Interview with Fr Denzil Fernandes SJ
Fr Denzil Fernandes is the Director of the Indian Social Institute (ISI) based in Delhi. This centre of research supported by Jesuit Missions focuses on research issues relating to the discrimination and exclusion of Dalits, tribals and women.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to join the Society of Jesus?
I was born and brought up in Goa, India, a former Portuguese colony for over 400 years. It has a very strong Catholic community, which owes its existence to St. Francis Xavier, one of the founding members of the Society of Jesus, who came to Goa in 1542. I studied in a school run by Franciscan Hospitaller sisters and grew up in a Franciscan parish, but I was inspired by the life of St. Francis Xavier. My first encounter with a Jesuit was Fr. George D’Sa SJ, who conducted retreats to school students. The retreat I attended was profoundly spiritual and deeply inspiring. After completing my graduation, I decided to join the Jesuits of the Goa-Pune Province in 1990.
Can you briefly describe the work of the Indian Social Institute?
Indian Social Institute is a Jesuit Social Research Institute. The Institute has a rich legacy spanning nearly seven decades of having conducted research, publication, training, seminars, workshops, advocacy and engagement with policy makers and grassroot social organisations and activists in order to bring about social transformation and sustainable development. Presently, we are engaged in research on issues related to Dalits, Tribals and Women. We conduct activities such as workshops, training programmes, seminars and conferences. In addition, we are engaged in a peace building work running nearly 300 peace clubs in schools and villages in seven states in the country.
As we reach the 5-year anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ Evangelli Gaudium, can you tell us how this encyclical has influenced your work?
Pope Francis’ message of proclaiming the Gospel more authentically through our lives has influenced the course of our activities in the Institute. During the last five years, the Institute has reviewed its functioning and has attempted to streamline its services with a renewed focus on marginalised groups such as Dalits, tribals, women, minorities and unorganised labour. The majority of the staff at the Institute are non-Christians, who along with their Christian brothers and sisters, bear witness to the Gospel values of love, justice and peace. Similarly, the Institute reaches out to people of all faiths and cultures to empower the most vulnerable members of society so that they are able to live a life of dignity by having access to the basic civic amenities needed for their sustainable development.
How have you been influenced by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si and the themes of Caring for our Common Home?
Laudato Si has deeply influenced me and the work of the Institute. ISI is part of a global research project on “The Future of Work, Labour after Laudato Si”. The Institute is part of two research tracks on “Work in Ecological Transition” led by CERAS, Paris and “Jobs, Demography and Migration” led by ICMC, Geneva. While a lot of our work has to do with society, in recent times we are also including the environmental dimension in our research works.
Have you found the nature of your work changing to respond to the changes in climate?
Climate change is resulting in more natural disasters such as floods, drought and cyclonic storms. In the last year, we had to raise funds for relief and rehabilitation work among populations affected by natural disasters. Our lives are changing with global warming as we need to use air conditioners for longer periods of time in summer than before. The pollution levels in Delhi are also high and so we often have to use masks at work.
What would you say is your biggest challenge with the work that you do currently?
The biggest challenge with the work I do is twofold. One is to creatively respond to the spread of hate by right wing politicians using religious fundamentalism by networking and collaborating with people of goodwill. The second is to recruit staff committed to the cause of marginalised groups who are ready to work with dedication for a reasonable remuneration.
How has your recent research project on the “Discrimination and Exclusion in Education for Children of Households engaged in ‘Unclean’ Occupations” helped your work?
During the last five years, research has been completed in six states and the research in another six states is ongoing. This research has brought to the mainstream of academic discourse the issue of discrimination and exclusion that keeps certain sections of society in a perpetual state of poverty and misery. This study has produced articles which has been published in academic journals and edited books. It is hoped that these studies may influence policy makers to pay greater attention to the aspect of discrimination and exclusion in education for achieving sustainable development with the principle ‘Leave No One Behind’.
How do you think the work of ISI will change in the coming years and is there a message that you would like to share with us?
ISI has largely been focusing on India-specific issues as it was initially started as a policy think tank for the Government of India. However, more recently ISI has been taking up issues of the South Asian region. I believe that ISI will increase its global engagements and engage in policy advocacy not only in South Asia but also globally.
ISI has the potential to provide quality research on social and environmental issues in the South Asian region and contribute to global research and advocacy networks. ISI is also a platform for several social organisations of different religious affiliations to empower marginalised groups to access their rights and entitlements.