New Delhi: “I am an ocean lover and feel that we owe a duty to our ocean to make it free of waste or plastic,” with this initial thought, in 2015, a 35-year-old young lawyer from Mumbai along with his 84-year-old neighbour late Harbansh Mathur, started city’s weekly beach clean-up. Since then, a lot has been done and achieved, courtesy, lawyer turned environmentalist Afroz Shah. Today, he is known across the world as the man who kick-started world’s biggest clean-up project at Versova beach from which more than 20 million kilos of garbage in over 160 weeks have been removed.
Every morning when I used to get up and see out of my window, I used to see garbage and more garbage. There was no end, it is this view that pushed me and my neighbour, Harbansh Mathur, to do something about it. And that’s when we decided to act upon the situation and start cleaning it ourselves. We just couldn’t wait for the government to react, we have waited for 70 years after independence. This is my planet, my earth, my ocean and I must clean it, said Afroz Shah as he shared what got him started.
Slowly and slowly, more and more people who started seeing Afroz and his neighbour, cleaning the beach, started helping them. In no time, the movement became India’s biggest community clean-up drive with thousands of volunteers joining in the weekly beach clean-ups. Afroz says,
Every week, it is like a ‘date with the ocean’ for me. I am in love with the beaches and the Arabian Sea and it’s that love that inspires me to return week after week.
Highlights Of The Versova Clean-Up
A year later, after the Versova clean-up was kick-started, the clean-up initiative hit its first crescendo. It was in August 2016, when over 500 residents, Bollywood celebrities like Pooja Bhatt, Pooja Bedi and Subhash Ghai, BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) labourers and UN officials, including Eric Solheim, Chief of United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) and Lewis Pugh, the UN Patron of the Oceans, removed over 2.84 lakh kilograms of trash manually from the 2.5-km long Versova beach.
The then head of the United Nations’ environment programme, Erik Solheim sharing his experience in 2016 with NDTV said,
I advanced my travel plans to India just to take part in something this unique. I had seen Versova in pictures with all the dirt and filth but had never imagined that it will be such a horrendous sight. I was shocked to see how much plastic and the other kind of waste there was at the beach back then. What beach warrior Afroz Shah is doing is something very commendable, he has done a fabulous job and he needs all the support. What Afroz has done over the years has a message or lessons for each one of us.
Rohan, one of the volunteers who started working with Afroz Shah initially also shared his journey with NDTV, he said,
I met Afroz back in 2015 at the beach itself, when he had just started his beach clean-up journey. I was so fascinated to know about what he is doing that i immediately decided to join him and since then there was no looking back. Afroz, actually made me fell in love with the environment and oceans and who doesn’t like to see a cleaner planet? And this love is what has made me join him week after week.
Remembering the second big milestone of Versova beach clean-up when about 3 million kilos trashed was removed from the beach, Rohan further added that they had expected to work for at least three years to make even a slight difference. But the significant change at Versova was visible in just 52 weeks.
From two people the journey was expanded to 250 registered members and then within a year it was 1500 volunteers who had joined Afroz just like me. In one year, we were able to remove about 3 million kilos of trash and that was the first time in the history that something like this was done in our country. When we reached that mark, we all were really thrilled, we could see the difference at Versova, in fact, everybody could and it was kind of a big deal.
In the same year, Afroz Shah, for his endeavour was awarded the United Nation’s top environmental accolade — Champions of the Earth award.
After the success in 2016, in the year 2017, Afroz got the support from many other people and environmentalists including Actor and Sustainable Development Goals Advocate UN Environment Dia Mirza, Shiv Sena’s youth party president Aaditya Thackeray, Bollywood’s megastar and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the beach warrior for his efforts on his monthly radio programme Mann Ki Baat in 2016. He lauded the Mr Shah and congratulated him for starting Versova Beach clean-up that has turned into one big people’s movement. He said,
I heartily congratulate Afroz Shah and his entire team for their efforts in cleaning Mumbai’s Versova beach.
Calling it an ‘inspiring example’, Prime Minister Modi also praised Mumbaikers for removing tonnes of waste from the beach in about 80-90 weeks.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 28, 2017
When The Internet Fell In Love With Afroz Shah’s Work
On August 2017, exactly two years later, and after 85 weeks cleanup, the Versova beach underwent a ‘miraculous’ and ‘massive’ makeover as Afroz calls it with over five million kilograms of plastic and filth removed from the beach. The before and after images of the beach took the internet by storm and social media started thanking the beach warrior for the clean-up revolution.
Vice President of India M Venkaiah Naidu also congratulated the warrior and said, ‘Hope the work of Afroz Shah inspires many others in the country.’
— M Venkaiah Naidu (@MVenkaiahNaidu) May 22, 2017
Inspired by Afroz’s work at Versova beach, Amitabh Bachchan also invited Afroz Shah to his popular game show Kaun Banega Crorepati 9 where Afroz revealed that he would buy equipment for cleaning the beach with the prize money. Later, the machine was gifted by Amitabh Bachchan to Afroz Shah as his contribution towards Versova clean-up.
Sharing his thoughts about Afroz Shah and the work he is doing, Amitabh Bachchan told NDTV,
Thank you, Afroz! No one ever told this man to do something about Versova Beach pollution. He saw that Mumbai’s favourite beach was drowning in its own waste; he simply started working to change this grim reality.
He further said,
I was simply shocked to see the amount and types of pollution at the beach and at the same time with this man, who was out there, removing all that filth with his own hands. It is not an easy task at all. That’s when I decided to support Afroz’s endeavor in whatever way I can.
T 2755 – The joy of gifting for a cause as noble as the one I did today is the most satisfying experience of life .. !! Gifted an Excavator and a Tractor for Versova Beach clean up .. !! pic.twitter.com/j5DLLndE9s
— Amitabh Bachchan (@SrBachchan) December 28, 2017
Actor Dia Mirza too shared her views on Afroz and his work, speaking to NDTV, she said,
Afroz Shah is a true Gandhian and a gem of a person. We all need more Afroz in this country. He is the true champion of the earth.
Celebrations Of Ganesh Chaturthi And 100 Weeks of Versova Beach Clean-up
On September 16, 2017, Afroz Shah hit another milestone as the mega Versova cleanup entered its 100th week of continuous clean-up and saw the cleaning of 7.4 million kilos of garbage. The day coincided with the International Coastal Cleanup Day and Afroz and his team of volunteers decided to oranised a mega clean-up marathon at Versova. More than 2000 swachh crusaders participated in the event along with Bollywood stars like Randeep Hooda. Joining Afroz during his 100-weeks celebration, Randeep Hooda said,
Thank you Afroz Shah for showing us the way to actually be able to do something for our planet, our country, our future #VersovaBeach #Respect.
Since then the actor has been part of many cleanliness drives with Afroz Shah and has always praised him for his work. Recently on his social media, Randeep thanked Afroz for his work and said,
To the only true warrior for the #environment I know of..salute to his persistence, consistency, ability to cause ground level mind set changes, educating the next generation and inspiring thousands to take up the cause to keep our Mother Nature clean..a modern day Gandhi.
To the only true warrior for the #environment I know of..salute to his persistence, consistency, ability to cause ground level mind set changes,educating the next gen and inspiring thousands to take up the cause to keep our Mother Nature clean..a modern day Gandhi @AfrozShah1 ???? pic.twitter.com/KbJezM6ZRU
— Randeep Hooda (@RandeepHooda) July 12, 2019
When CM Devendra Fadnavis, Aaditya Thackeray, Afroz Shah Cleaned The Versova Beach Together
After the 100 weeks of continuous clean-ups at Versova, beach warrior’s Afroz Shah’s journey came to a standstill when he suspended one of the largest beach clean-ups the world has seen at Versova in Mumbai after 109 weeks. Afroz had the citied refusal of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for the past few weeks to collect the garbage cleaned up by the volunteers and the safety of the volunteers themselves, as the reasons for giving up on the weekly clean-up drive. Talking to NDTV back then, he had said,
It is my failure and I have no one to blame. I started this mission as I wanted to change the mindsets of people towards littering and why it is important to protect our oceans. Infrastructure and facilities can be built, but if the mindset is not changed then there is a problem and that’s why my campaign involves volunteers to come and do beach cleanup on their own. I attempted to make a change and if people are abusing the ones who have cleaned their garbage instead of saying ‘Thank You’, then I have failed miserably, as I couldn’t change their mindsets.
After the incident, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis decided to step in and asked the warrior to not give up the noble cause. CM Devendra Fadnavis assured all the support from the government. In 111th week, CM along with Yuva Sena president Aaditya Thackeray joined Afroz at Versova clean-up and said that the state government fully supports his initiative and would soon prepare a policy for marine and coastal cleanliness and conservation.
#Versova beach cleaning :
CM @Dev_Fadnavis joins beach cleaning initiative with @AfrozShah1 and his team.
CM congratulates this entire team for relentlessly contributing towards @SwachhBharat Abhiyan!
CM interacted with school children.@AUThackeray was present too. pic.twitter.com/JBDHjDtXuy
— CMO Maharashtra (@CMOMaharashtra) December 3, 2017
3 Years And 20 Million Kilogram Trash Later
Afroz made history towards the end of 2018 when the beach warrior together with his dedicated team cleaned-up more than 20 million kilogram of waste from Versova Beach. And as if to prove nature was healing itself the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle returned to Versova after 20 years at the beach.
It took the beach warrior about three years and 160 weeks of regular clean-ups to remove all that filth from Versova. It was in November 2018, Afroz decided to move on to a new date, a new mission and then took up a new challenge to clean up Mumbai’s longest river – Mithi.
Calling Mithi River as his new-found love, Afroz shared with NDTV on why he has taken up this challenge, he said,
The idea behind Mithi river clean-up is to create an army of people who love and value natural water bodies. I realised how bad the condition of Mithi river is when an Imam of a nearby mosque told me that 30 years ago, he used to use the water from the river as drinking water and now it has turned into a sewage. The river is 18 kilometres long starting at Vihar lake in Powai and ending near the Bandra Kurla Complex. Looking at the condition of the river I can say that it is going to take at least five years to clean the river.
Simultaneously, Afroz has also started working towards curbing plastic pollution from IN the Dani Paani beach in Malad. He says,
I want to replicate Versova model across all 19 beaches of Mumbai and then rest of the country. In this clean-up voyage I sincerely hope that I have created many Swachh warriors for India. I am just not working for beach clean-ups. My real motto is to spread awareness about marine litter and how it is affecting the planet we live in. I am going to many schools in Mumbai, trying to educate the young lot of our society about the problem so that they are not like us in the future and can take care of the planet in much better way.
Talking to NDTV about the lesson Afroz has given to each one of us regarding the environment, 27-year-old beach warrior Chinu Kwatra, who in 2017 after getting inspired from Afroz started his own beach clean-up crusade, said,
Afroz is my real hero! What I am doing today is all because of him. If I had no one to look up to back then, I don’t think I would have taken the cause of environment. Simply, because it is not easy! But this one man proved all of us wrong by making Versova one of the cleanest beaches of India.
Inspired by Afroz Shah, Chinu undertook a continuous clean-up at Mumbai’s Dadar beach and then extended it to the seven beaches in the city – Dadar, Cuffe Parade, Bandra, Worli, Erangal, Madh and Juhu and till now the warrior has been able to remove more than 86,000 kilograms of garbage in total from all these beaches.
Along with Chinu, even the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has been inspired from Afroz’s work as they have decided to replicate Afroz Shah’s Versova Model for 13 other beaches across the country. Commenting on the same, the waterman of India, Rajendra Singh told NDTV,
There is no doubt, Afroz has done a commendable job. I hope if the Versova model is being replicated across the country then other factors for the clean-up of the water bodies of India is considered such as sewerage being thrown DUMPED directly into the rivers. Till the time basic things like these won’t be covered the clean-up will not be successful.
With a motto and aim to give more time to mother nature, the beach warrior has now decided to move away from social media platform so that he can give more and more time on-ground for the real work. Announcing this on his social platform, Afroz signed off,
Dear Mother nature , I need to love you alot. Loving is by doing ground activities and action – including policy making. Hence will be away from social media (Facebook ,Twitter , Instagram etc). All ground action throughout the week will continue as usual.
Week 197 .
Dear Mother nature ,
I need to love you alot.
Loving is by doing ground activities and action – including policy making.
Hence will be away from social media (Facebook ,Twitter , Instagram etc).
All ground action throughout the week will continue as usual. pic.twitter.com/OssBFPf3f2
— Afroz shah???? (@AfrozShah1) July 22, 2019
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollution, clean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.