Inside the court, he does the talking. Outside, his actions speak louder.
Nearly three years ago, lawyer Afroz Shah had moved to a beautiful sea-facing apartment in Mumbai. The view of the Versova jetty was something, he had thought, he could never have enough of. One glance out of his window and he could keep staring at the sea of blue. For Mumbaikars, it is a dream to have a home by the sea and he had realised it early enough to savour it.
The blue sea, though, had a disturbing side to it. Trash from all around could was being washed ashore, spoiling not just the view but the environment. The carcasses of dead animals would sometimes make it worse. Joggers and walkers found it difficult to go about their morning routine.
Besides the beauty of the place, it was one of things that caught Afroz’s attention soon after he had shifted to the apartment in March 2015. But just complaining about the filth around the beach was hardly a solution. He decided to act. His passion to see a clean beach resonated with his 84-year-old neighbour Harbansh Mathur, who was helpless but wanted to see a change. In October 2015, when the two decided that they needed to act, the task looked gargantuan.
It took two to tango and soon Mathur was showing up at the beach, while Afroz picked the garbage, one small step at a time. Mathur, unfortunately, is no more but that did not deter Afroz’s passion. Every weekend he would inspire volunteers to join him to clean the beach, and make sure that the garbage was taken away for the landfills.
For the local fishermen, the issue of trash on the beach was a particularly worrying because they would often find too much of plastic in their nets when they went fishing every morning. He was able to rally them for his cause since they were directly going to benefit with the cleaning.
“My idea has always been to involve people in different ways so that we can handle litter at source,” Afroz says, recalling how he has been at it even before he announced it to the world through social media.
Yet, on a typical weekend, Afroz was regularly seen at the beach, with his gloves on and directing a bunch of volunteers working with missionary zeal. They could be heard speaking in several languages – Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and English. The languages they spoke could have been different but they were united in their mission. That is how Mumbai has always been – a melting pot of many languages and cultures.
The waste collected by with the efforts of the volunteer groups is sent to the waste management plant at Bhadup in Mumbai for further processing.
Much like the city, Mumbai’s 100-kilometre coastline too has been like a melting pot for garbage. You can find wrappers, packages, shoes, bottles, disposable glasses, plastic bags and similar things in millions. Some of it gets partly buried in the sand while some keeps floating on the water, ultimately reaching some shore nearby.
After the initial impetus, Afroz was spending nearly four hours every weekend to follow up with his passion. He had earned the trust of the people and soon kids and local fishermen were ready to lend a hand or two in aiding the effort.
After working hands on and motivating volunteers in removing nearly 16,000 tons of waste from Versova beach over three years, recognition poured in. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) bestowed him with the ‘Champion of the Earth’ award for driving what it termed as the biggest beach cleaning exercise in the world.
Adulation followed from no less than the Prime Minister is his radio programme ‘Mann ki Baat’. "A few days ago, you must have heard that the Versova beach in Mumbai, which was infamous for its filth has now transformed into a clean and beautiful beach. People toiled for about 80-90 weeks unceasingly, and turned Versova beach around by extracting thousands of tonnes of waste materials and today Versova beach is clean and beautiful," Prime Minister Modi said in his address.
Ahead of India hosting World Environment Day, Afroz partnered with United Way Mumbai to help clean the marine debris over four days. It was the first time that citizens were involved in the cleaning up of marine debris. United Way Mumbai and
Afroz likens his passion for cleaning litter on the beach to a date, which anyone would love to go on. So, how long will he continue with his passion?
“Either the beach and oceans get clean or I continue with the date,” he says, the resolve showing in every word he says.