The Sunday TimesPlus

23rd February 1997



Relentless tide of destruction

For those who live by the sea, coastal erosion is not just an environmental phenomenon, it threatens their very existence. Tharuka Dissanaike speaks to the people of Vellamankare:

For the people of Vellamankare, the sea is their benefactor, their source of liveli hood, their constant companion and their worst enemy. For years they have watched the sea devouring all in its path, slowly coming closer and closer home. Today, at night, while many of them sleep, the sea laps at their doorsteps. These people live with a terrible burden. It is the fear, that comes of knowing with cold certainty that their homes will not be spared when the next monsoon hits the coast.

"Look at this house," Samanthi Enoka, a young mother said, walking among the rubble that was once her kitchen and a back bedroom. "We can now use only the two rooms in front, and even there sea spray comes into the house at night."

She lives with her mother, who built the house in 1982 and husband, a mason. These were not make shift cadjan houses, but well built brick and tile dwellings. But nothing has stood the assault of the raging sea.

"The back rooms were destroyed last year during the monsoon," Samanthi said.

This fishing hamlet, barely a kilometer northwards from the Ginthota river outlet at Nainamadama, in the Chilaw District, is not the only one affected by severe sea erosion. A stretch of some seven kilometers from the river mouth northwards, is under threat. The line of houses at the sea front have suffered extensive damages. Most are partly rubble, others are cracking and crumbling under the incessant force of the sea. Past the houses, the beach slopes steeply into the sea. The slope is so great that it is difficult to walk straight on the beach. A huge building which was once an ice factory, stands in a mess of steel and concrete. Split in the middle, one half of the building has washed into the sea.

"There was a road here," one resident said , pointing to the area which was now frothing aquamarine sea.

"Beyond the road there were houses, not small ones, but houses worth a couple of lakhs with tiles and ceilings. Behind that was a coconut plantation and then was the sea. Now the sea is here."

Sarath Upali, a fisherman, was picking out the catch from his net. "My house is now under the sea," he said with some bitterness. "It was a big brick house. I am now living in a makeshift hut by the beach. The compensation we were given was only Rs. 6000. Hardy enough to do a proper foundation."

"I was asleep when my kitchen was swept away in the sea," Shiromi said. Now the family lives in a small shack built adjacent to the shell of their old house. "Some of us sleep over at the neighbours since there is no room in the hut," she said.

For years while slowly the sea destroyed their homes, the people ran to all kinds of officials for help. But yet, there have been no satisfactory answers to their pleas. Those who have lost their houses have not been given alternate land or compensation, nothing has been done to safeguard the beach against erosion.

The entire community at Vellamankare railed against the politicians and bureaucrats who are supposed to represent them. "We will not allow any of them to come campaigning for votes in the coming election to our houses," K. R. D. Kanthi said. Her house is on the next row of dwellings by the sea. "This house was built by years of toiling in the Middle East. If this goes into the sea, who will give us houses as good as these ?," her husband asked.

He said he was a fisherman and could not go and live inland either. To add insult to injury the State has asked the residents here to settle housing loans that some have taken immediately. "Why should we?, These houses will go to the sea anyway if things continue," Kanthi said.

The people pointed to the stone embankments put on the beach south of the river outlet. "That is why erosion is so much stronger right here," they said. "We have asked the Deputy Fisheries Minister, Milroy Fernando to attend to this problem, but nothing has happened. Some stones were brought and piled up on the beach but that was all," Kanthi said.

The Coast Conservation Department had given sand bags to some houses, to try save the buildings from erosion but the bags are already split and torn and the sand leaking out.

Mr. Nissanka Perera, Director, Coast Conservation Department (CCD) said that this stretch of beach was the most severely eroding area of coastline in the entire country. He admitted that the revetments done to the beach immediately south have been the cause of intensified erosion at Vellamankare and beyond, but added that the revetment was necessary to protect the beaches there, most of which are host to tourist hotels. "Several hotels did the revetment at their own cost." he said. He added that the stretch of beach from Vellamankare to Lansigama erodes as fast as 3-4 metres every year.

Perera said that to stop the erosion at Vellamankare, immediate steps had to be taken to extend the present revetment along the coast until all the fishing villages of the area are safe. "But the cost is indeed great. To do the revetment from Vellamankare up to Lansigama, we would need at least Rs. 120-150 million." He said that the revetment has been placed as a priority for funding by the government and the Ministry of Fisheries was dong all it can to protect the people and houses in the area.

But, Perera could not say whether the beach could be protected before the coming monsoon. "We are trying to negotiate some emergency measures until the monsoon period. We are considering at least 400 metres of revetment before the monsoon. But this might hasten erosion in parts beyond this point," he added.

When we contacted the Deputy Minister, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Milroy Perera, he said that the CCD is attending to the problem. But he too could not say whether these families could be protected before the rains in May/ June. "Those details could be obtained from the Minister," he replied to our query whether the people will be evacuated from their houses before the monsoon in case the revetment doesn't come.

As for the people of Vellamankare, it is now a matter of waiting. The fate of their homes and hearths is out of their hands. They look heavenwards and pray for divine intervention. But the solution to their woes is very down to earth and has to come through state intervention.

The birth of a Newspaper

February 23 is the 111th birth anniversary of D. R. Wijewardene, founder of the Lake House Newspapers. Here we publish an excerpt from an article written by him about the Ceylon Daily News

During the riots I was holding a commission in the C.L.I., and perhaps due to my connection with the Social Service League and the National Association my house was searched by a private of the European Town Guard, a European Police Sergeant and a posse of Punjabi Soldiers. D. S. Senanayake and his brothers, F. R. and D. C., W. A de Silva, D. B. (now Sir Baron) Jayatilaka and C. Batuwantudawe, who had figured prominently in the temperance movement and of whom four were destined to become Ministers in later years under the Donoughmore Constitution, were thrown into prison. From now on the political history of Ceylon was to be different.

Temperance workers foresaw that without political freedom and a voice in the management of their own affairs there was no liberty. Those who were devoting themselves to temperance came over to politics and there was a great accession of workers to the political cause - and none more zealous than the present leader of the House, D. S. Senanayake.

At this time those who were responsible for governmental misdeeds attempted to drive a wedge between the Sinhalese Buddhists and Sinhalese Christians by trying to make out that the latter had no connection with the riots. This move failed and as things returned to normal, and the Government permitted it, a great public meeting was held at the Public Hall to protest against the iniquities which had been committed. A definite move was made to prevent Sir James Peiris and other Sinhalese Christians from participating, - but Sir James, a man of high principle and sterling integrity, frowned on it.

It was at this meeting that Dr. Solomon Fernando died immediately after he had made a speech.

The National Association, now galvanised into life, continued to take an active interest in all political events of the day. Frequent meetings were held, memoranda drafted, memorials sent to the Secretary of State and when occasion demanded public meetings held.

The pioneer

The man who gave much-needed direction and drive during the next phase of the national movement was just emerging into a public career. Sir P. Arunachalam had shone brilliantly as a Civil Servant. He was a scholar, philosopher and a proved administrator. He had now divested himself of his official habiliments and was looking round for an opportunity for service in a different field, under freer conditions. I persuaded him to deliver his epoch-making address on "Our Political Needs" at a meeting of the National Association. That address was both a starting point and a blue print for the important constitutional changes which followed, and was listened to by a large audience in the Victoria Masonic Hall.

The immediate outcome of the meeting was the formation of the Ceylon Reform League for the sole purpose of putting forward the case for a substantial measure of responsible government for Ceylon. I was joint secretary with Mr. W. A. de Silva. Sir P. Arunachalam was our President and his habit of visiting the League's Office regularly and putting in a day's work was another instance of his sincerity and devotion to duty. The Ceylon National Association and Reform League held under their joint auspices a National Conference which voiced the demands of the country.

It was the precursor of the Ceylon National Congress which was inaugurated in the following year.

A Free press

Such then was the background of my incursion into journalism. I remember how some years before, when I was still in England, Mr. Corbet emphasised to me the importance of a well-informed public opinion for which a free and independent Press was a sine qua non. Mr. Corbet went so far as to cable to Sir Hector Van Cuylenberg, then proprietor of the "Ceylon Independent," enquiring whether he would sell his newspaper.

It was a few years later that I bought the "Dinamina," one of my brothers also taking a share. I had the inestimable advantage of the close co-operation of Sir Baron Jayatilaka. He not only gave me his advice and encouragement but wrote many of the leaders and special articles. The high place which the "Dinamina" occupies today in Ceylon journalism owes a good deal to those earlier activities of Sir Baron, for the foundation of the paper was well and truly laid.

The "Ceylon Daily News" as Sir P. Arunachalam wrote in his message, published in the first issue, was fortunate in the time of its birth. New forces were at work, stirring the national consciousness. The newspapers at the time were the "Ceylon Morning Leader," edited by a clever journalist. the late Armand de Souza, the "Ceylon Observer," the "Times of Ceylon," the "Ceylon Independent" and the "Ceylonese." The last-named was started by Sir P. Ramanathan. Mr. Hector Jayawardene and others and at a later stage Mr. Francis de Zoysa, a man who never wavered from his principles, was an active Director, and always took a great interest in the "Daily News" too. The "Ceylonese" always had a vigorous nationalist policy and in make-up and presentation of news inclined to American methods. But the business side of the newspaper was sadly mismanaged and it went under the auctioneer's hammer on a writ of F. R. Senanayake's for Rs. 21,000.

The sale was fixed for a date in December 1917. I had decided to make an offer and went to the sale. F. R. Senanayake and his brother D. S. arrived shortly afterwards and as they were in a hurry to keep an appointment elsewhere F. R. asked me to bid up to Rs. 21,000, the amount of his writ. I was in an embarrassing position when I found that the bidding was not lively and the best offer was about Rs. 15,000. I bought the paper, including plant and goodwill for Rs. 16,000 and in addition paid F. R. a cheque for the difference between the purchase price and the amount of the mortgage. Many people shook their heads and said that another man was preparing to walk the streets.

I hardly realised the problems involved in running a daily newspaper. We had not much time to prepare our first issue. It is recorded that eighteen months of careful preparation preceded the first issue of the London "Daily Mail". We had about as many hours to prepare.

I had been a regular reader and admirer of the London "Daily News" under the editorship of A. G. Gardiner, since my undergraduate days, and I decided to call the newspaper the "Ceylon Daily News." I had no Editor although nearly all the readers of the "Ceylonese" came over, as the sales figures showed. The late F. F. Martinus, a well-known journalist of his time who had retired from the practice of his craft, might be considered the first editor as he was in charge for the first week of the paper's existence. I borrowed his services from one of my brothers for whom he was working in a business office. The great stand-by of the paper in those days was J. R. Weinman, a prolific and ready writer with an inexhaustible fund of knowledge and reminiscence. A. V. Kulasingham, now Crown Advocate of Jaffna, who had been on the editorial staff of the "Ceylonese," was editor for a brief period. He was succeeded by S. J. K. Crowther, with whose co-operation I was able to establish the paper on its present secure footing.

One of the reasons for the rapid success of the "Daily News" was the fact that it came to represent the new forces referred to by Sir P. Arunachalam. The "Morning Leader" under Armand de Souza had passed its hey-day. High officials had cultivated the friendship of the Editor and his style as a free and independent critic had suffered. The "Ceylon Independent" had failed to keep pace with the march of time. The "Ceylonese" could not survive the difficulties resulting from the war and other causes owing to divided ownership and counsel.

No one who was associated with me in the publication of the "Daily News" had political ambitions. Nor did I embark on the sea of journalism to bring home any rich argosies. There are more comfortable methods of making money than the newspaper profession affords. I staked a great deal on the venture. The paper had the ideal of public service and national progress before it. In the pursuit of those ideals the organisation which I started with a few dozen men has grown and has been established on a solid foundation.

Return to the Plus contents page

Read Letters to the Editor

Go to the Plus Archive


Home Page Front Page OP/ED News Business

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to