City-based lawyer and environmentalist Afroz Shah was awarded the United Nations’ (UN) top environmental accolade – Champions of the Earth award – for his efforts in launching what is the world’s largest beach clean-up, at Versova. It’s the first time an Indian has won the award.
Along with five other environmentalists from across the world, Shah’s efforts were recognised by the UN in a programme hosted by the government of Mexico at the 13th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun on Friday.
Awarded in the ‘Action and Inspiration’ category, Shah was recognised for inspiring hundreds of volunteers over the past year to help rid 4,000 tonnes of plastic, glass and filth, which had built up on the sand at Versova beach.
For the past 12 years, the annual Champions of the Earth award is awarded to outstanding leaders from government, civil society and the private sector whose actions have had a positive impact on the environment.
“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,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, who joined Versova Residents’ Volunteer (VRV), a citizens group cleaning up Versova Beach for over a year now, for a day to collect waste from the beach in October. “His outstanding leadership is drawing global attention to the devastating impacts of marine litter.”
In October 2015, Shah and his 84-year-old neighbour, Harbanash Mathur, who died of natural causes earlier this year, 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 the litter, including plastic bags, cement sacks, glass bottles, pieces of clothing, and shoes.
“This award is in honour of the hundreds of volunteers who have joined me over the past year to clean our beach and ocean,” said Shah. “I just hope this is the beginning for coastal communities across India and the world. We have to win the fight against marine dumping and that involves getting our hands dirty.”
Shah also rallied residents and fisherfolk in the area by knocking on doors and explaining the damage marine litter causes. In just over a year, what began as a two-person crusade has mushroomed into a 1,500-strong operation of community volunteers. “Afroz Shah has done India proud,” said Lewis Pugh, UN Patron of the Ocean, who also visited India earlier this year. “Real leaders are ordinary people with extraordinary determination.”