For his efforts to clean up Mumbai’s Versova beach, Afroz Shah bagged the UN’s 2016 Champion of the Earth award. Image Credit: Supplied

Indian citizens almost take the official apathy for granted. Most of us believe that we don’t have a solution but to accept it as a part of our lives. Mumbai-based lawyer, Afroz Shah proves it that the citizens do have a choice. The choice of taking the bull by its horns and to be the change that they want to experience. Recipient of UN Champion Of The Earth award, Shah decided to take matters into his own hands, wear gloves and clean up the beach near his house by picking one plastic bag at a time.

“I moved back in this area about two years back and I was appalled when I saw just plastic on the beach. I just couldn’t see the sand at all. I had spent my childhood in this area and I had really fond memories of the beach. I was saddened by the sight,” recalls Shah. He explored various options before deciding on doing it all by himself.

Mumbai’s beaches are facing a crisis with nearly 100 tonnes of waste on the beach at any given time. As per a study by ReefWatch Marine Conservation, an NGO dedicated to protect marine life, Juhu, Versova and Aksa are the most polluted beaches of Mumbai. It also examined the trash from nine beaches of the city and found plastic bags, food wrappers, discarded tyres blocking the beaches. All this trash is left on the beach after a high tide.

Being a lawyer, Shah could have opted for the legal route but he knew that it would be a long-drawn process and in the end might not serve the purpose at all. He also thought of complaining to the Municipal Corporation. Finally in an unprecedented move, along with another resident of the same housing complex, he decided to clean the beach himself.

“We have to be the change ourselves. Why wait for others to do it? We have to believe that solution lies with us. Citizens have to find solution to the problems around them,” says Shah. Over the last 73 weeks they have collected 4.5 million tonnes of plastic and other waste material from the Versova beach in upmarket Mumbai. United Nations has declared it the biggest beach clean up operation in the world.

“It is a three-kilometre long beach and I couldn’t have done it by myself. It is a citizen movement, [people] volunteer every weekend to ensure that the beach is always clean. Taking out two-three hours every week is not a big issue. We call it a `date with the ocean’,” says Shah. About 50 to 100 volunteers participate in the clean-up campaign every weekend. Shah contributes about 10 per cent of his income to run the operations of this initiative.

Regular shout-outs are required to ensure that volunteers come every weekend. Besides messaging their broadcasting list, Shah visits schools and colleges regularly to enlist the contribution of the students in the cleaning activity. Volunteers come from all walks of life, ranging from students, fishermen, homemakers, film-artists and others, who join Shah every weekend to ensure that the Versova beach remains clean.

The last few years have seen plastic production increase manifold. It touched 311 tonnes in 2014 and is likely to quadruple by 2050. The latest research says that the world’s sea might have more plastic than fish by 2050. The same research also says that plastic will consume 20 per cent of all oil production within 35 years, up from an estimated 5 per cent now. This plastic is not just unaesthetic on the beach but also negatively harms the aquatic life. Only 5 per cent of plastic is recycled with a third entering the world’s ocean.

“In India, the consumption of plastic has gone up after liberalisation [kicked off in 1991] and that has now started to negatively impact the environment. I am an ocean lover and a nature lover.

Shah’s efforts attracted the attention of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) after a few weeks of his clean-up efforts. Today, he works with BMC officials to ensure the beach remains clean. “I discovered that municipality has a tender system for cleaning the beach but nothing really happens on the ground. So basically there was no ground action, neither from the government and nor from the citizens,” says Shah. He hopes that his campaign will inspire other citizens to take an active role in the country’s governance.

Future course of action

With Versova beach now clean, Shah is ready to replicate the success of this initiative to other beaches of Mumbai. “[The] ocean keeps throwing the plastic and filth back on the beach and it has to be cleaned regularly,” says Shah.

However, he is clear that he is not running a non-government organisation (NGO). He reiterates that it is a citizen’s movement and he has no plans to formalise the movement by forming an organisation.

“It is just an initiative for people to connect and do something for the betterment of their environment. I have never asked for any monetary contribution or anything else besides people’s time for this,” says Shah.

Mumbai has several beaches and Versova is just one of them. The most populous city in the country is bursting at its seams. Shah says that people have to be involved in a democracy. “It is a participative democracy and you cannot find solution by just paying taxes and voting every five years. We have to go beyond complaining and cribbing. The citizens have to get their hands dirty,” says Shah.

Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist and writes on gender, development and technology. She tweets as @gagandeepjourno