can continue to occupy and use these buildings pending a final decision. The remaining buildings do not have these numbers.
As per official documents accessed by HuffPost India, the illegal constructions are concentrated in ward VII (Parayakadavu) of the panchayat. Listed at number 489 on the CRZ violations list is “Matha Bhavan”, where Amritanandamayi lives.
Alappad panchayat is a narrow 16-km-long land strip wedged between the canal and the Arabian Sea. It has a maximum width of 500 metres, whittled down in some spots to just 33 meters. Naturally, all of Alappad comes under the CRZ regulations.
But, as Dileep pointed out, “The buildings are located close to the high-tide line and one among them is 14 storeys high. The distance from the sea at some points is hardly one metre.”
Apart from building plans, the math has also failed to furnish land ownership documents, the panchayat secretary alleged. Other employees at the panchayat office, who did not want to be identified, accused the math of flouting land-buying rules. They said the math had approached small landholders occupying public land for generations without proper papers, negotiated with them directly and taken over the land. But due to the lack of documentation, the math could not register these lands.
Furthermore, Dileep said the math did not pay the panchayat any tax. “As the buildings have no numbers and no land documents to prove ownership, the panchayat is not able to collect taxes from the math,” he said. “The math owes us taxes worth several crores. If they had paid the amount, the panchayat might have achieved high living standards and huge infrastructure.”
Amritanandamayi’s empire extends beyond Amritapuri and Vallikkavu to the Adinad, Kulasekharapuram and Karunagappally regions of Kollam. According to a survey conducted by the Karunagappally Taluk Land Board in August 2019, the math is in possession of 402 acres of surplus land. Of this, 204.5 acres is in Alappad panchayat, as per the land board’s proceedings (title SM1/17/KNPY).
Under the Kerala Land Reforms Act, a person or organisation can possess a maximum of 15 acres of land. Any land above this limit will be considered surplus and be added to the state land bank.
In addition, the land board documents, accessed by HuffPost India, show Amritanandamayi’s sister Kasturi Bai possesses 27 acres of surplus land. Kasturi Bai, a home-maker, lives with her family in the math complex. She was not available for comment.
Documents lost in the tsunami?
Amritanandamayi’s math is not only guilty of illegal construction in an ecologically sensitive coastal zone but also of ignoring repeated notices from the panchayat office, its members say.
“The math ignores our notices and shows scant regard to the environmental and survival concerns of the local community,’’ alleged Cibi Bony, a panchayat member and Revolutionary Marxist Party leader.
On May 9, 2017, the math was served a demolition notice (number A4.447/16) under the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act for CRZ violations. This was the first such notice to be issued to the math, which reportedly did not respond to it.
On July 5, 2018, panchayat secretary Dileep issued a notice to the math, seeking building plans and ownership details of the structures in Amritapuri and its surroundings. In a letter to the panchayat office on August 8 that year, the math’s secretary apologised for the delay in furnishing details and sought more time. However, there was no further written communication from the math, said Dileep.
HuffPost India has obtained copies of both the notices and the math’s response to the second notice.
“Despite our repeated notices, math authorities were unable to produce land records and building plans to prove the constructions as legal,” said Dileep. “They gave an oral explanation that the land records were lost in the  tsunami. [But] The math sustained very little damage in the tsunami and did not utilise earlier government drives to re-issue documents lost in the tsunami.”
The math ignored notices to appear before the Karunagappally Taluk Land Board as well, said Abdul Salam, a member of the board and a former Alappad village official. However, following a 2017 Kerala High Court order, the math paid the Clappana panchayat Rs 1 crore in compensation and got unauthorised constructions spread across 45 acres in that panchayat regularised. According to local newspaper reports, the court order was in response to a complaint filed by a CPI(M) worker.
Fishermen feel discriminated
It is not only panchayat officials who have grievances against the math. The local fishing community does as well.
Beyond Amritanandamayi’s empire of high-rise buildings, the rest of Parayakadavu village is flat. Fishing families here live in tiny thatched sheds as the CRZ rules prohibit permanent constructions.
According to panchayat member Bony, this has made the fisherfolk resentful of the rules as they feel discriminated against, especially when they see the “math with huge financial power and influence violating the same rules by constructing huge buildings”.
At the same time, the environmental hazards that the CRZ rules seek to keep at bay have already affected their lives drastically. Indiscriminate mining of mineral sand has resulted in massive sea erosion, forcing a large number of traditional fishermen to relocate to other places in search of new employment. HuffPost India had reported in January 2019 that the sea had swallowed 20,000 acres of land in Alappad over 20 years.
According to the same report, the erosion began with the 2004 tsunami. That disaster was intrinsic to the rise in Amritanandamayi’s popularity. “The tsunami wreaked havoc in Alappad and the math was at the forefront of rescue and rehabilitation [efforts]. Furthermore, it doled out Rs 100 crore worth of relief in all tsunami-hit regions of India,” recalled R. Baby, a Congress leader and panchayat member.
It was also in the wake of the tsunami that the Amrita Sethu was built. “The math built the bridge as an emergency facility for residents of Alappad, saying it can evacuate 15,000 people in 30 minutes in any emergency,” said Baby. “Technically, it is still an emergency evacuation facility. But practically, it [has] evolved into an entry-restricted bridge connecting the spiritual empires of the math.”
Should the math continue with its building spree, critics fear more environmental disasters would occur.
All eyes on Supreme Court
The Alappad panchayat and the fishing community are now hoping the Supreme Court will intervene in the matter.
Dileep said Kerala chief secretary Tom Jose had submitted a detailed report to the court recommending that 76 buildings erected by the math be demolished under CRZ rules. When HuffPost India contacted Jose, he declined to comment.
The report was submitted following a Supreme Court order in September 2019 to raze hundreds of luxury flats in Maradu, a locality in Kochi city, for CRZ violations. The two-day demolition drive took place earlier this month.
“If the Supreme Court-monitored demolition in Maradu is any yardstick, these buildings [in Alappad panchayat] must be razed,” said Dileep. “We have issued demolition notices on multiple occasions. But they [the math] chose to ignore them. Now we are planning legal action, including approaching the Supreme Court.”
Former village official Salam said the villagers too were hopeful that the Supreme Court would step in, given that it had not only ensured the Maradu flats were torn down but had also ordered the demolition of the Kapico Resorts on the banks of the Vembanad lake in Alappuzha for CRZ violations. The court pronounced this order in January.
“The same kind of violations have taken place in Amritapuri and the law must not be discriminatory,” said Salam. “We have all [the] documents to prove our allegations.”