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How One Beach Clean-Up in Versova is Saving the World
Last month it became five years since Afroz Shah gallantly stepped down onto his beloved Versova Beach in Mumbai with the intention of cleaning it. Considered one of the dirtiest beaches in the city, the task appeared insurmountable. Shah, however, began his perennial “date with the ocean” and now, five years on, their love affair is stronger than ever.
By late 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) described the project as the “largest beach cleanup in the world.” In 2020, cleanup practices are now becoming an intrinsic part of Mumbai’s values and culture, setting the standard for the rest of the world.
Who Cleaned Versova Beach?
Instigated by local lawyer turned “Champion of the Earth”, Afroz Shah, the Versova Beach cleanup has lasted 265 weeks so far.
Shah grew up near the Versova shoreline and upon his return as a permanent resident in 2015, the beach - his childhood playground - was completely unrecognisable. Versova Beach had become a dumping ground. Overcome with grief, Shah, and his 84-year old neighbour, Harbansh Mathur, began a weekly Sunday cleanup.
Versova Beach, August 2016 | Credit: Flickr/UNEP
For the first month, this was the order of things: Shah and Mathur were like vigilante crime fighters. Then, one Sunday, two men approached them asking for gloves. If three’s a crowd, then maybe four’s a movement? They were joined by 40 volunteers.
By December, 300 people were turning up at these cleanups, and soon, the Versova Residents Volunteers (VRV) Facebook group had been formed. The movement had also garnered official support from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) who provided garbage trucks and excavator machines.
The Versova Beach cleanup has now attracted almost 200,000 volunteers over the course of its existence.
Volunteers hard at work, May 30, 2018
Is Versova Beach Clean?
Is Versova Beach the Cleanest Beach in Mumbai?
In a study of nine beaches between November 2015 and May 2016, Versova Beach, along with Juhu and Aksa, were in the worst condition possible. The role of volunteers during this period had paved the road to redemption.
Whilst it is important to celebrate the gargantuan efforts of volunteers in the Versova Beach cleanup, we must equally understand that the project is, by definition, a never-ending one.
By mid 2017, just months after swathes of images depicting a revitalised shorefront were circling the internet, the beach had been littered once again. Afroz Shah traced 70% to the Malad Creek and 20% to storm water drainage. Moreover, the annual monsoon season will continue to dump trash on Mumbai’s beaches. The BMC and VRV continue to target creeks, rivers, and beaches, but the battle against an interconnected water (pollution) system rages on.
Is Versova Beach Safe?
A study in 2016 showed biochemical oxygen levels in the water at Versova to be twice the safety limit due to untreated sewage. Plus, an estimated 500 tonnes of waste flows into the ocean from storm water drainage each day. The contamination is so deeply enmeshed in the water that even tiny plankton have been ingesting microplastics.
Versova Beach Turtles!
For Afroz Shah, clean beaches are a bonus. The real purpose is to rectify these conditions for marine life and prevent plastic from fattening ocean gyres. So on week 127 of the cleanup, when volunteers spotted Olive Ridley turtles surfacing to hatch on the beach for the first time in 25-30 years, it felt like a glimmer of hope.
The Power of Your Voice
The key to a movement’s success is finding ways to galvanise the community at a grassroots level. Once people had caught wind of Afroz Shah’s solo efforts, at least 300 joined the movement through word of mouth alone.
Now enter the strength of social media. Shah uses WhatsApp to send out broadcast messages which, in turn, are passed on by hundreds of recipients. He keeps the rest of the world updated each week via his Twitter feed.
Starting at ground level, then moving through the proverbial gears to achieve a global internet following, this movement grew organically. Not once did this initiative pass through government officials. The moral of the story is that real change occurs when we, the people, take charge.
Versova Beach 2019 and 2020 - The Impact
The largest beach cleanup in the world will continue expanding its operations to all 19 major beaches in Mumbai and a complicated network of creeks. In 2019, Shah’s focus shifted to the Mithi River which has now been completely transformed.
The movement has inspired separate cleanups in Mumbai, India, and around the world. Just down the road, ‘Beach Please,’ a group consisting of former school mates, gathers every week to clean the coastline around Chaitya Bhoomi.
The organic, bottom-up methods implemented by Shah and his volunteers is endearing to locals. Alongside the cleanups, Shah has been giving informal lectures to coastal and riverside communities, schools, and colleges regarding the danger of single-use plastic and the importance of a circular economy. So far, over 200,000 people have received this training.
Shah has acted in the knowledge that lasting change requires a seismic cultural shift. If we have any hope of preserving the good work done through cleanups, we must simultaneously tackle the problem at its root cause.
Even government officials have now recognised the people’s drive to reclaim stewardship. In January 2020, the Save Versova Beach Association were named official caretakers of Versova Beach. This was a landmark moment for the community and for Afroz Shah, who previously attributed beach neglect to “a loss of a sense of belonging”. Through self-provisioned cleanups, citizens have finally regained that sense.
Shah’s activism has inspired the whole world. People are discovering their love for nature by way of cleaning it. The goal now must be to turn a burgeoning cultural phenomenon into an instinctive way of life for us all.
Is Versova Beach Open?
This year, the monsoon season has dumped 70% less trash on the beach. A combination of greater awareness and less outdoor activity has visibly reduced garbage influx from the adjoining creeks. In this instance, the pandemic has tempered our assault on the environment. Long may it last.
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