Afroz Shah, who was praised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in ‘Mann Ki Baat’ last Sunday for starting up a citizen’s initiative to clean up over 50,000 tonnes of plastic waste off Versova beach, puts forth the idea of ‘collaborative justice’. “We normally speak about our rights, but, we should also care for our duties and most importantly, not just speak but start acting,” he said, while defining his version of the ‘Ocean Vigilantism’. Excerpts from his interview with Abhijit Mulye-
Getting through to you has become tough of late. How do you feel about the response you are getting from the people?
The phone calls have been going on for over last 10-12 days since my social media posts showing images of Versova Beach went viral. It feels good. The awareness and enthusiasm amongst people is really exciting. But, one thing that I keep reminding people who come to me is cleaning up our oceans of plastic waste is not an easy job, and it’s not a short-term job either. It will need tireless work by many people for long hours over a long period of time. So, for me, two days a week for the cause continues to hold.
You must have been getting several invitations for various events too, isn’t it?
Yes, I’ve been getting a lot of invitations. But, I’ve decided that I will go to only those functions where I can find volunteers to join me or places where people are coming together to do something of worth. I would like to interact with such groups. Otherwise, as a lawyer, I do speak a lot. That is part of my profession. But, I feel more needs to be done than talking. I work five days a week and two days are kept aside for cleaning garbage.
How did you start working for this cause?
It did not start out of nowhere. I’ve been working in the field of environment for a long time. Oceans and mangroves have been my passion for a long time. The issue of the Versova Beach caught my eye in 2015 when we shifted here. I started working on its cleaning and the idea of two days a week started with that. Harbansh Mathur, who was in his eighties back then, was the first one to join me in this. There were several others who rejected the idea outright. But, we kept on talking to people and today, we are a group of over 200.
What has been the reaction of your family members? Have they joined you too?
Yes. Some of my family members do join me in the mission we have undertaken. I always say that if you want to work in the field of environment, it should begin from home. My house is a zero garbage house. We segregate waste, compost the biodegradable and recycle plastic and all other recyclable waste to the possible extent. We’ve been following this for many years now and we have been doing it like one follows his religion. It's like vigilantism. So, if one wants to work in the field of environment, my first advice is, make your own resolve. Make it tough. Then start with your home. Make your home garbage free. When you are successful in making that, then step out and start collecting plastic from other people. Setting your own example would be the best inspiration for people. I call it provoking people to participate.
Tell us about the initial days of your ‘date with the beach’.
The initial days were very tough. I used to go from door to door to urge joggers to join me in cleaning up the beach. Tidal waves keep depositing waste on the coast. Plastic waste thrown in by over 10 million residents from Andheri to Borivali used to get dumped by the tidal waves along the Versova shore and the accumulated waste of years had turned the beach into a dumping ground. A 5-feet tall heap of plastic waste was accumulated near the jetty. It took us 85 weeks to remove around 50,000 tonnes of plastic to turn the dumping ground to the beach as it looks now. I’ve always believed in love, respect, bonding and sharing. Things that can be achieved by love cannot be achieved by force. People used to tell me that it’s an impossible task. But, I used to pursue them to give it a try. Now, we are a close community. On the north end of the beach, there is a small colony of fishermen. It’s a slum and on the other end, we have who’s who of Bollywood. But, when we started interacting, we became one united force over the issue of garbage. All are friends now. It has been a fulfilling journey.
How was the response from the government agencies?
I have always believed in participatory democracy. For me, the duties of a citizen in a democracy do not end with voting and paying taxes. We need to recognise our duties just as we talk about our rights. We worked with this approach. We started working first and then went to the officials of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). They too were pleased when they realised that here is someone who is not complaining but seeking help. International bodies like the UN Environment Programme joined in once they realised the firmness of the resolve of the local residents.
Has your background of a lawyer helped you in this?
Yes, but in a very limited sense. We have so many legislations related to the environment, but we lack their proper enforcement. While thinking about the menace of single-use plastic bags accumulated on the beach, I was reminded of the clause of extended producer’s responsibility that puts the onus of cleaning the plastic waste on manufacturers. We approached the all India body of plastic manufacturers. Their first reaction was that the rules are vague. I then appealed to them to join us in cleaning the beach and experience the menace themselves. They joined us and upon experiencing the difficulties themselves, they sent in a tractor and 10 cleaners. Any litigation would have taken years to achieve this. What the law couldn’t do, the heart and the minds did.
What is going to be your next project?
Maintaining the cleanliness of the beach would be more of a challenge. We have taken the cleanliness drive to the toilets in the slum. We have also planted 50 coconut trees. The model is clear and simple. Join hands, initiate an action, invite government agencies and achieve your goals. This is what I call collaborative justice. I expect more and more people to follow this model to initiate the action against issues bothering them. Just like the BMC, the Maharashtra Maritime Board too has joined in. They would be joining in the clean-up from June 4. Along with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), we are planning to start with the cleaning up of 19 beaches in the city from June 5.