07th December 1997

Politics of the beaches

By Rajpal Abeynayake

"The coldest winter I spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco." So said that impish American wit, Mark Twain. But anybody who would have stepped into the icy cold waters of the Pacific on the coasts of San Francisco would have known that Mark Twain was not merely bandying words.

A San Francisco summer can be stifling hot, but the beaches, they are another matter. Cold currents (that originate from God knows where) bring in chill winds to the San Francisco coast on any hot summer day. If you want to spend a summer's day on the beach, you will be advised to take your warm clothes along with you.

So much for what passes off for "the beach'' in most countries. Cold beaches are as off-putting as cold curry. But, the sight of pale skins spread-eagled on ice cold beaches is often indicative of the human condition in lesser endowed nations.

But, talking of beaches, they are among the last places that you would think of findings a Sri Lankan politician. C. V. Gooneratne, that stout-hearted bohemian from Dehiwela, used to be seen on the beaches of Mount Lavinia in those bad old days when he was an opposition politician. But that was C. V. Gooneratne in his "hail fellow well met" days.

These days, you wouldn't find C. V. Gooneratne on the beach by a long shot, and this is not a place to discuss reasons. Anyway, no matter. When beaches became the topic of discussion in parliament recently, that was odd.

Politicians don't think about beaches. Anybody with a beach-going spirit wouldn't become a politician, because after you become a politician you couldn't go to the beach. But, now the beaches have figured in parliamentary discourse in a filthy kind of way.

Like "Love in the time of cholera" (Gabriel Gracia Marquez) it is a case of "beaches in the time of cholera''.

Though the logic has been tortuous, the long and the short of it is that the cholera epidemic is being traced to the contamination of fish by faecal matter on the beach.

Curiously, until cholera hit like a thunderbolt, parliamentarians rarely if ever spoke of beaches, leave alone contaminated ones.

There has been a trend of Sri Lankan's thinking of ourselves as an organic people, who are sort of happy and heady because they are immersed in the elements. So phenomena like beaches contaminated by human wastes were put down to our own natural organic bent.

But, in the meantime that something hit the fan, and we had cholera upon us. In a manner of speaking, we found ourselves in deep shi..I mean faecal matter.

So, anyhow, parliament has given way to a discussion of the beaches, which is quite a breakthrough, because things like beaches rarely occur to parliamentarians. This suggestion is to say that while we are on the subject, there can be so much done about the beaches that we probably wouldn't focus on until our next cholera epidemic hits.

We don't have a resource quite like the beach in a country that almost notoriously lacks natural resources. Apart from a few of natures baubles like gems and plumbago, this country is bereft of booty like oil or gold.

But then, we are God's own country. This is twenty leagues from heaven where you can hear the fountains of paradise.

Alright, for those who would rather not gush about it, let's take the harder contemporary assessment by a British travel writer who recently rated Sri Lanka as "simply stunning'' in a BBC programme.

It is still probably the most beautiful country on earth, and anyone who doesn't agree is probably just jealous.

Maybe we do not have the sheer abundance of beaches that the Maldives does for instance, but beaches are, if not a greater part, a substantial part of the whole of this country's quite stunning scenic beauty.

We do not treat our beaches with the reverence with which they treat beaches in Thailand , for example, where beaches are kept as clean as bathroom tiles.

For the Thais everything including women are a commercial enterprise, so the reason for keeping the beaches spotless is mercenary rather than aesthetic.

Its a good thing we haven't converted our beaches in this way into club-Med enclaves, and made them a preserve for white people to fornicate. There is no point in having miles and miles of private or quasi-private beaches while the masses hunger for a slice of the sun and the sand.

Some of the great pros of not being too tourist-friendly outweigh the cons.

Now, we have Fisheries Minister Mahinda Rajapakse saying that he wants to convert beaches like Modera, Wellawatte and the hummanaya into beach parks. It was a mistake to think that the preserve of the Minister of Fisheries was fish.

Whatever the outcome of that may be, for those who appreciate the beaches and live on them, (or live off them) there is not much choice except to despoil their neighbourhood in answering a call of nature.

There is also not much point telling them "every prospect pleases and only man is vile," borrowing that famous Senior quote.

So we need cholera. It will of course be ghoulish to say that a few deaths are a small price to pay for igniting the political consciousness on cleaning up our beaches. But to get politicians to think about our beaches, and more importantly to get our politicians to think about people living on or about our sea shores, is a major achievement. We have to thank cholera for that.

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