Interview with: Afroz Shah and volunteers who participate in beach clean ups
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Afroz Shah is a lawyer and ocean lover who has led one of the biggest beach clean ups in the world at Versova Beach, Mumbai. He won the 2016 UN Champion of the Earth Award and was recognised by the 2019 CNN Heroes of the Year.
Deepika: Over the last few months, I’ve been going to beaches in Mumbai’s suburbs to join clean ups that started in Versova Beach. It was led by this man called Afroz Shah. After the first visit, I sat down and wrote this in my notebook, which was my first impressions of the beach:
‘An excavator is digging the tightly packed sand, its mouth burrowing hungrily as it goes back and forth, making its way up the beach. Lying exposed in its wake are pieces of cloth, milk packets, toothpaste tubes, and once glossy bottles now grotesquely misshapen.’
It’s actually what got me thinking about waste and the overwhelming presence it has in our everyday lives.
Arpita: Ya, and I think all the stats point to that direction, right. This article I came across said that India is completely being buried under mounds and mounds of garbage. We generate something like 1.50 lakh metric tonne (MT) of solid waste every single day. And your city Mumbai produces 7500 metric tonnes on a daily basis.
Deepika: You tell me these big numbers and I have to say they don’t mean anything to me at all. It just feels too big.
Arpita: It’s confounding.
Deepika: So that’s what led us to a 4-part Trash Talk series, beginning with this one. It’s a way to actually explore how people in cities are engaging with this issue of garbage, what they’re doing and how all of us can be part of the solution. And I thought what’s a better place to begin than my own backyard at Versova beach in Mumbai.
Arpita: You know, I think I have actually come across Afroz Shah. Didn’t he get the UN Environment’s Champion’s of the Earth Award in 2016?
Arpita: And I think I chased that out of curiosity and I found all those amazingly astounding ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of Versova beach. I mean, it showed that in the first place it had garbage piled 5 feet high stretching to about what 3 kms? And now they’ve got it to a place where you can actually see the beach. You can feel sand underneath your feet.
Deepika: Absolutely, they cleared something like 20 million kgs of trash! And after that in 2017, Afroz Shah got the Indian of the Year award for public service and a whole bunch of others thereafter.
So first time I was there, I actually got a chance to talk to a group of 16-year old volunteers who come to the beach for clean ups.
Saili and Roopshah: You find all sorts of things here: alcohol bottles, wrappers, detergents. Milk packets, so many of them!
This is not only a place that affects humans, it affects animals too, it affects nature. Because of all the garbage you see how fish come out dead on the shore. We’ve see fish skeletons here to. Dead fish coming up and we pick them up and throw them away. You see lots of consequences. That’s when you know beaches are important. And beaches are aesthetic. You know, you’d want them to be clean and beautiful in nature. So you don’t like seeing them dirty, do you?
Arpita: I mean, no one wants to see them dirty and I love that they’re choosing to get out and get their hands dirty, literally.
Deepika: Both girls, Saili and Roopshah, you know spend a part of their weekend sorting out garbage on the beach. They’d first heard about Afroz Shah when he went to their school to talk about the human-ocean conflict and the consequences it has for marine life.
What got Afroz out to the beach week actually was exactly that. He wanted to look at this problem of human-ocean conflict. That’s where I first met him when he was on his hands and knees sifting through waste.
Afroz Shah: My name is Afroz Shah. I am a lawyer by profession but ocean lover by choice.
See, every plastic which you pick up here, if not picked up at the beach it will do two things. It will become food for marine species. A fish will swallow it, a bird will ingest it. Look at this styrofoam, this is a potential food for a marine species. So people have got it wrong. Beach cleaning is not about clean beaches, sorry. Clean beach may be a consequence, maybe it will never be clean. But what we’re doing is we’re not allowing this to go into the deep sea and trouble the marine species. One. Two, if too much plastic lands in the belly of the ocean, the naturally existing ecosystem is bound to get disturbed. There are microorganisms there who will swallow it. See the saltwater can eat the organic waste, saltwater can’t swallow the plastic. So that’s the worrying factor. And hence, I feel nicer that this pick up will make sure that those many marine species will have a healthier life.
My Versova beach if you’re showing the video, oh my God, I never thought that beach would be clean. Three and a half kilometres of this much garbage. And every time we’d clean one tide would come and replace it. Every week we’d clean and the tide would…we used to. My volunteers after 1.5 years said, Afroz will this beach ever be clean? I used to tell them, this beach cleaning is not about clean beaches. It’s about the marine species whom you are protecting for god’s sake.
Deepika: You know, this approach of taking it one step at a time is something that another of Afroz’s volunteers was telling me about. So Akhilesh joined the group in 2016 and described the first time he went out on the beach.
Akhilesh Bhargav: My name is Akhilesh Bhargav. I’ve been part of Afroz’s team for the past 3-3.5 years now.
I once met Afroz, and someone said that he’s trying to handle a very big problem on Versova beach. I’d never been to the beach, at Versova. And I met him in office and I told him ‘Let’s approach the Chief Minister, we need to seek his help.’ So Afroz just said, ‘Akhilesh, why don’t you come on the beach once?’ It was a Friday, I remember, and on Saturday morning I went to the beach. It was raining heaving, you couldn’t see anything and I was just walking on plastic and I couldn’t believe what was happening. And there I see a bunch of 50-60 people working in crazy amount of rain just trying to pick up plastic. That was the day which kind of changed my life.
I said to myself, ‘Oh my god. This cannot be solved in a lifetime.’ If you had seen Versova beach at that point of time, that’s what you would have thought, and here we are.
Deepika: Interestingly, Akhilesh is also part of the All India Plastics Manufacturers Association, and he was talking about how his perception of plastic and its use changed after that first visit to the beach.
Arpita: I bet, because I think Mumbai has some of the worst polluted beaches in the world. So this research I came across, by Litterbase, a German research organisation which studies ocean health and particularly the presence of plastic debris on four beaches in Mumbai. They did this study and found that an average of almost 69 items could be found per square km.
Deepika: I can believe that! And you know, it’s the micro plastics in particular that are so harmful. You know, you’re talking about thousands of sachets of shampoo, and fabric softener, and gutkha – those really small sized packaging which then breaks down into these tiny fragments. And then the larger plastics of course like instant noodles and chips packets, they are strewn as far as the eye can see.
Arpita: And all this awful plastic ends up in the bellies of sea creatures. I mean we’ve all seen those really awful pictures of birds and turtles where you know, you split up their tummies and you see that they are full of plastic— they’ve choked and died of starvation because of it. And this study I just mentioned said this. Litterbase found that the total number of species affected by plastics is 1,220, and of course, it’s going up.
Deepika: But you know, Afroz has actually grown up in Mumbai that had a very different beach. So part of what brought him back there was to see if he could go back to that beach of his childhood.
Afroz Shah: My early teen years, my early childhood was near a lake called Powai Lake. My father used to take me there every weekend. We would fish through angling. Then in my teen years, I was here in versova and I used to come to the beach.
After I became a lawyer, I shifted to Bandra. I stayed in Bandra for 10 years. Then suddenly when I came back to versova, this beach had become a garbage dump. I still remember the first time I came and saw, and thought ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’. Then you lawyer instinct would have naturally told you, go to the court, because the government seems to not be delivering, the BMC. There’s a term in law called ‘mandamus—continuing mandamus’. You file a PIL in Bombay High Court and tell the Judge the govt was not working, so please issue mandamus. A mandamus means to direct. So that’s my lawyer instinct, but my human instinct told me that’s not right. That’s not the correct approach. So that’s when I decided to use my two hands. I said let’s go.
I started with an 84 year old man who was suffering from cancer. He was the secretary of my building. His name was Harbansh Mathur. Me and him for the first time to the beach, all alone in October 2015. I remember still both of us picked up 5 bags – we were so happy.
Lots of changes in people. The change has to be not at a systemic level, if you ask me. Because that systemic level you do whether under a law or a corporate, or a society. Change has to be individual. So if I’m able to change 2 people, I’ve done my job. You’re not Mother Teresa. I’m not under any illusion that I will become a Mother Teresa, or that someone will have to become a Mother Teresa. It’s a matter of fact. Just go and do it. So my beach clean ups are also matter-of-fact. We just go do it, come back. Go do it, come back.
People call us insane because for four years we’ve been cleaning. I say that’s it. There’s nothing wrong with it. For four years we ate food, for four years we generated garbage, four years I made a carbon imprint. So what’s so great if for four years I picked up plastic? There’s nothing great about it. In fact, all of us should be doing it. Beach clean up is about leading by examples.
Deepika: Afroz set the bar starting the clean ups with his neighbour but he also began to mobilise all sorts of different people to join him.
In the 7 beach cleanups I’ve gone for so far I’ve met people of every age group, every shape and form who have come out to do this work together.
In fact one of them is a 74-year old woman called Primla Hingorani. And she calls herself Aunty 72 actually because that’s when she opened her Facebook account! It’s lovely to see her out there very week picking up garbage. It’s just inspiring to be around her.
Arpita: I bet. She sounds inspiring. I can’t imagine something like this even being possible without involving a whole host of people. It must’ve been a massive effort.
Deepika: Yes, absolutely. I’ve seen videos where everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to the UN Rapporteur have joined him on the beach. In fact, at my first clean up, Dia Mirza and contestants from Miss India were there for the beach clean up. And Afroz was describing how he used to do this mobilisation, just going at it one house at a time.
Afroz Shah: I used to go house to house. Initially, my clean up was only on Sunday for the first 3 months. The after 3 months, we started doing Saturday and Sunday. So what we’d do was, we’d step out. And I used to come back after clean up, if it was a morning clean up, I would eat my lunch and then go house to house.
Gandhian philosophy you must get it right. It is not about wearing a loin cloth. That’s not Gandhian philosophy. Gandhian philosophy was this – if you saw a problem, it was to take everyone on board. When Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement, when he fought for independence, everybody was with him. The Birlas and the Tatas. That time everyone said ‘India is a very poor country. How did you get these Birlas on board. But they were. After all, you are a citizen, and you are a citizen generating garbage, so what do you do? You have to own up.
It’s a Gandhian way, its love, no? If I smile to you, you smile back. How difficult is it? Human beings have a beautiful emotion called love. In this day and age we don’t use it. We are selfish with love. Once you become selfless with love, that’s what this movement is all about. I connect to people with a smile and food. If you come to my house on a Saturday-Sunday, there are 100s of them. Now when I was walking out there were at least 25 volunteers there. So some were cooking, some were having lunch, some were having conversation. I think as humans we’ve forgotten that. Hence the aloofness. There’s a loss of sense of belonging and from that loss of sense of belonging arises the waste. That’s the link. The more we are connected with others the more ok we are with other species.
Arpita: You know I really like how Afroz speaks of this form of action as a reflection of love. I think so many of us feel this deep sense of concern and even anxiety around these issues but we don’t necessarily see its connection to action. I wonder sometimes if it just leads to accumulating anxieties because its not heading anywhere. And I remember from our conversation, you’d been to the beach clean up for the first time and you said how it had calmed you down in a way you that you hadn’t been in a long while..
Deepika: Yes, I think there’s something about shared action, and doing, which is transformative, even if you’re faced with huge challenges. For me it was also about working with so many other people I didn’t know, but also knowing that there’d be people there week after week. It’s felt really reassuring and in many ways it also made me feel less lonely.
Arpita: Ya, that is the special thing about getting the community together, but any community action is such a massive commitment for anyone who is doing it. So how does he organise this?
Deepika: There are cleanups every weekend on Saturday and Sunday plus 2 or 3 mid-week engagements with different stakeholders like shopkeepers in and around Versova, and he has a team that he works with that helps him do this.
But also what I found really interesting is that it extends beyond the beach. He has a fully open house policy, there’s volunteers going into his house afterwards for breakfast and chai, there’s conversations around plans for the next week. It’s just a space he’s been successful in bringing lots of different people together.
I met another of Afroz’ volunteers, one of the core group members, Faizan. He’s 25, and has this air of deep thoughtfulness about him. After working with Afroz, he’s chosen to make a full time commitment.
He was describing his early experience.
Faizan: I felt really good about it that I was not the only one. First of all, I was proud of myself to actually go there because I think that’s the first step, the most difficult step because you don’t know what you’re going to do, and you don’t know anybody there. I feel most people back at home who read about it and see it on social media, that is something that stops them, holds them back to go over there because they have no idea what really happens. They just see pictures and don’t know what to do. But I realised over there that they guide you.
I was lost. I was all over the place.
Until I came home, I didn’t realise how peaceful it felt. I was watching this movement for a long time but when I finally joined it. To be honest, when I was there, it felt normal. Because they were so open about it and they wanted to talk to everybody and get everybody involved. But when I went home and thought about it, it gave me a sense of pride in myself. It’s a small thing that I did but I contributed to a cause in my country.
Just picking up garbage will not clean everything. It’s the awareness that that brings. How many people I’ve brought to the clean up with me – it must be a very few in number, 3-4 maximum but the feedback I have got from them is that just by attending one or two clean ups, they have stopped throwing away the garbage and ask, ‘where is my garbage going?’ That’s the kind of conversations that need to happen. This is what the clean up brings. It brings up conversations among those who don’t know about it.
I never used to do it for 25 years of my life. I was never bothered about where my wet waste and dry waste is going- as long as it’s not in my house, as long as it’s not in my backyard. Then I don’t really care about it. That’s not the attitude we need to have as a community, as a city, if we want to see our city clean. That’s the crux of the whole clean up movement. It’s not just by physically cleaning it, but it’s an attitude change, a mindset change. That’s the most difficult part.
Arpita: I suspect there is something really powerful to persistent and consistent action which isn’t there in doing something one off. I remember from my experience of being in Mumbai where post visarjan it was so filthy, the beaches again, probably the ‘before’ of Versova and all these kids from colleges and school were marched up in their uniforms to clean it and that was just this one off thing where you did it as an obligation. Making the choice of coming there day after day, that’s powerful.
But I wanted to ask, what about those people in Mumbai who actually live by the sea? Aren’t there a lot of bastis in that area? Are they also involved?
Deepika: Actually that’s how Afroz began engaging with the communities around Versova. For me it’s one of the things that really stands out about his initiative.
He said he’d see people coming out to use the beach as a toilet and he’d tell them not to. And he’d get really angry and say. ‘But we don’t have any other space to go’. So he decided to visit the community toilet block, and he said what he saw was just shocking. He started then cleaning that toilet block.
Arpita: That’s intense.
Deepika: Yes, because it it something to say how much you’re committed to what you’re doing.
I was talking to one of his volunteers, Jaunty who has actually grown up in Sagar Kutir slum on Versova Beach and now has a young child of his own, and is also the sort of hero of his community because he’s been really successful in mobilizing 72 young men to join this clean up.
Jaunty: Been working with Sir for 2-3 years. I didn’t know much before. Living in a slum, I’d throw garbage anywhere. I didn’t know what segregation or recycling is or how harmful plastic is and what it does to marine species.
When this person started coming to our area, and started cleaning the toilets, I first thought he was from a Party and going to stand for elections. No one actually wants to do ground work. Everyone just talks. But he was here doing the work. A leader is necessary. If a leader only talks, after a few days, it will peter out. We have continued for 4 years because the leader is with us, doing the work. That’s the biggest motivation for us. That he’s cleaning the area we grew up, the toilets we go to.
He’d come in a Mercedes, and if someone so well off can come to our slum, we need to start cleaning it ourselves. I told my friend Ganesh that and it’s how we started. First one, then two, now we’re 72 boys.
People would say you’ve become a ‘kachrawala’, all you do is clear up garbage. We’d also laugh it off saying ‘yes, we’re ragpickers’. But all those who made fun and mocked, we felt that one day maybe they would see the change and join us.
We decided to start sports. We’d get 15-25 age group children and kept a tournament. The team would get a cash prize and an entry to join the clean up. Sir said to start this as sports are crucial and it can be used to mobilise for the environment. It was difficult, but now 72 boys are with us.
Deepika: There are 5000 homes in Sagir Kutir basti in Versova, and ensuring that waste segregation takes place in each household is what has kept Jaunty motivated.
Arpita: That is quite an astounding second level impact. I’m just loving the different types of people that are getting involved!
Deepika: Yes, and Afroz was saying he wasn’t even on social social media in the beginning but now he’s using that as a platform to engage with more and more people. I don’t think it actually would have been possible to do what he has without the sheer number of volunteers that he has. Literally 20 million kg of garbage removed! It’s quite incredible. Week after week, I’ve seen an average of at least 40 volunteers at any given clean up, and when he plans bigger events, that figure touches 5000.
Arpita: These are volunteers?
Deepika: All volunteers, yes. One of the volunteers I met there actually is a school going boy Aarush who’s 15. He joined about 3 months ago and is already a regular face there.
Aarush: When I started 3 months ago, we used to fill up one or two trucks at the Mithi River but as more people get aware about it, we’re filling up 5-6 trucks and it’s amazing to see that we as humans, such few people, can clean up 100s of tonnes of plastic. So even if one person, say I clean up 5-6 buckets. Even if one person comes, we can clean up 5-6 more buckets. That is how we should see it.
You see, so many people you tell them ‘I’m going to clean the beach, I’m going to clean the ocean’, they’ll say the plastic will keep flowing in. It’ll never stop. But the way to see it is we’re making a significant impact because even if I pick up one garbage, one plastic wrapper it might not land up in the stomach of a turtle or a fish. That is what is important to realise.
Everyone needs to come out one day or two days, just take out from whatever free time rather than going to watch a movie or playing on your PS4 or X-box. Rather, come out and help your environment.
Arpita: Aarush’s excitement is really warming and I think it does seem rather thrilling that so many children are also interested, engaged in joining this space of doing. And as we said, doing also leads to that space of introspection.
Deepika: Absolutely, and its also such a special part about the clean ups. The other exciting thing is that in March 2018 some 20 Olive Ridley turtles were spotted on Versova Beach after a really long time.
You know the ocean is inseparable from the idea of Mumbai. I mean, in a city that’s constantly moving, the beach is that space where everyone comes to pause, and rest, and to find solace. I mean even when you’re participating in the cleanup, you feel that sensation. There’s just a quietening that comes with working with your hands and legs and just being connected to the rhythm of the ocean. Even as you are doing that, I mean Afroz calls it a duty or responsibility to the ocean, but even in that journey, the ocean is always giving back.
Outro: If you found this episode interesting, do share it with your communities.
To join clean ups in your city, visit our website www.thecuriocitycollective.org for a list of people and groups who are leading efforts to reconnect with our natural world in Mumbai and in other cities.
In our next episode, we’ll travel to Bangalore to meet the Founder of Daily Dump, Poonam Bir Kasturi, who is working to change the way we engage with waste and to point to solutions we can start with today.
This episode has been made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and produced by the Bangalore Recording Company