Priya Ramani, the Mint columnist whose spunk catalysed the “Me Too” movement in India last year, profiles a very different type of Indian – Afroz Shah. Unlike people like us who sit in air-conditioned offices and fulminate about the challenges facing India, Afroz hits the beaches and riverbanks of Mumbai to deal with messiest of problems, namely, the accumulation of garbage, of sewage and of industrial pollutants on the beaches of Mumbai and in the Mithi River (whose source lies 3 miles away from Marcellus’ offices).
“The story of the Mithi—named so because its waters were once sweet and fit to drink—is a bitter one. The 18km-long river, which carries the overflow of the city’s Powai and Vihar lakes to the Arabian Sea, has been dismissed by experts as the city’s biggest sewer. After its starring role in Mumbai’s 2005 floods, when instead of playing its part as an efficient storm water drain, the river vomited thousands of litres of sewage and industrial waste-filled water on to the streets, any residual love the city had for it dried up quickly.
Observers who have tracked the erosion of the once dense mangroves around the Mithi were not surprised by the havoc the river wreaked. “Over a decade, the river’s course had been diverted ninety degrees by the extension of a runway at the airport, its width narrowed by the Bandra Kurla Complex, and its mouth pinched by the Bandra-Worli Sea Link,” author Naresh Fernandes says in A City Adrift, adding that middle-class Mumbaikars predictably glossed over this and instead blamed the catastrophe on the slums that had come up on the river’s banks. Crores have been spent—mostly unsuccessfully—trying to revive the river.
But these are just details for Shah, who recently completed the “world’s biggest beach clean-up” (in the words of the United Nations’ environment arm) at Versova in Mumbai. After clearing 20 million kilogrammes of garbage in three years, Shah handed over a pristine beach to the city’s municipal body in November.”
What makes Afroz even more interesting is his financial model and operating philosophy:
“Shah does his work without any external grants or organizational support; the money comes mostly from his earnings as a successful lawyer. His is an entirely volunteer-run effort. “Each one does his or her bit and goes home. Ten per cent of what I earn I give back,” he says. “If I need three tractors or four excavators, I go to the bank and withdraw money and rent them,” he says….
Every weekend, he cooks and carries with him food for 50-100 people. He uses community meals as a platform to educate the millions who live along the river, explaining ideas such as recycling and sustainability. In recent weeks, the Dawoodi Bohra community has pitched in with food….
He gets exasperated when, like your average annoying adult, I ask him for solutions to our couldn’t-care-less attitude about garbage. “Your assumption is that there is a solution. After working for four years, I’m not under any illusion that there is any solution,” he says, adding that the only thing we can do is to start our own personal journeys. “If a solution comes, so be it. If not, we still have to do our duty.”
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