Remembering Crusader Victoria Fernandes

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In forefront in all popular movements standing shoulder to shoulder with toddy tappers, traditional fishermen, small businesses,  fruit and vegetable vendors, self-employed women

Nandkumar M Kamat

Victoria Fernandes who died on September 7 last year was the finest example of a God fearing Roman Catholic parishioner and in all my interactions with her over forty years she always invoked the name of God and Lord Jesus and prayed repeatedly to Mother Mary.  She staunchly believed that she was just a  humble instrument of God’s will to serve the people.  She took advice from Gandhian thinkers like Ravindra Kelekar.  Her spiritual dimension has not been much talked about. But that was the reason she could relate to any person instantly and expressed it immediately by her affectionate touch. She was a strong pillar of support for thousands of families in Goa whom she had guided, counselled during their difficult times and had rushed to help them during tragic periods.

A lot was written and spoken last year after her death but I have personally experienced the most beautiful, humane and compassionate side of her personality. It takes a lot of time for any society to fully grasp the meaning of absence of such leaders after their death. Never say no to anyone asking for some help – that was the approach of Victoria for 24 hours and one would find her rushing to help the sick people in Goa Medical College and other hospitals at odd hours.

From 1995 to 2012 she consulted me on almost all the matters of legislative assembly sessions and gave me an opportunity to get a first hand and in-depth knowledge of the functioning of Goa legislature, the cabinet and various departments. She used to tell me that she would speak on all the demands for grants and was ever willing to study even the most complex technical matters like why Goa was not getting a fair share of power quota from Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant despite being located almost on the state’s southern border.  She could not understand the logic behind wheeling the power from super thermal power stations thousands of km at the very end of the western power grid when a nuclear power plant next door could meet all the needs. She was shocked when the then government led by Pratapsingh Rane stated in the 1995 assembly session that Goa did not have a need for setting up a state human rights commission. She was the first MLA to raise her voice in the assembly on forming the state human rights commission.  She got a record 18 private members resolutions passed unanimously in the assembly. When she knew that because she was in the opposition the BJP led government could reject her private resolution in 2002 recommending setting up a task force for planning the roadmap for sustainable urbanization in Goa, she asked me to prepare a detail explanatory note and then met the then minister for urban development Margao BJP MLA, Digambar Kamat before the commencement of the session and strongly lobbied for his support. Kamat could see the merit of the resolution and assured her that he would support and speak in its favour. He kept his word. Nowadays we rarely see such mature leadership and bipartisan politics for the common interest of the state.

Her another resolution in view of threats faced by estuarine islands in Mandovi due to climate change and sea level rise was accepted but never implemented. It recommended the constitution of a state level Island development authority under the forest department. It would need a large volume to chronicle her work for traditional occupations. She was in forefront in all the popular movements standing shoulder to shoulder with the toddy tappers and traditional fishermen and small businesses, the fruit and vegetable vendors and self-employed women. She was interested in providing proper training facilities and accreditation to local youth in the tourism sector who were operating under fear as touts, agents and guides without any support, recognition, security or proper registration. Victoria’s ideas on development echoed the typical decentralised Gandhian approach of empowering the villagers, promotion of village artisanship, help self-employed people, create sustainable jobs in primary sector like agriculture and fisheries and make all the women stand on their own feet.

She was the first fisheries minister who took a note of illegal use of explosives for killing fish and gave written directives in December 1998 to fisheries department and district authorities to stop this illegal and dangerous practice. As a part of the vicious power game in the state to silence her voice, patently false and fabricated charges had been pressed against her when she was arrested under NSA but nobody took the pain to read the full judgment of the Supreme Court which had exposed the weak case of state government. Just a few days before voting in 2002 a police squad was deliberately sent to her house to intimidate and terrorize her family and create confusion in the minds of voters but she won that assembly election.

In fact, as a politician much senior to Parrikar she knew most of the BJP central leaders during the golden days of the former Janata Party. She had great appreciation for Manohar Parrikar as a smart legislator. Actually, both were sharing the same bench for MLAs in the old assembly hall from 1995 to 1998. They helped each other. Sensing her displeasure for denial of a cabinet berth, Parrikar astutely took her advantage to make her resign from the assembly and precipitate a crisis to pull down the government led by Digambar Kamat in 2007. The government survived, Victoria reconciled and even became the deputy speaker for a few years. She knew by 2012 that the Congress party may not nominate her again but as a diehard crusader she continued to fight and took up several causes affecting the people from 2012-19.

Despite her poor health two years ago Victoria Fernandes  attended a public meeting at night near Holy Cross Church Santa Cruz. She addressed people from a wheelchair. In an emotionally choked voice she declared that she would stand by the people till her last breath to oppose PDA’s controversial land use plan. Despite medical advice to retire and rest she just couldn’t sit quiet. Her death also showed that she died as a fighter, a crusader, an exceptional leader of the masses and a great woman of Goa. Santa Cruz lost an angel after her death. The best tribute to Victoria is to save what still remains of land and idea called Goa and continue to fight for social, economic and ecological justice fearlessly like her.