Afroz Shah and his volunteers cleaning up a Mumbai beach. Photo: Courtesy Afroz Shah on Twitter
Afroz Shah and his volunteers cleaning up a Mumbai beach. Photo: Courtesy Afroz Shah on Twitter

In October 2015, Afroz Shah, a Mumbai-based lawyer, began an initiative to clean up the largest beach in the city. Known as India’s financial capital, Mumbai is also one of the filthiest cities in the world, generating tons of garbage every day.

Undeterred by the scale of the problem, Shah and his team decided to do something about it. What they achieved over the next couple of years was nothing short of a miracle. Working over weekends at Versova Beach, they picked up by hand and removed 9 million kilograms of solid waste, mostly plastic, thrown up by the Arabian Sea.

The scale of the achievement was such that even the United Nations took note. It recognized Shah’s mammoth and unique effort to save the environment and conferred him with the “UN Champions of the Earth” award last year.

However, the marine-cleanliness campaign, believed to be the only such self-driven initiative anywhere in the world, came to an abrupt halt on November 19 when Shah tweeted that he was suspending his work.

The reason: “The municipal corporation’s failure to pick up the garbage we were collecting and abuses by goons led to the campaign being stopped after almost two years,” Shah told Asia Times. This came at the time when he was selected as “Indian of the Year 2017” by CNNNews18.

The Mumbai civic authorities failed to pick up the garbage collected by Shah’s team for weeks despite repeated requests. Eventually, 120 truckloads measuring around a meter in height piled up on the shore. This reportedly irked some people, who started threatening Shah and his volunteers, forcing them to stop the work. Thus a purely citizen-driven initiative was falling apart because of the apathy of the city’s civic officials.

“We were being [pressured] to stop the cleanliness campaign for the last five weeks, but we ignored it. Two weeks ago, our volunteer Amir Keshwani was asked by some goons to stop collecting the waste, who later ran away into the narrow by-lanes of a fishermen’s colony. Last week, the driver of the truck which was used to carry the waste was attacked,” alleged Shah, who then approached the police and local politicians for help.

While the police failed to arrest the goons, the local representatives failed to direct the civic officials to pick up the waste, Shah complains.

The lawyer who had spent every weekend for the last two years to scoop up the garbage at Versova Beach has held back from going there. “Apart from administrative lethargy, the mindset of the government officials as well as people who dislike such efforts fail me,” Shah said, expressing his disappointment and frustration toward the system and society.

“It was baffling to see there are people who have no concern for cleanliness campaigns, but they don’t allow others to do so.” He refuses to name these people but says they include government officials, politicians and local hooligans.

“Our Gandhian way of working quietly failed to encourage the officials to do their job. People think cleanliness is not an emergency. Such an attitude is disheartening and terrible for the marine environment and ecosystem.”

Climate change and rising global temperatures, Shah says, have led to the seas becoming rougher than usual, and as the water level goes up, it throws more garbage on to the beaches than before.

Politicians say that roping in contractors could help. But Shah disagrees. “We already have contractors for the road and cleaning the nullah [drain]. And everyone knows how inefficient it is. More than human resources, we need a change in mindsets, from politicians to officials to people.”

When Shah declared that he was calling off his two-year drive to keep the beaches clean, it caused a widespread furor globally. Shah is already well known and videos of him briefing Russian President Vladimir Putin are quite popular on YouTube. The chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, and the federal minister of state for housing and urban development, Hardeep Singh Puri, invited Shah to sort out the issue. Belatedly, a few local politicians came out in support.

“They have promised to iron out the bureaucratic approach and systemic flaws and have asked me to continue my drive. I will resume the work from this weekend as I am committed to oceans. I know, cleaning the sea or the oceans is an endless [job], but I will work for it until my last breath,” Shah said.

Shah underscored the need to have a long-term national marine policy in his discussion with the officials.

“Not only Mumbai or Maharashtra, but the entire country needs a marine policy. Until now, there have been only executive actions prompted by the court or government orders, but there is no legislation except for oil spills of ships. We have to look into solid waste, 90% of which is plastic, and liquid waste such as untreated water which spoils the marine system,” he said.

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