Filthy Mumbai beach rebreeds turtles, thanks to a city lawyer

The incredible story of Afroz Shah, who led efforts to remove 13 million kg of toxic waste from Versova beach.

Beach clean up in Mumbai
Volunteers collect garbage as they clean Versova beach [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

Mumbai, India – On a breezy morning of March 22, Bombay High Court lawyer Afroz Shah was strolling on Mumbai’s Versova beach when he witnessed an incredible sight: nearly 100 olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings waddling towards the sea.

An overwhelmed Shah immediately called for help to ensure that the turtles were not attacked by stray dogs on the beach. Soon, a large crowd of people began to record on their mobile phones the slow march of the hatchlings towards the sea, which went on for half an hour.

Shah perhaps was the only person in that crowd who knew the significance of the moment.

“I was in tears as soon as I saw those turtles. It’s almost as if I had fathered them,” said the 37-year-old lawyer, who has spent the last three years cleaning up the Versova beach.

... We think we fulfil the duty only by bashing the government. But the government is not littering, we are.

by Afroz Shah, lawyer and activist

Shah’s herculean efforts – removing more than 13 million kg of toxic waste by working non-stop every weekend since 2015 – had borne fruit with the hatching of the turtles, a phenomenon that last happened on Versova two decades ago.

The Versova beach is one of the dirtiest on Mumbai’s 140km long coastline.

Last year, the Maharashtra state’s Pollution Control Board (MPCB) conducted a Water Quality Index (WQI) of Mumbai’s coast and found that the highly-polluted seafronts fell within the indices of 38 and 50 on a scale of 0-100, which means the water quality was poor.

Indices between 80 and 88 are considered good quality. The city’s longest river, Mithi, had a WQI of 28, making it highly polluted.

Another study last year by Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany found an average of 68.83 items every sq metre at four of Mumbai’s beaches, including Versova. Most of the pollutants were microplastics.

However, thanks to Shah’s clean-up of the Versova beach, the WQI there rose from 37 in February 2017 to 47 by the end of the year.

And that perhaps explains why the olive ridley turtles finally showed up at Versova after two decades. The olive ridley sea turtles are listed as “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. They are also protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

In India, the mass nesting site of olive ridley turtles is on the eastern coast: earlier this year, 428,000 turtles nested at the Rushikulya rookery coast in eastern Odisha state’s Ganjam district.

So, how did he think of cleaning the beach?

After he returned to Versova in 2015, Shah says he shared his shock at seeing a filthy beach with the 84-year-old secretary of his apartment complex. There was only one thing to do now.

“I put in my own money to clear the garbage,” Shah says. He has spent nearly a fourth of all his income so far on what has become his mission for now.

Shah says the hyper-consumerist lifestyle has led to plastic becoming the largest element in rubbish [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]
Shah says the hyper-consumerist lifestyle has led to plastic becoming the largest element in rubbish [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

Since big trucks risk getting stuck on the beach, excavators and tractors carried the rubbish to the trucks parked nearby, from where it was taken to recycling units in another Mumbai suburb.

Shah explained that each tractor loads 4,000kg of waste, so on any given weekend, a tractor is loaded about 20 times. Currently, there are three tractors on the beach, used for cleanups, while an excavator is taken on rent for 7,000 rupees (a little more than $100).

Even though Mumbai’s cash-rich municipality – Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) – with a budget of over $4bn had enough machines as well as workers, Shah says they were not interested in the project.

Despite repeated attempts, officials at BMC declined to comment on the story.

YB Sontakke, a senior official with MPCB, told Al Jazeera that his office tests water quality and develops an action plan, which is forwarded to another department to implement. He, however, refused to say anything on Shah’s clean-up drive impacting the quality of water on the Versova beach.

For three years, 40 to 50 volunteers would gather at Shah’s residence every weekend. When Al Jazeera visited him on one such Sunday in the first week of April, it found volunteers in orange T-shirts marked VRV – Versova Resident Volunteers – giving him a helping hand.

The volunteers had insisted on the tees. “The T-shirts feel clannish [sic]. I don’t like to announce what we are doing. Would you announce to the world when you go to pray in a mosque?” he says with a hint of embarrassment.

Shah says they also made him take the project to Twitter, which he did nearly a year after he started the mammoth cleaning drive. Today, he has nearly 24,000 followers.

“They were mostly photos of beach clean-up or related events like speaking at schools or a visit to the site by a dignitary.”

The first dignitary to take a note of Shah’s campaign was Lewis Pugh, UN Environment Patron of Oceans, who arrived on Versova a year after the drive began. The UN Environment Programme called his campaign the “world’s largest beach clean-up in history” and gave Shah the UN’s Champions of the Earth award.

The lawyer has also been joined by local celebrities, especially from Bollywood, who live in or around Versova. Some of them even donated equipment.

He had to briefly suspend the Versova clean-up after his team was heckled by local goons over several weeks. The rubbish was also not being cleared by the municipal body’s trucks.

This prompted Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to appeal to Shah to resume the clean-up, and instructed the local civic administration to clear the same.

“The CM came much later, after about 110 weeks of clean-up,” Shah says, adding that politicians view environmental protection as a mere event.

Hyper-consumerism and its love for plastic

Shah blames the hyper-consumerist lifestyle that has led to plastic becoming the largest element in rubbish. Growing up in Versova, he remembers no rubbish on the beach. He moved to another suburb for a few years, and returned to Versova in 2015, the year he began his drive.

He says the perfect view of the sea from his 10th-floor apartment was marred by the presence of plastic in heaps. “The garbage was five feet high. A child could easily drown in it.”

The 37-year-old, however, is both excited and cautious about the recent ban on plastics imposed by the Maharashtra government, even though he wishes several items were not exempt from scrutiny.

After the 2005 deluge in Mumbai – which killed 1,493 people – plastic bags below 50 microns were banned, but with little effect as they continued to clog the city drains.

Darryl D’Monte, former editor of The Times of India newspaper’s Mumbai edition and chairman of the Forum of Environmental Journalists in India, says he once participated in clearing debris off the mangroves at Carter Road, another seafront.

“Apart from plastics, we found clothes and rubber sandals in the garbage. People are not only accustomed to using plastics, they also mindlessly discard them,” he says.

D’Monte remembers swimming on Carter Road as a child, and understands what the beaches mean to the citizens of Mumbai. “The city is so congested that people throng to the beaches any time of the year,” he says.

Recently, Chief Minister Fadnavis declared the state free of open defecation, but the truth is nowhere close. While cleaning the toilets in the slums close to the beach, Shah says he was surprised to find just 52 toilet seats for over 25,000 people.

“Some toilets were donated by the corporates, but who will maintain them? One cannot blame slum dwellers for defecating on the beach,” Shah says.

Shah says his bigger ruse is that India’s democratic process is far from participatory. “Along with our rights, we have duties, and one of them is to protect the environment. But we think we fulfil the duty only by bashing the government. But the government is not littering, we are.”

D’Monte hopes that the appearance of the turtles would spur a larger cleanliness movement.

For that, Shah has his hopes pinned on the next generation.

“At a school I visited, the kids were wearing caps that said: ‘I am Afroz’. They said they want to step into my shoes when they grow up,” he says. “I felt my job was done.”

The Versova beach is one of the dirtiest on Mumbai's 140km long coastline [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]
The Versova beach is one of the dirtiest on Mumbai’s 140km long coastline [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera