Afroz Shah is fighting back administrative and public apathy with renewed vigour to keep Mumbai’s beaches clean.
When Afroz Shah took it upon himself to clean Mumbai’s Versova beach of its litter, little did he know that he would amass thousands of volunteers for his cause. Not only did he have Mumbaikars backing him, he even got the backing of celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan to clean up the 9 million kg of trash from the beach.
However, it wasn’t all hunky-dory for the Mumbai lawyer. About 109 weeks into his clean-up drive, Afroz, in November, announced that he was stopping his movement. He cited administrative lethargy, as well as rogue elements’ interference, as the reasons behind him giving up. “I failed because the idea was to work on people’s heart,” he sighs. “First and foremost, it’s lethargy on the part of the people who litter, to the people who are supposed to clean it. There came a point when I thought I wouldn’t be able to convince anybody, and suspended the clean up,” says Afroz.
However, he promised that his movement would return if changes were made at the ground level. And within weeks, Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri took notice and spoke about it with Mumbai Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. “Aaditya Thackeray (of the Shiv Sena) and the CM approached me and understood what the problem is. They made sure that there was a change in administrative lethargy,” UN’s 2016 Champion of the Earth award-winner says, smiling.
In a matter of a fortnight, trucks filled with litter were energetically revving out of the beach again, and the rogues kept away.
The beach lover now asserts that it’s not just trash on the shores that concerns him. Marine litter is what he’s fighting against, and beach cleaning is just one of its mechanisms. “Beach cleaning itself is scientific because the sand traps the plastic. It’s like the trash is telling us to pick it up, so it doesn’t go back into deep sea. Once it goes into the sea again, it’ll never come back up and turn into a plastic island,” he warns.
Afroz initially started this clean up drive along with his 84-year-old neighbour Harbansh Mathur, who succumbed to cancer. He says it was hindsight that made him start the clean up drive.
It was necessary to be a part of the solution for the lawyer, who spoke to people living on the creeks, who threw plastic relentlessly.
“As a lawyer, my role should’ve ideally been to complain to the municipality. People think the government should be solving environmental problems. But we need to understand it’s us who create litter, not the government. We should own up and take it upon ourselves to not litter,” states Afroz, who draws inspiration from freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Sardar Patel. “These people took charge for independence and didn’t wait for authorities!” he adds.
He explains that Article 51A(g) of the Constitution makes it the duty of the citizens to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife.
Talking about becoming popular on social media, he laughs, “I hadn’t even started the Clean up Versova Beach Facebook page. Some volunteer did.” Afroz says that a lot of people didn’t know he was working to save mangroves in Versova and Juhu because he was not on social media.
And because his campaign grew organically, Afroz, while glad about it, doesn’t make much of celebrity support from the likes of Dia Mirza, Randeep Hooda and Amitabh Bachchan himself. “Thanks to the attention, it makes fans either just aware of the situation, or they like and share it. Which isn’t how you bring about change; it has to happen on ground zero,” he asserts.
For Afroz, everyone from politicians to celebrities are citizens at the end of the day, who owe it to the environment to keep it safe. And more than bringing down the law on errant populace, Afroz has a whole different approach to it. “You can either make them obey by force or by love. I believe in the latter,” he shrugs in conclusion.
Afroz’ mantra for cleaner surroundings
Best to educate people to not litter creeks.
Under the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011, manufacturers should be made aware that they are responsible for every plastic piece produced and they should be asked to recycle it.
Start waste segregation at homes by washing all plastic used, before giving it away, so that it can be further recycled.
Environment is not a virtual entity, and has a physical existence. So, we should make it our responsibility to clean litter.
Lastly, repeat the above four steps, for better results!