World’s Largest Beach Cleanup

“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined. Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.” – Afroz Shah.

These were the words of the man who headed the world’s largest beach cleanup – Afroz Shah. 

Afroz and his volunteers cleared nearly 23 million kg of trash and dirt at Versova beach. 

It was all done because of three and a half years of tireless efforts

After the strenuous efforts of 160 weeks, Afroz Shah proudly announced on Twitter that a miraculous change has been made.

Afroz Shah - leader of the world's largest beach cleanup

Condition of Mumbai Beaches :

Mumbai is the second-most populous city in India and it is known for its beaches. But piles of trash and sewage contamination have made them very unsafe and hazardous for visitors in recent years. In a study of nine Mumbai beaches between November 2015 and May 2016, Juhu, Versova and Aksa were in the worst condition.

Versova Beach Before the cleanup began : 

It is located north of Juhu Beach in Greater Mumbai. Over the years it was exploited so badly that it had approximately 5.5 feet (1.67 m) height of plastic waste which extended throughout the 2.5 Km longshore. 

As the beach was not visited by tourists, the Municipal Corporation did not pay any heed to any of the petition which demanded cleaning of the beach. 

The beach was also used by the nearby slum people as a toilet because of the lack of toilets in the slum. Winds played a major role in piling up the waste on the beach as because of the direction of winds all the waste from nearby areas was swept away on the beach.

What prompted Afroz Shah to start this cleanup?

Afroz Shah is a lawyer who turned into an environmentalist. He used to live in Bandra and when he shifted to a flat near Versova Beach in 2015, he was shocked to see how the beach has been turned into a dump yard. Being a lawyer, he could have filed a petition in the court about beach cleanup but that will not bear any fruit as it is clear from past instances. So, he decided to take things in his own hands and said, “No, this ocean is mine. I spent my childhood here. I have a special [connection] with this ocean, Why should I wait for a government body to tell me what to do? … All governments are bound to protect the environment. But as a human being, so am I.”

World's largest beach cleanup

How the cleanup began and progressed?

In October 2015, Afroz Shah along with his neighbor Mr. Mathur an 85-years old man went on the beach and started cleaning. On the first day, they picked up 5 garbage bags. Then, they launched a weekend-cleaning drive and seeing them cleaning people started to join them. Adopting Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of winning the hearts of people with love, Shah started inviting people to his home for lunch or dinner to encourage them to take part in the clean-up. 

Slowly and gradually the number of volunteers increased up to 2000. Many fishermen also joined and as said by Shah “Fishermen have become so active that they tick off anyone who tries to litter the sea or the beach. A change has happened — of the heart as well as the mind. I wanted them to guard their ocean and I have achieved it.”

Journey in a nutshell :

The waste above the ground was picked with hands and then digging was done with machines to clean the waste which was underground. It was segregated into recyclable and non-non-recyclable into different baskets and sent to the treatment plant. As mentioned earlier about the lack of toilets in the nearby slum areas, Shah not only cleaned the existing toilets but also built 52 new toilets to prevent the sewage from getting into water bodies. He also trained the slum people, how to maintain clean toilets, segregate waste and make the environment clean. Many celebrities also joined the cleanup including Mr. Amitabh Bachchan who provided them with the JCBs to help in digging as digging with hands was very difficult.

Amitabh Bachchan and versova beach cleanup

Challenges Faced:

“Life is all about challenges and overcoming them.” Afroz Shah also had to face many challenges during the three-year-long journey. Some of them include changing the mindset of people and encouraging them to work for the betterment of the environment. Also, changing the outlook of municipal authorities and getting people and authorities both work together was a tedious task. He was constantly bullied by gangsters and in November 2017 the situation became so bad that he had to call off the cleanup drive. 

Change is visible:

About 80 Olive Ridley turtles hatchlings beelined from the Versova beach in Mumbai towards the Arabian Sea could be seen. It is the first sighting of olive ridleys in Versova after 12-15 years. This event is being tied up with the recent cleaning campaign. 

“But the single instance of turtle nesting should not be the benchmark for the cleaning program”, said Muralidharan. “If this inspires more beaches to be cleaned up then that is a more positive outcome than finding a single nest on the beach.”

turtles return to Versova Beach after decades

An example for everyone:

Afroz Shah has set an example for everyone that a single individual can make a big change, what it takes is sheer determination towards your goal. If he can do why cannot we, everyone has the power to do what Shah did but what they lack is will power. He always tell his volunteers if none of you will be there, I will still be standing, I have to do my personal stuff for this planet. 

In July 2016, the UNEP called it the world’s largest beach cleanup with the participation of top UN officials. Subsequently, Shah was awarded the UN’s top environmental accolade – Champions of the Earth award – in December 2016 at Cancun, Mexico, making him the first Indian to achieve the award. “Shah and citizens of Mumbai are a global inspiration,” said UNEP chief Erik Solheim. 

Future Plans: 

Afroz wants to set up a treatment plant that will convert plastic into oil and trash into pallets so that they can be recycled. He has planned to create a coconut lagoon by planting 3000 to 4000 trees and each tree will be the responsibility of the people of the local community staying there. The reason behind building the coconut lagoon is increasing the number of tourists and making the beach a tourist hotspot again. The trees are being donated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 

Coconut lagoon - Versova Beach

The journey did not stop there. His next campaign arrived at the Mithi river to make it plastic-free. The 15km long river starts from Vihar Lake and meets the Arabian Sea. The river has been severely polluted owing to the surrounding huge slum areas. Industrial waste, sewage, garbage, and many illegal activities are responsible for polluting the river. 

Afroz Shah says, “We have two choices, either we can live a life of convenience or we live in a healthy planet.” The before and after picture of Versova beach shows that we have to work hard to earn a clean environment.

My Opinion

Together we all can do wonders and Versova Beach Cleanup is a perfect example of this. It is just that few people who are aware should make others aware. Someone should give them all a push because sometimes a small push is what is needed. Afroz Shah just did that and brought everyone together. We need more people like Afroz who can make people believe.
I genuinely believe that we all can protect the earth and prevent climate change because together we can and there is still time but the clock is ticking very fast.

References:

  1. https://thewire.in/environment/olive-ridleys-make-a-come-back-in-mumbais-versova-beach
  2. https://www.intelligentliving.co/worlds-largest-beach-cleanup-turtles/
  3. https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2019/08/afroz-shah-a-son-of-ocean-how-mumbais-beaches-and-rivers-are-getting-new-life/
  4. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Mumbai-lawyer-Afroz-Shah-to-receive-top-UN-environment-award-for-Versova-Beach-clean-up/articleshow/55769454.cms
  5. https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/3-years-20-million-kg-trash-later-versova-beach-clean-up-crusader-looks-for-new-mission/story-Y0tJA0ZRWfUFRXGFLUe7yL.html
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versova,_Mumbai
  7. Youtube video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0ka45g4Fyc

Yash

Yash loves to read and write on issues such as climate change, renewable energy, SDGs, and other related issues. He wants to make people aware of climate change and encourage them to follow a sustainable lifestyle.

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