By Deepika Khatri
In February 2019, a friend shared a link to a shorewalk being held by the Marine Life of Mumbai, a citizen driven collective. It took me to a website with photographs of orange-red starfish, Venus clams with patterned blue shells and hermit crabs I remember watching burrow into the sand from visits to the beach as a child. The photographs were tagged-Juhu beach, Haji Ali and Marine Drive.
Looking at the locations, I was skeptical. Having spent over 10 years in the city, I know how polluted its waters are from the waste ejected into it every day. How then could such an array of marine life as displayed on this website survive? It didn’t seem plausible.
Curiosity won on that occasion and at 7am, I found myself making my way to inter-tidal pools in the Arabian Sea in the shadow of the iconic Haji Ali Dargah. With the tide out, pools of water had formed between rocks. Some 30 metres in, the group of 15 who had gathered that morning huddled around the guide who pointed to a pale-green anemone, the size of my palm. Resembling a flower, it had a sack-like body and tentacles around a single opening. The tentacles have stinging cells which are used to immobilise and eat prey. It was the first of what was to be a morning of rich visual treats.
Returning from the beach, I excitedly shared photographs with friends I had visited those same locations with in college. Their response mirrored my initial disbelief at the multitude of marine life, and shared surprise at the resilience of the ocean.
A few months later, at the start of the monsoon, I found myself making my way to another beach. This time, in the northern suburbs of Mumbai to Versova beach. I had read about one of the biggest beach clean ups that was started by lawyer Afroz Shah in 2016 and wondered whether the news reports were true. Had a 5 foot high plateau of waste stretching for 2.5 kilometres really been cleared of 20 million kilograms of waste? There was something about the before and after images I’d seen that appealed to the imagination.
The scene that greeted me at the beach, however, was of one covered in waste. With every wave, more was being brought in and deposited on the shore. As far as the eye could see were pieces of cloth, milk packets, toothpaste tubes, chutney packets and once glossy bottles of cosmetic products now grotesquely misshapen. Looking at the 50-odd volunteers who had also come out that morning, and at what lay before us, I reminded myself not to give in to a sense of overwhelm.
As I was emptying out cement bags full of wet sand and extricating medicine bottles, I began to talk to one of the volunteers, Savita, 34. ‘These are all things I use at home, and now I see them here on the beach at my feet. I have to do something about it.’ There is an urgency in her choosing to be here. For others like Akhikesh, who is a long-time volunteer, there is a sense of exhilaration in being witness to change. He said he never imagined that one day he would walk on the beach instead of a plastic plateau. He now comes out with his son for clean-ups. Another volunteer, a 16-year old girl who first heard about the beach clean up at her school tells me that it is not about the aesthetics. ‘It’s not about seeing a clean beach. I don’t want this to go into the belly of a fish. You don’t want fish to die because of what you do, do you?’,’ she says.
She is referring to the scale of marine plastic pollution in India and its impact on marine life.
According to a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry study, the plastics processing industry is estimated to grow to 22 million tonnes (MT) a year by 2020 from 13.4 MT in 2015. Nearly half of this is single-use plastic. A 2015 report in the journal Science found that 600,000 tonnes of plastic waste is released into the ocean along India’s 7,500 km long coastline, annually.
The extent of the damage is corroborated by findings shared on Litterbase. It found that the seas around Mumbai, Kerala and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the most polluted in the world. On an average, 68 items are littered per square metre at 4 Mumbai beaches- Juhu, Versova, Dadar and Aksa. 41% of this comprises micro plastics which is plastic ranging from 1mm to 5mm. So small they are barely visible to the naked eye, that come from micro-beads used in cosmetics or larger plastic debris that has been broken down. This in turn endangers marine life, birds and finds its way back into the food chain because of micro plastics ingested by fish.
The impact of plastic waste on marine life has been documented as early as the 1960s. Seabirds were found unwell or dead with plastic in their stomach and intestines, clogging their digestive systems. In some cases, sharp pieces of plastic had pierced their intestinal lining. In others, because plastic could not be digested, it would create a false sense of fullness resulting in starvation. Litterbase found that as many as 1,220 species are affected by marine litter and that number is steadily rising. This includes fish, sea turtles, shellfish and crustaceans. News reports of whales with plastic in their bellies have become far too common. The combination of ingestion and getting caught in fish hooks and discarded fishing nets is literally killing marine life.
Global studies reflect how urgent the situation is. In 2015, the journal Science published a paper on the magnitude of plastic waste going into the ocean from land. It mapped 192 coastal countries which generate a total of 275 million metric tonnes of plastic waste. Of this, an average of 8 million metric tonnes of waste goes into the ocean every year. Lead author Jambeck said that it was ‘equivalent to finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline we examined.’ Or as The New Plastics Economy report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation put it, ‘equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute’. The report stated that the situation is so dire that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will weigh more than the fish in it.
Yet, even as available research points to the severe harm being done to the ocean, there are also examples of how care and protection by local communities have resulted in its regeneration. Designated ‘Hope Spots’ by Dr. Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist, author and lecturer, it documents stories of resilience. The Andaman Islands, also identified by Litterbase as one of the most polluted, has been recognised for ecological efforts by the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team (ANET) to protect marine species. Sea turtle conservation projects have ensured that four species of turtles that nest and feed on beaches are safer from indirect capture through fishing nets and beach development.
As I talk to volunteers who come out to the beach in Mumbai, I am struck by the hope and exhilaration in the air. There is something about working with your hands and legs in tandem with strangers who are also fighting for the ocean that is invigorating. I am told about the Olive Ridley turtles who revisited Versova Beach after a long absence. School children take selfies with the mangroves they have just rescued from the plastic that draped it. An 8-year old boy proudly shows me a shell he found as he was dusting off a packet of chips. There is wonder akin to what I experienced on the walk at the rocky shore of Haji Ali. A reminder week after week of what there is to fight for and why.
Deepika Khatri is one of the co-founders of The Curio-City Collective.