This man's mission to save a beach made him a champion of the Earth

Culture & Entertainment

Afroz Shah

Afroz Shah. Pic supplied by Prince Thomas

 

For Afroz Shah, a love for the ocean came naturally. Having grown up in coastal Mumbai, India, he became, in his words, a “born nature lover”. Now, that passion is helping to transform the city’s beach back into a clean, pristine environment.

It began simply enough. Every time Afroz looked out at the beach from his flat in Versova, an upmarket neighbourhood in north-western Mumbai, he was pained by the sight of garbage accumulating on the sandy stretch. The matter came to head one October morning in 2015, when the lawyer found that he couldn’t see any part of the beach that wasn’t covered with plastic and other waste that had washed ashore. But there was no point in getting frustrated. He had to take a step.

He and his 84-year-old neighbour Harbansh Mathur started cleaning the 2.5-km-long beach, one plastic item at a time. There were bottles, sand bags, clothes, shoes and much, much more. The two ended up with several bags full of rubbish.

And so, over the next six months, the two would head to the beach every weekend to start cleaning. They gradually started getting attention and help; eventually, at least 40 other volunteers turned up every week. People from every walk of life appeared: students, members of the neighbouring fishing community, even Bollywood stars. Unfortunately, Harbansh Mathur has since passed away.

“We also got help from officials from the local administration, which provided trucks and excavator machines,” said Afroz. The movement led to the formation of Versova Residents’ Volunteers, which is headed by Afroz. The Volunteers have collected more than 5,000 tons of trash from the Versova beach.

The efforts drew international attention, and in August 2016, Lewis Pugh, the UN Patron of the Ocean, came down from Nairobi to help clean the beach. He was followed a month later by Erik Solheim, Head of United Nations Environment Programme, who also visited the beach and participated in the clean-up.

This recognition became official in December 2016, when Afroz was among the select few to be given the Champions of the Earth award. UNEP called Afroz’s movement the largest beach clean-up in the world. Winning in the Action and Inspiration category, the 33-year-old is the only Indian to have received this award.

TIME FOR ACTION

Afroz Shah

Afroz Shah. Pic supplied by Prince Thomas

 

A gold medallist in law, Afroz dedicates his weekend to his “date with the ocean.” Apart from cleaning the beach, the lawyer also goes knocking on the doors of neighbours and local fisherfolk, talking to them about the need to keep the neighbourhood clean. His Instagram feed includes pictures of him cleaning toilets. One weekend, the volunteers cleaned 52 toilets abutting the beach to make it free of open defecation.

“We have to protect the ocean,” he said. “It is very easy to hand over a cheque. What we need is everyone’s time and effort. ... We can’t just blame the administration; the rules are there to protect the environment, but instead of waiting for the rules to be implemented, we have to take action.”

Afroz now wants to extend the movement to other beaches in India’s financial capital, inspiring and motivating people to set up groups similar to the Versova Residents’ Volunteers. Another concern for Afroz is Mumbai’s mangroves, a natural defence against storm surges but now often choked with rubbish. “There has to be a movement,” Afroz remarked simply, having spent a day at the beach to help collect 15 tractors’ worth of garbage. Versova beach is now 90 per cent clean.

 

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