April 08, 2012

THE GOAN CRUSADER


MATHANY SALDANHA
(24 October 1964 - 21 March 2012)
Ever since the fall of the NDA government at the Centre, speculations were rife that copious amounts of money were being channelized into Goa to destabilize the BJP led coalition government in the state which was surviving on a wafer-thin majority. Though the Congressmen and their agents were initially unsuccessfully in their numerous attempts to dethrone CM Manohar Parrikar, their relentless efforts eventually bore fruits as four members of the BJP resigned to contest the elections on a Congress ticket. With the strength of the House being reduced to 36 members and regional outfits as well as independent MLAs switching sides in search of 'greener grass', the government was left stranded in  a precarious situation as its strength was reduced to mere 17 as compared to the Congress which now enjoyed the backing of 18 legislators. The survival of the state government, much like the hopes of the Congress to come to power after a gap of four years, depended on the decision of the 36th MLA - state Tourism Minister and United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP) leader, Mathany Saldanha who was then in Spain on a state visit.

In spite of being vocal about his differences with the Congress and its policies throughout his life, the state unit of the party was optimistic that they could woo Saldanha over to their side. And the situation was tilted in their favor. After all, only 'fools' could resist ministerial berths and the loads of money being offered to change colors, especially in a state like Goa, whose politics is characterized  by horse trading, loyalty switching and MLA poaching. Besides, the other two members of the UGDP - Antanasio 'Babush' Monserrate and Mickkey Paccheco, the 'bad boys' of the state had already jumped on to the Congress bandwagon and were in negotiations with the party bosses to get plum posts in the new cabinet. Lastly, with the Parrikar regime being accused of bias towards Goa's minority Catholic community, it would be nothing less than 'political suicide' for Saldanha to continue his support to the state government which was highly unpopular among Christians.

However, there were in for a rude shock. Not only did Saldanha turn down their offer, he went straight to meet the CM, his close friend to pledge his allegiance to state government and made it clear that he would not go with the Congress under any circumstances. In a press statement, the politician who had been an integral part of every mass agitation on issues relating to the Goa, its environment and people in the post Liberation era said

                     "I am not a weathercock to change fields for personal gains,
                                                                                 and for me politics is not making money or power game."

At a time when his principals were put to test, Saldhana had emerged unscathed and his selfless and upright behavior during the crisis won him many new admirers (including me) and an equal number of enemies. When many around him were willing to support any front that was ready to fulfill their personal interests irrespective of political ideologies, Mathany had upheld the values that our founding fathers had laid down in the Constitution by refusing to be a part of this 'politics of opportunism'. Though, the manner in which he handled the March 2005 situation was a pleasant surprise for any person who has followed the murky politics of India's smallest state, those close to Mathany say that he had pretty much spent his entire life on his own terms, never compromising on the ideals that were dear to him and refusing to budge to any kinds of pressure, especially on issues relating to his beloved Goy (Goa).

Born on 24th October 1948, Mathany Saldanha hailed from the scenic coastal village of Cansaulim in South Goa, famous for the Feast of Three Kings and completed his higher education from the neighboring district of Belgavi (Belgaum) in Karnataka. In an eventful life spanning 64 years, he played several roles - that of a teacher to the pupils of Don Bosco High School in Panjim, a politician who represented the people of Cortalim constituency on two occasions, a social worker who campaigned for the rights of the downtrodden and the deprived, an environmentalist who was a thorn in the flesh of corporates who wanted to destroy nature to satisfy their greed,  an activist who participated in mass movements to preserve the state's rich culture and tradition and finally and perhaps the most important, a true Gaonkar (Goan) who fought tooth and nail to protect Goa from all kinds of exploitation by forces, both internal and external.
A Goan Ramponker (Traditional fisherman)
Mathany's life long crusade to save Goa's greenery began in the year 1974 when he took an important part in the fight against the Birla owned Zuari Agro Chemicals whose effluents were being discharged into the nearby Sancoale. The contamination of the water bodies in the village led to the death of fish as well as the cattle which drank from it, besides, causing withering of coconut trees in the vicinity. Realizing that the industry would cause irreparable damage to both, the people and the environment of the region, Saldanha along with Simon Caravalho, Adolf Gomes, Subash Naik Jorge and others launched a major stir, perhaps the first of its kind against industrial pollution in India. Fearing a political back clash, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) government stepped in and the factory was shut down for few months so that mechanisms could be put into place to treat the hazardous wastes prior to its release. The issue even reached the doors of the Parliament and led to the framing of an Act to regulate pollution in the country. The Zuari agitation heralded the arrival of a new mass leader in the state; one who would not compromise on his righteous, but sometimes 'rigid' stand and further strengthened his resolve to protect the ecology. 

For the next two decades, he lent his voice to highlight the sorry plight for two traditional Gaon communities whose existence in the modern era has been threatened by a variety of factors. In the seventies, Goa was a conservative society in which, both the Hindus and the Christians refrained from mingling around with people who belonged to the 'lower' castes.  But for Mathany all Goans - the Padrees, the Bammons, the Bhatkars, the Charis, the Mhars, and the Gavades were all his brethren as he considered them all to be the children of one mother - Goa. At a time when the caste equation in the state was at its peak, Saldanha, whose family owns large tracts of land in their native village of Cansaulim took the case of two socially and economically backward sections - the Ramponkars (fishermen) and the Renders (toddy-tapers). It was mainly due to people like him that today, the caste lines in the state have blurred to a large extent.

Mechanized trawlers that were introduced along the Goan coast threatened the livelihood of hundreds of local fishermen who continue to use age old methods to catch fish as well as the diverse marine ecology. As the trawlers started operating closer to the coasts and in the areas where the fisher folk would spread out their Ramponi or the fishing nets, the apprehensions of the coastal people soon started to turn into reality. Over-fishing led to a steady decline in the population of several species which are an important ingredient of the Goan meal and further pushed the community towards poverty. With uncertainty looming over their future, the fisher folk took the extreme step and gutted several trawlers at high sea. In retaliation, the owners of the trawlers inflicted severe atrocities on them causing tensions throughout the shore.

To unite the traditional fishermen under one banner, Saldanha played a pivot role in the formation of the Goencha Ramponkarancho Ekkvott - an organization that works for the welfare of this community and continued to be its General Secretary till his death. Under the leadership of this great visionary, the Ramponker stir got a clear direction. A firm believer in non-violence and rule of law, he decided to take the fight against mechanized fishing to the court. After enduring several hardships, the struggle to uphold the basic rights of the people to earn their living through their traditional ways was eventually successful. The Goa government enacted a legislation to regulate commercialized fishing which included a clause that banned fishing using trawlers up to 2.6 nautical miles from the coast. 

He was also the founding Chairperson of the National Fisherworkers Forum (NFF) that works to eradicate the woes of the fishing community from all parts of the country. It was largely due to the persistent efforts of the NFF, that the Marine Regulation Act was introduced in all the states. He was also the founding member of the International Collective of Fish Workers and their Supporters and a member of the National Fisheries Board. Thanks to his continuous support to the agitation of the fisher folks, Mathany's name has become synonymous with the Ramponkar movement. He was a member of the Anti-Sand Extraction Citizens Committee which emerged victorious in its battle to prevent illegal exploitation of the sand dunes along the beaches for commercial gains in the year 1978. 
The Konkani agitation at Azad Maidan, Panjim
Few will question Saldanha's pure and incorruptible love for Goa. He was a champion of the  Goan cause much before he entered into politics and his desire to work for the betterment of the state and its people remained the same, irrespective of whether or not he was in power. He loved everything about his Goy - the state's virginal forests and the wildlife that inhabits them, the lush mangroves along the coastline, the pristine beaches and the deep blue waters of the Arabian Sea,  the swift flowing rivers flowing through the Western Ghats, the unique culture, the ancient traditions, the rich heritage and of course, the Goan way of life. As such he played a pivotal role in every major movement that affected Goa and its population. His first tryst with politics was when he, along with Christopher Fonseca, Erasmo Sequeira, Amrut Kansar, Raju Mangueshkar and others formed the Gomantak Lok Pokx. In an era when the MGP government went all out to promote Marathi in the state to spread its pro-Maharashtra propaganda, these leaders came together to collect funds and stared the publication of  the state's first Konkani weekly, namely 'Novem Goem'. 

There was a persistent effort during the tenure of CM Sashikala Kakodkar to marginalize Konkani in favor of the Marathi. While the latter was made a compulsory subject even in English medium schools, the former, which is the mother tongue of the majority, was completely sidelined. With the Congress failing to deliver on its pre-poll promise of restoring the status of Konkani, the state erupted in what was to become the biggest mass movement in the history of post Liberation Goa. Once again, Mathany threw his hat in the ring to fight for his mother tongue. While seven activists lost their lives, the government in a bid to prevent the law and order situation from getting out of control, passed the Goa, Daman and Diu Official Language Bill in Febuary 1987 which declared Konkani as the sole official language of the union territory and later the new state. Though he was at the forefront, organizing the rallies and garnering support for the cause, he, unlike other leaders refused to derive political mileage out of the situation. While political parties tried to take credit for the success of the agitation, he preferred to work from the sidelines, content with the fact that he had restored the pride of his mother tongue.

The 1990s witnessed a state wide awakening towards the destruction of Goa's natural resources and the Church played a crucial and in some ways, controversial role, in whipping people's sentiments against projects that were perceived to be harmful to local ecology. Realizing that the influence yielded by the clergy could be instrumental in galvanizing the public to protect Mother Nature, he allied with the Church to drive home his point of conservation. The first of the green campaigns in the nineties was with respect to the setting up of a nylon 6.6 factory in the villages of Kerim and Savoi-Verem in the Ponda taluka by US multinational DuPont Chemicals in association with the Thapar Group. Thanks to the ban by the US Health Department on two components of nylon 6.6, namely hexamethylene diammine (HDMA) and adipic acid for adverse effects on human health and the company's inability to take the local population into confidence before setting up the unit coupled with allegations of bribery by the factory official's to get environmental clearances led to a wave of demonstrations in the villages, in which Mathany participated wholeheartedly. The sustained campaign succeeded when the Kerim Panchayat, empowered by the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution and passage of the Goa Panchayati Raj Act (1993) overruled the decision of the state government to grant permission to the authorities to set up the plant, resulting in scrapping of the multi-million dollar project.

Similarly, the laying of the railway tracks through the state as a part of the ambitious Konkan Railway Project hit a major road block as a citizen's group, Konkan Railway Re-Alignment Committee (KRRAC) opposed the proposed alignment on the grounds that it could potentially destroy the lives of the people along the Goan coast, cause huge losses to the economy and the ecology of the state and affect the UNESCO listed World Heritage Sites situated at the Old Goa complex. The KRRAC came up with an alternative line which passed through the sparsely populated hinterland which was rejected by the Corporation stating that such a move could escalate costs and delay the project. It was admits these protests that Saldanha along with 10 other people blocked the Zuari bridge with a truckload of stones for a few hours to bring to notice of the concerned authorities the impact that the project could have on the state and its people. However, the High Court while pronouncing its verdict in this matter observed that the environmental damage that the Konkan Railways could cause was far less than the prosperity that it would bring to the people of the west coast and gave a green signal to the railway line.

While it is true that his fight versus the Konkan Railways failed to get the desired result, Saldanha continued his struggle against all odds. In 1999, he took an active role in the movement that opposed the setting up of Meta Strips factory in Sancoale to manufacture brass strips and foils. Environmental groups along with some scientists from the Goa University claimed that the industry may lead to large scale air, water and noise pollution in the vicinity. Mathany, then a member of the South Goa Zilla Parshid undertook a fast-unto-death, refusing to consume food till the construction work at the site was stopped with immediate effect. With the government failing to pacify the protesters, the stir took a violent turn and enraged public set to fire several state transport buses and blocked the National Highway. Finally, as the momentum  opposing Meta Strips factory grew on a daily basis, the company was forced to change its process from smelting copper wastes to a new process of melting of copper ingots which is accepted worldwide to be more eco-friendly.
Saldanha addressing an anti-SEZ rally 
After failing to get elected in his last seven attempts spanning over two decades, Saldanha, riding on a string of successes in social sphere won from the Cortalim assembly in 2002 on a UGDP ticket beating three-time Congress MLA Mauvin Godinho. The BJP emerged as the single largest party in the House and the UGDP which had three legislators decided to be a part of the saffron party led coalition government. While his other two party colleagues, Monserrate and Paccheco continued to blackmail the Parriker government for satisfy their ulterior motives, Saldanha remained steady fast and was later made the Tourism Minister. His loyalty towards the BJP and more particularly, the CM during the 2004 crisis in spite of a UGDP whip to go with the Opposition was the highlight of his political career. 

Saldanha's decision to support the BJP led government, which was perceived as 'communal' drew a lot of flak, especially from the significant Catholic populace in the state. He was branded as 'Judas', the betrayer of the faith. All the good-will that he had earned in the past few decades, his struggles to safeguard the interests of the people of the state was forgotten. His conspicuous silence on the issue gave further wings to the mischief mongers and in a matter of days; Mathany went from being the Goan hero to a villain. On the contrary, other Christian MLAs like Babush, Micckey, Alemao etc who had several cases pending against them and were regularly accused of being involved in anti-social activities continued to enjoy support and patronage from the same people who attacked Saldanha. 

In his short stint as a state minister, he took several steps to promote the industry in the state. To reduce pressure from the over commercialized coastal belt, he proposed to develop tourism hubs in the state's interiors. He was an active member of the Goa Heritage Action Group and had plans of starting a heritage trail along the Kushawati river valley which have several sites dating to the pre-historic period and places associated with Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. He was also vocal in his criticism of the River Princess which is damaging the Candolim beach. After two more MLAs of the ruling party resigned to move over to the Congress, President's rule was imposed in the state. In the upcoming by polls, the Congress-NCP combine won all but one of the six seats and veteran leader Pratapsinh Rane was made the CM. Saldanha decided to warm the Opposition benches. In the next two years, he went through several documents on the Dabolim Airport  and came up with facts to prove his point that the Indian Navy, which was given a part of the aerodrome for servicing of air planes, had, over the years completely gained control over it citing national security. He said that if the navy would vacate Dabolim and shift to Sea Bird base at Karwar, the need for a new airport in North Goa would not arise at all.

In late 2006, the Goa Bacchhao Abhiyan (GBA) launched a major unrest to force the state government to shelve the Regional Plan 2011 (RP 2011) which had de-notified vast tracts of mangroves, forests and agricultural land for residential and commercial purposes. The GBA headed by Dr. Oscar Rebello had the full backing of thehis teacher and mentor, Mathany Saldanha who was present at the launch of the state wide aandolan at the Lohia Maidan in Margao. Following public pressure and with an eye on the 2007 assembly elections, the Rane regime scrapped the controversial plan and announced that a new road map, dubbed Regional Plan 2021 (RP 2021) would be formulated taking into account the views of GBA members as well as the local Gram Sabhas. In the next state elections, Saldanha failed to retain his assembly seat and lost to the Congress candidate Mauvin Godinho. However, Saldanha's crusade continued without a pause. He played a key role in the Goa Movement Against SEZ's (GMAS) fight to prevent the setting up of SEZs (Special Economic Zones) in the tiny state. After months of heated discussions over the pros and cons of having industrial enclaves in the state at the cost of trees and forests, the government sent a proposal to the Centre asking it to do away with 15 SEZs that were to come up across the state. This was yet another victory in a career of a man who had devoted his entire life to save Goa's natural heritage. He contested the South Goa parliamentary seat on a UGDP ticket but failed to make the cut.

Tired of the merciless plunder of the state by the politicians, builders, miners etc and the threat posed by a steady influx of migrants on the social fabric, Mathany asked for 'Special Status' to be bestowed on Goa. He became convinced that only this could preserve the state for the future generations. When the proposal for RP 2021 was made public in 2011, Saldanha criticized the Kamat government for ignoring people's views, especially on the issue of laying a rail line through the mining belt which he thought was done to please the mining barons, thereby jeopardizing the occupation of a large number of truck owners. 
Mathany's funeral
In the days leading to the 2012 Vidhan Sabha elections, the issue of illegal mining made all the headlines across the state. The general public became aware of the threat that modernization posed to their state and people like Mathany who had always worked in this regard stood vindicated. After Goa Vika Party (GVP) chief Micckey announced his party's tie up with the UGDP, Saldanha lashed out at his party boss for not taking the cadre into consideration prior to the announcement. The very next day, he joined the BJP where he was welcomed by his friend Manohar Parriker and was later declared to be the party's candidate from Cortalim. As always, the moral police termed his move as 'shocking' and 'unbelievable'. Others were less critical and claimed that he had gone with the saffron outfit only to beat the 'corrupt' Congress. This time around, Saldanha won a spectacular victory over Nelly Rodrigues of the GVP by a margin of over 2000 votes. The BJP won a simple majority on its own and enjoyed the support of 26 members in the House. The Congress-NCP combine was decimated and reduced to nine seats. Manohar Parriker was sworn in as the CM of the state and Mathany was put in charge of the all-important Environmental Ministry. Talking to the journalists after the swearing in ceremony, he spoke about the agenda for the future. He made it clear that the Mahadei sanctuary would only be de-notified if it serves the interest of the local people and not the mining lobby. 

For many Goans, the Parriker-Saldanha combine represented a glimmer of hope at a time when their state was being devoured by land sharks and foreign mafia in connivance with the netas and bureaucracy. The IIT educated CM represented the new Goa, a state self-sufficient in terms of food and other basic necessities, with excellent health-care and educational facilities available to the masses at a nominal price. Mathany stood for Goy - the beautiful land on the Western coast, covered with green hills and abundant water, with a culture which is different from rest of the country. It was very important for these two Goas to meet and co-exist in a peaceful manner for the state to develop while retaining its unique elements. Sadly, though at what was to be his time to implement the myriad plans for the betterment of the state, he passed away due to a massive heart attack on 21st March, 2012 after visiting the Shigmo parade at Canacona. The untimely death came as a surprise to thousands of Goans both within the state and abroad, who looked upon him as the protector of Goa, her forests, rivers, culture, traditions and heritage. Reports suggest that when Parriker heard about the sad demise of his close friend, he was in tears. Saldanha was accorded full state honors, his mortal remains were wrapped in the national flag and he was given a 21 gun salute. His funeral in Cansaulim was attended by the CM, Leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, former CM Sashikala Kakodker and others. Besides the dignitaries, thousands of common Goankars shed off their lazy tag to bid farewell to one of the state's most illustrious sons. 

Mathany Saldanha was amongst the rare breed of Indian leaders who join politics to serve the people and uphold democratic values. In a state where candidates often use money and muscle power to win votes, he won the respect of the masses due to his participation in the numerous mass agitation that the state has witnessed. Throughout his life, he campaigned to protect the state from harmful elements that were determined to turn this paradise into a concrete jungle. As an activist he worked to preserve the livelihood of socially backward sections of the society. Though he may no more lead morchas and stirs to raise issues concerning the state, its environment and its people, his legacy will forever remain in the annals of history and in the hearts and minds of thousands of Goans throughout the world.


SOURCES


(1) Goanews - Not Mathany, we have lost a true comrade (Link)

(2) The Navhind Times - Mathany Saldanha : A Great Goan (Link)

(3) The Navhind Times - Mathany : Profile of an Eco Warrior (Link)

(4) Niz Goenkar - Mathany - you left us at the critical hour (Link)

(5) JSTOR - Panchayat versus Multinationals (Link)

(6) Venky's World - From Goa to Gummidipoondi (Link)

(7) Mathany cautions Meta Strips New Investors (Link)

(8) Rediff News - Goans stage violent protests against Meta Strips (Link)

(9) Goanews - Anti-Meta Strips agitation enters a crucial stage (Link)

(10) Goanet - Victory long over due for Mathany Saldanha (Link)

(11) The Hindu - Anti SEZ agitators warn tourists in Goa (Link)

(12) Environmental Issues in India - Mahesh Rangarajan (Link)

IMAGES



(1) (24 October 1964 - 21 March 2012)
Source : The Sunday Indian - BJP minister's death postpones Goa's budget presentation  (Link)

(2) A Goan Ramponker (Traditional Fisherman)
Source : On The Go Tours (Link)

(3) Konkani agitation at Azad Maidan, Panjim
Source : Goan Architecture - Corinthian Capitol of Goa (Link)

(4) Mathany addressing an anti-SEZ rally in Panjim
Source : Photo Blog by Rajan Parriker (Link)

(5) Mathany's funeral
Source : Goan Voice - News clip from Goa (Link)