The government should have seen it coming. But as in many past cases, it was afflicted with the ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’ syndrome when the tourism department floated a tender inviting bids for 20 beach shacks—an alias for watering holes—on six major beaches in Odisha to attract tourists. The six beaches spread along the state’s 480-km coastline included the 35-km Puri-Konark marine drive. Five of the shacks were proposed on this stretch.
Predictably, all hell broke loose once news about the tender, the process for which had already been completed, was out. A host of cultural and religious outfits, mostly based in Puri, were up in arms against what they said was an affront to the religious and spiritual heritage of this pilgrimage town. They were joined by the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati, who came out strongly against this ‘sacrilege’. A memorandum calling for the immediate scrapping of the plan was submitted to the state government. As the protests grew louder, the government beat a hasty retreat and announced the cancellation of the tender for Puri. “Considering the spiritual significance of Puri, the government has decided to drop the plan for setting up beach shacks in Puri,” announced Puri collector Samarth Verma.
But those opposing the idea wonder how the government failed to factor in this aspect when it chose to go ahead with the tender. “Did the government come to know about the spiritual significance of Puri only after the protests gathered momentum?” asks Yudhisthir Rout, a resident of the town. “I am sure they knew that the Puri beach is not like other beaches and is an integral part of the Jagannath cult ecosystem.” Srikant Sahoo, who is in the tourist trade, says, “It is not as if alcohol is banned in Puri. Tourists stay in hotels and get their fill. So, where was the need to set up exclusive beach shacks for booze and rile the local people?”
The process for beach shacks on the other five beachfronts, however, has not been scrapped. It remains to be seen if the plan goes ahead on the other beaches stretching from Gopalpur in the south to Talasari in the north.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar