Soft Focus Environment

Mumbai’s ocean warrior

Afroz Shah (right) and Erik Solheim of UNEP at a clean-up drive last December.

Afroz Shah (right) and Erik Solheim of UNEP at a clean-up drive last December.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Every weekend, the lawyer can be seen picking up trash on Versova beach

When Bombay High Court lawyer Afroz Shah moved into his new home along Versova beach some two years ago, he dreamt of waking up to cool sea breeze and morning walks on the shore. Instead, what greeted him was the sight of debris strewn all along the 2.5 km coastline that now resembled an open garbage dumping yard.

Concerned, Shah and his 84-year-old neighbour Harbansh Mathur, who has since passed away, decided to take matters into their own hands, literally. In October 2015, they began to manually rid the beach of plastic waste, glass bottles, shoes, rubber and metal articles.

Soon, every weekend, they could be seen walking along the beach, picking up trash. In time, they were joined by people from the neighbourhood, slum-dwellers, fishermen, Bollywood stars, students and politicians. And, at last, Mumbai’s civic body joined in. Now, more than 85 weeks later, Shah and his army of volunteers—the Ocean Warriors—have cleared 5.3 million kilos of trash from the seafront. On May 20, he tweeted, “Versova beach is gorgeous and clean now. We have done our bit. We need to maintain it.”

Twitterati cheers

His efforts have gone viral, with tweets of appreciation coming in from all quarters. Anand Mahindra of Mahindra Group tweeted “If there’s 1 pic that spells Hope for India, this is it. This campaign involved selfless leadership, community spirit & collective effort.” Railway minister Suresh Prabhu said: “Congrats to Afroz Shah and his dedicated team.”

Shah has vowed to continue his crusade until there is a change in people’s approach to producing, using and discarding plastic and other non-biodegradable material.

He says people hardly realise the damage non-biodegradable products like plastic can do to marine life and the environment. Creatures in the sea and birds flocking to the beach ingest these substances.

In 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called Shah’s drive the world’s biggest clean-up and conferred on him its highest award for environment protection—Champion of the Earth. He is the first Indian to receive the honour. UNEP is now replicating the project in Indonesia.

On June 5, World Environment Day, Vijay Samnotra, head of UNEP’s country office in India, will participate in a clean sea campaign with Shah’s volunteers.

Meanwhile, YES Bank and Citi Bank have partnered with Shah to expand his campaign across the country. The team has already identified coastlines in Chennai and Visakhapatnam for the programme. Ironically, the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association has offered a tractor and 10 people to assist Shah for a whole year.

Cashing in on low tide

Ocean gyres or rotating currents that circulate within oceans tend to collect a lot of plastic waste from the beach and that ends up getting embedded in the sand or floats on water. Shah plans to clear this pile-up by digging through at least two feet of beach sand when the sea recedes during low tide.

He has also launched a drive to discourage people from using single-use plastic bags. “Vegetable vendors are the culprits here, but we can do our bit by carrying cloth bags to shop. It takes just 10 minutes to sort out the vegetables.”

Shah says initially his own family was opposed to the idea. “They said it was a waste of time. I began sorting the vegetables myself to convince them to give up plastic bags.” He has now convinced vegetable vendors visiting his apartment complex to give up plastic bags.

Shah’s next project involves cleaning up trash-choked mangrove forests which act as a natural defence against storms and tsunamis.

The freelance writer works for the conservation of the common flora and fauna around her.

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 8:23:39 AM |

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