Mumbai: In October 2015, a Mumbai-based lawyer, Afroz Shah, began a clean-up campaign of Versova beach in north-western Mumbai, an effort born out of love and concern for the sea and environment. In the weeks that followed his drive became a became a movement of sorts among Mumbaikars who joined him regularly in one of the largest beach clean-ups in the world every weekend.
His relentless crusade brought accolades from Prime Minister Narendra Modi who praised his efforts and even a Champion of the Earth Award from the UN Environment Programme. Thousands of tonnes of plastic and garbage thrown across the beach would be picked up every weekend by him and his volunteers, and then taken away by trucks of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The once-filthy beach became spotless and lovely.
However, after 109 weeks of ridding the beach of trash, the beach clean-up hero threw up his hands in frustration a few days back and decided to suspend his much-admired work. His message on Twitter on November 18 stated that he and his volunteers were being abused by goons and hoodlums who spend Saturday nights drinking liquor and littering on the beach. When he and his volunteers arrive early Sunday mornings, these hangers-on keep abusing them. It was too much to take. Tweeting about his suspension of work, he said, “Forgive me my ocean and my country.”
He also blamed “administrative lethargy” in clearing the garbage gathered by the volunteers for several weeks.
Despite an overwhelming backing from Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Shiv Sena youth leader Aditya Thackeray, celebrities and the general public, he told Gulf News, “I have not resumed my efforts and the situation is still fluid. I have not decided. Mr Fadnavis and Aditya who I personally met on Wednesday are wonderful, sensitive leaders who offered me all support. But I told them that if the mindset of such people (unsocial elements) exist and this is the way they are going to respond, it is not possible to resume work.”
Though Fadnavis, Thackeray and BMC promised police presence and regular visits by BMC trucks to lift garbage, he says, “I’m now bold enough to face reality. It is easy to say I succeeded, but I didn’t. I’ve failed.” The most important requirement is that unsocial elements on the beach be rounded up and cleared. “The ground reality has to be understood,” he stresses.
In the last two years, he and his team have picked up 9 million kg of trash from the beach. “The trash, discarded by 10 million people of Mumbai, comes from the sea.”
Whilst admiring Shah’s efforts, environmentalist and mangrove-protection activist Rishi Agarwal told this paper, “This work is not sustainable as it is important to go to the root of the problem and that is the garbage and plastic being thrown into nullahs (drains) from slums that cover 50 per cent of Mumbai.” All the plastic and trash flows into the sea but is brought back to the shore by waves.
He says, not only must this be stopped but the solid waste management of the BMC has to do its job efficiently. Since there is garbage strewn across the beach even after 109 weeks of cleaning shows “this is not sustainable. Citizens cannot keep cleaning the beach forever,” he says.
In the meantime, Shah’s bombshell has upset many. Actor Dia Mirza retweeted Shah’s tweet and said, “Don’t give up @AftozShah1. You inspire a productive public participation that few in this country have achieved or can imagine to achieve. You have many compatriots. Especially children. With you always.”