Obituary : Fisher Leader
Matanhy Saldanha 1948 – 2012
Matanhy Saldanha, who died on 21 March 2012, was a genuine, charismatic leader and a true crusader for the cause of fishworkers
This article has been written by Nalini Nayak (firstname.lastname@example.org), Member, ICSF
Over three decades ago, in 1978, fishworkers in the Indian State of Goa hit the headlines when they took over the streets of the capital city, Panjim, in a campaign to Save Goa, Save Our Fish. Contrary to the stereotypical image of fun-loving Goans, the 1978 protest was no carnival, but an impassioned crusade for a ban on the destructive fishing technique of trawling, which was depleting the catches of the traditional rampons, the large shore-seines owned by ramponkars.
The person at the forefront of that show of strength, which paralyzed life in Goa’s capital city, was a fiery school teacher in no mood to give up, backed as he was by a large group of advocates and environmentalists who had just succeeded in closing down the polluting Zuari Agro Chemicals plant.
Matanhy Saldanhathe charismatic leader of that landmark protestknew little about fisheries and fishworkers when he joined the fight against pollution of the coast by the Zuari plant. But the instinctive activist in him realized the imperative of gaining the support of fisherfolk, who were the ones most affected by the factory’s operations. Once the anti-Zuari campaign succeeded, the fishworkers approached Matanhy to solicit his support for their proposed agitation against the introduction of purse-seiners and trawlers, which were depleting catches in their fishing zones.
Matanhy, who had a background of activism in the student movement, responded positively, realizing that the traditional fishing communities were the ones who brought home the fish that was such an integral part of the Goan diet. He also realized that with no other source of livelihood, the traditional fishers had to keep at bay the purse-seiners and trawlers owned by corporate interests.
As a result of that initial engagement with Goan fishworkers, Matanhy began to mobilize the traditional coastal communities, travelling along the coast with Xavier Pinto to get a first-hand understanding of the problems confronting fishers. He then organized a meeting in Chennai that resulted in the formation of the National Forum of Country Boat and Kattumaran Fishermen, which later grew into the National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF). It was with the formation of NFF in 1978 that the coastal fishing communities began to get a distinct identity in India.
NFF‘s main demand was for marine regulation to demarcate fishing zones to keep purse-seiners and trawlers away from the coastal waters. NFF gradually transformed itself from a movement against trawlers and purse-seiners into a trade union that represented the broad interests of India’s fishing communities.
Matanhy also led the Indian fishworkers’ delegation to the first International Conference of Fishworkers and their Supporters in Rome in 1984, held in parallel to the World Fisheries Conference organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). As the fishworkers’ struggles grew, and there appeared a need to monitor other developmental activities and their impacts, Matanhy, with the help of other friends, set up the Goa Research Institute for Development (GRID). The documentation centre of this institute was the home for studies on controversial industrial and naval projects.
Matanhy’s focus in public life went far beyond fisheries. He launched the Goan Weekly, which campaigned for declaring Konkani as the official language of Goa and sought a ban on censorship. He was also involved in the formation of the All-Goa Trade Unions and Traditional Workers’ Co-ordination Committee.
Matanhy embodied the mix-and-match approach of the intellectual-cum-activist, lending a visionary edge to campaigns and strategies. He quickly recognized that the issues confronting the country’s poor and marginalized were essentially political, a realization that made him seek out an active role in State and national politics. As a politician, his career was chequered and he shifted between parties and even tried to create a regional Goan party. As Minister for Tourism for a brief period in 2002 he took radical positions on social and environmental issues.
Matanhy was clearly not cut out for the manoeuvres of power politics since he regarded issues on their individual merit, and took stands that often hurt the power elite. In a similar vein, Matanhy did not waste time on organizations that had preconceived, clear-cut agendas. Nonetheless, as a man of action and a leader with fresh ideas, Matanhy understood the need for organizations, and even helped create them. He would, however, choose to weave himself in and out of different roles. For instance, when Harekrishna Debnath, former Chairperson of NFF, who was battling cancer and realized he had a short time to live, requested Matanhy to return to the helm of NFF, he willingly accepted, although on the condition that it would be only until the next State elections as he intended to compete as a candidate.
When Matanhy did stand for State elections in 2011, he won and was sworn in as Minister for Environment and Forests, and for Tourism, shortly after which he passed away. In Matanhy’s sudden death of a heart attack on 21 March 2012, we have lost a truly genuine leader and a good human being who put social issues and people before his personal needs and life. For those of us who knew him personally, we have lost a good friend and a decent human being. For the fishing communities of India and the population of Goa, they have lost an extraordinary crusader.