10 a.m. on a Sunday morning finds me at Versova Beach. It is an odd time to go to the beach. It’s neither early enough for an invigorating walk or run nor late enough for a pleasant stroll. In fact, the sun is beating down with murderous intent. Yet, the beach the swarming with people. Hundreds of them. Spanning age groups from 6 years to 6o years. Mostly dressed down, many wearing caps moving with a purposefulness as they pick dirt and debris. They are not ragpickers – in fact there are people from the merchant navy, bartenders and even actresses in the group. They are all volunteers single-mindedly cleaning up Versova Beach.
It wasn’t so long ago that Versova didn’t have a beach to speak of. The upper-middle-class neighborhood had fairly long road running parallel to the sea and terminating in a fishing village. Where the beach could have been, was a veritable landfill of garbage and mounds of plastic refuse. “It was in such a bad shape that even the sea seemed to be reluctant to come towards the shore,” laughs and old-time resident of Versova.
In October 2015, one lone man could not bear the choking of the sea and the beach any more. Dr. Afroz Shah, a lawyer figured out that there was no Garbage-Cleaning Superhero going to appear any time soon. It wasn’t like the government or BMC were in any hurry to pay attention to the debris-ridden-maybe-beach either. So, he donned his slumming-best and went down to the beach on a Sunday morning and started picking up the garbage.
“Being a lawyer, I am totally familiar with the working of our system. So, if we wait for their help to provide us with a cleaner environment it might take another bunch of time. We can surely wait for that too, but the ocean can’t. It’s our duty and responsibility to clean our environment. Why would wait for anyone when we have the ability to take up this initiative. We cannot force anyone to clean our society until people themselves want to do that,” the good doctor says. “The garbage is not only unsightly, it also harms marine life, contaminates water and denies us a beach to spend time on,” he adds.
Weekend after weekend, Shah returned to the beach to do his mite. Soon he was joined by family and friends. Colleagues, acquaintances and neighbors added numbers to his efforts. The word spread that every Sunday morning, between 10 a.m. and 12 a.m. Operation Versova Beach Clean-up was taking place. It gained the status of an event as more and more volunteers turned up every Sunday. “We have anywhere between 150 and 300 volunteers each Sunday,” said Mona Keshhwani beside whom I was working.
All the strenuous efforts of Shah and the team of volunteers has notched up impressive numbers; they have removed more than 5 million kilograms of hazardous waste of plastic trash from the 2.7 kilometer stretch of this rocky beach across 106 weeks. “It is not like garbage removed once remains gone. People are still irresponsible and keep throwing things on the beach. So, every weekend we have fresh garbage to deal with,” says another volunteer, Mr. Amir keshawani.
“There are a lot of slum areas near the beach,” says Shah. “There are at least a thousand-people living in the slums with just 50 or so toilets. This meant that the sea-line and the beach became their toilet. So, our team went to the toilets in the slums and cleaned them so that those people refrain from urinating on the beaches.”
The hard work and the appearance of a beach where there were only disgusting mounds of garbage caught the eye of many and help started pouring in. The Plastic Association donated an excavator machine and added a team of eight volunteers. The United Nation Environment Program awarded him a title of ‘Champion of the Earth’. An NGO, Dhai Akshar, has also become a part of the initiative. Celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Pooja Bhatt, Randeep Hooda and Anushka Sharma have also turned up on various Sundays. In fact, Amitabh was so impressed with Shah’s work that he invited him on KBC and enabled donations of a truck and an excavator from the Escorts Group. In his appearance on KBC, Shah had spoken about the need for gloves for his volunteers and voila! a lady, Hema, from America sent across a few boxes of hand gloves.
At the end of very physically demanding yet strangely satisfying two hours, we all gather at Shah’s home where he organizes lunch for all of us. Like Dal fry and rice. The general feeling of bonhomie and camaraderie is wonderful. “I really look forward to each Sunday,” confided Mr. Ajay Awasthi. As I am leaving, I ask Shah when does he see this initiative reaching its goal and ending. “I will continue this work till I am physically active,” he replies, smiling.