Young Mumbai lawyer Afroz Shah received the highest UN environment award for the Versova Beach mammoth clean-up operation.
The young lawyer and his neighbour began the massive taks one piece of rubbish at a time…
In October 2015, Mumbai-based lawyer, Afroz Shah, 33, and his neighbour Harbansh Mathur (an 84-year-old who has since passed away), were frustrated with the piles of decomposing waste that had washed up and completely overwhelmed the city’s Versova beach. Determined to do something about it, the pair started cleaning up the beach themselves, one piece of rubbish at a time.
“A date with the ocean”
Every weekend since, Afroz Shah has inspired volunteers to join him; from slum-dwellers to Bollywood stars, from schoolchildren to politicians. They have been turning up at Versova for what Shah calls "a date with the ocean", but what in reality means labouring shin-deep in rotting garbage under the scorching Indian sun.
So far, the volunteers have collected over 4,000 tons of trash from the 2.5 kilometre beach.
Shah, who rallied residents and fisherfolk by knocking on doors and explaining the damage marine litter causes, now plans to expand his group’s operation to prevent litter from washing down the local creek and onto the beach. He also wants to clean-up the coastline’s rubbish-choked mangrove forests, which act as a natural defense against storm surges, and to inspire similar groups across India and beyond to launch their own clean-up movements.
Shah is deservedly proud of the Versova residents’ accomplishments. Not only has the movement brought marine litter to the attention of decision-makers, it is also starting to win back the beach, with decreasing amounts of new litter appearing each month.
He vows to continue his beach clean-up crusade until people and their governments around the world change their approach to producing, using and discarding plastic and other products that wash up onto beaches all over the world.
From garbage dump to garden of Eden: a timeline
Eighty-five weeks later and 5.3 million kg of trash lighter, Versova beach is now pristine. Here’s how:
October 2015: Irked by the immense amount of garbage being pulled in by the sea on to Versova beach, Mumbai lawyer Afroz Shah and his 84-year-old neighbour, Harbansh Mathur began clearing the 2.5-km strand of litter, including plastic bags, cement sacks, glass bottles, pieces of clothing, and shoes. About 50,000 kg trash was removed during the first clean-up.
November 2015: Shah and Mathur were joined by 40 Versova residents, who began a weekly clean-up drive. By this time, 175,000 kg trash was removed from the site.
December 2015: The civic body provided amenities such clean-up marshals, garbage trucks and excavator machines. Slowly but steadily, the drive transformed into a movement over the next six months, resulting in 500,000 kg trash being removed.
June 2016: The clean-up now had more than 300 citizens participating every week, which paved the way for the inception of the Versova Residents’ Volunteers (VRV) group — clean-up crusaders headed by Shah. “It was fascinating to see people from the film industry, police personnel, lawyers, fishermen and even different communities come together for one cause,” said Shah, who had by then overseen the removal of 800,000 kg trash from the beach.
July 2016: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called it the “world’s largest beach clean-up in history”. The Maharashtra Maritime Board joined the VRV. As much as 1,800,000 kg trash had been cleared from the beach by then.
In August 2016: VRV’s efforts were recognised internationally when United Nations Patron of the Ocean Lewis Pugh flew down from Kenya and joined the drive.UN representatives and residents collected 2.84 lakh kg garbage in five hours and 6.14 lakh kg over two days. By then, the beach was cleaned of 2,000,000 kg trash.
September 2016: United Nations Environment Programme head Erik Solheim visited Mumbai. He took stock of environmental issues in the city and participated in the Versova drive.As much as 88,000 kg of idol parts and trash was collected after the 11-day Ganeshotsav festival ended.
October 2016: Shah rallied residents and fisherfolk in the area. He got them to join the drive by knocking on their doors and explaining the damage marine litter causes. At this point, 3,80,000 kg of trash had been removed from the beach.
November 2016: Afroz Shah and the Versova Residents’ Volunteers plan to expand their operation to prevent rubbish from washing down the local creek and onto the beach. They started cleaning up the coastline’s litter-choked mangrove forests, which act as a vital natural defence against storm surges.
December 2016: Afroz Shah was awarded the UN’s top environmental accolade — Champions of the Earth award — at Cancun, Mexico, for his beach cleaning efforts, making him the first Indian to achieve such a feat. By then, the group had cleared 4,500,000 kg of trash from the spot.
Timeline continued below…
From garbage dump to garden of Eden: a timeline concluded
January 2017: The group starts cleaning the 52 toilets near the beach to avoid open defecation.
February 2017: Following Shah’s and VRV’s efforts, UNEP started the international Clean Seas campaign launched in February at Indonesia. UNEP head Erik Solheim said the clean-up was inspired by efforts in Mumbai. Since then, South Africa, a few beaches in North Africa, Yemen and Southeast Asia have started cleaning their beaches to reduce marine litter.
March 2017: Shah submitted an official clean-up plan — detailing initiatives till the end of the year — to the civic body, which readily accepted it. The VRV had cleared 5,00,000 kg trash from Versova beach by then.
April 2017: Shah submitted a blueprint of the beach cleaning drive and his pre-monsoon plans to the UNEP. The All India Plastics Manufacturing Association joined the movement. The VRV planted 20 coconut trees near the beach.
May 2017: With VRV completing its 85th week, 5.3 million kg of trash was removed from the beach. One of the cities’ dirtiest beaches is now spotless.
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