On a rainy October morning in 2015, as city-based lawyer Afroz Shah looked out of his sea-facing apartment at Versova, the sight left him disturbed. Every wave crashing against the shore brought piles of garbage, so much that the sand on the beach was not visible anymore. He then took it upon himself to make a difference.
Sixty nine weeks later, 33-year-old Shah drew the world’s attention by removing 4,500 tonnes of trash from Versova beach, cleaning 52 toilets and removing trash from creeks with local residents and fishermen.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called it the world’s largest beach clean-up in history and awarded Shah UN’s top environmental accolade – Champions of the Earth award at Cancun in Mexico, last December making him the first Indian to achieve such a feet.
“There is a difference between sitting within closed spaces and making policy decisions for an environmentally sustainable future and actually going to the ground, digging your hands in the dirt and separating the plastic from the sand. I chose the latter,” said Shah.
Shah was supported by his 84-year-old neighbour, Harbansh Mathur, who died of natural causes last year. In October 2015, they decided to do something drastic to reclaim the beach from the rubbish that had overwhelmed it. They began clearing the 2.5-km strand of litter, including plastic bags, cement sacks, glass bottles, pieces of clothing, and shoes. Within a month’s time, the duo was joined by another 40 residents of Versova and they began a weekly clean-up drive.
Slowly but steadily, the clean-up drive transformed into a movement over the subsequent six months and it paved the way for the inception of the Versova Residents’ Volunteers (VRV), a body headed by Shah.
“It was fascinating to see people from the film industry, police, lawyers, fishermen and other walks come together for one cause,” said Shah. “Civic body officials supported us by providing all amenities like excavator machines, trucks and workers throughout the 69 weeks.”
“By involving a large number of citizens as a part of the drive and creating awareness about the issue of marine litter, Shah’s efforts made a big impact,” said Parag Masurkar, ward officer, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
In August 2016, VRV’s efforts were recognised internationally when UN Patron of the Ocean Lewis Pugh, decided to fly down from Nairobi to participate in the clean-up initiative. Pugh’s visit was followed by UNEP head, Erik Solheim, a month later, who took stock of environmental issues in Mumbai and also participated in the beach cleanup.
“His [Shah] efforts, and the hundreds of volunteers he’s inspired, is a wonderful example of citizen action and reminds the rest of the world that even the most ambitious, global agreements are only as good as the individual action and determination that brings them to life,” Solheim told HT during his visit.
VRV plans to expand their operation to prevent rubbish from washing down the local creek and onto the beach.
“Apart from being a talented lawyer, his (Shah) efforts symbolise the change that we need in many spheres of life where people have to start doing the right thing and not wait for an organised movement. He has taught everyone a great lesson,” said Darius Khambatta, senior advocate and former advocate general of Maharashtra.
The volunteers also want to clean-up the coastline’s litter-choked mangrove forests, which act as a vital natural defence against storm surges.
“While most lawyers are busy preparing their briefs over the weekend, here is a competent and hardworking lawyer who finds time from his busy schedule to give rise to a movement that is recognised internationally today. One Afroz Shah, who thinks about others before himself, has set an example not only for Mumbai but the whole country to do something for a bigger cause,” said Anil C Singh, additional solicitor-general of India (Western Zone).