In October, 2015, Afroz Shah, a young lawyer based in Mumbai set out to do the impossible. His nearby beach, Versova Beach, was blanketed with rotting garbage, roasting in the hot Indian sun. Shah, along with his 84-year-old neighbor, Harbansh Mathur, kicked off their mission to clean Mumbai’s filthiest beach by simply… doing it.
Shah tweeted his progress on Twitter, and before long, his following grew and thousands of volunteers from all walks of life, from slumdogs and city dwellers to missionaries and tourists, flocked to Versova Beach to shovel debris, often standing shin-deep in toxic waste. Every Sunday for two years, crews of volunteers met to pick up trash from sunrise to sun down in what became the world’s largest beach cleanup. Shah calls it a “date with the ocean.”
“I feel I owe it to my planet to give, give, give, not take, take, take.” – Afroz Shah
His program was faced with great opposition from naysayers and pushback from government officials. In 2017, 109 weeks into the cleanup, Shah suspended the mission due to abuse, lack of cooperation from officials and non-clearance of garbage.
Week 109 cleanup.Volunteers abused by goons for picking up garbage.Administrative lethargy,non clearance of picked up garbage and abuses is what we are https://t.co/ydEzp638C6 largest beach cleanup is suspended.Tried my best and I failed.Forgive me my ocean and my country. pic.twitter.com/XdFJMfZNeV
— Afroz shah🐬 (@AfrozShah1) November 19, 2017
What one may call a failure, the world is recognizing as a huge act of kindness and conservation, a sign that one person can really make a difference. Three years since he started the cleanup with the help of just one man, he has spearheaded an initiative and cleared one of the dirtiest beaches in the world, removing 20 million cases of garbage totaling 11,684,500 pounds and training more than 100,000 people on beach cleanups and plastic pollution. Shah’s efforts will live on as he positively impacts and educates more than 60,000 students.
In 2016, Shah received the Champions of the Earth award from the United Nations.
But, the greatest victory for his work came in March 2019. And, it wasn’t in the form of an award or media recognition.
Week 127 .
Fantastic news for Mumbai .
We got back Olive Ridley Sea Turtle after 20 years. Historic moment
Nested and Hatched at our beach. We facilitate their journey to ocean.
Constant cleaning helps marine species.
Marine conservation centre needed at @versovabeach pic.twitter.com/j79xCKamNh
— Afroz shah🐬 (@AfrozShah1) March 22, 2018
The Olive Ridley sea turtle is the smallest turtle species and, although widely popular, their population has decreased by more than 32 percent in the last generation along. This is due to both exploitation and polluted migration paths. Versova Beach was once an important nesting ground for Olive Ridleys, but for almost three decades, it has been uninhabitable.
“At 6:30, I got a call from one of my volunteers,” says Shah, “saying ‘run to the beach, run to the beach!’ I ran and you know, I was sitting on the beach crying tears rolling down. A hundred and two small turtle hatchlings coming from the nest, and Mumbai experienced it, I’m told after 25-30 years. That was something. So for us, it was a blessing from Mother Nature, from the ocean.”
Shah is now tackling another area of concern in India, the Mithi River. He is working with a team of volunteers to clear the river of garbage and waste, and also add a dam to control floodwaters during monsoon season. Part of Shah’s initiative is to create a community development, educate future generations and clean the river itself.