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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The beach warriors of Versova

The beach warriors of Versova

How a handful of people mobilized the largest citizen-led beach clean-up in the world

Volunteers pick up plastic at Versova Jetty. Photographs: Aniruddha Chowdhury/MintPremium
Volunteers pick up plastic at Versova Jetty. Photographs: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The view from Mona Keshwani’s apartment on Versova’s seafront is breathtaking. On the left, breakers curl against a shoreline that stretches all the way to Khar Danda. On the right, Madh Fort looms out of foliage. At high tide, the sea comes all the way up to the apartment complex.

“It’s beautiful," says Keshwani. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else." It’s beautiful, until you see what the waves bring, smashing against the rocks with force—plastic bottles, rags, broken bits of styrofoam. And when the tide recedes, the sand is left strewn with this refuse. “At least now you can see some sand," says Keshwani. “Earlier, it was just a sea of plastic."

It wasn’t always like this. Till the end of the last century, Versova was a sleepy fishing village fringed with mangroves and inhabited by Koli fishermen. Historian Deepak Rao remembers empty stretches of sand and mangroves, “where all the Bollywood scenes of horses running on the beach were shot. It was the back of beyond; there was nothing but the original seven bungalows there," he says. The sheltered curve of sea and incoming currents brought a wealth of marine life into the bay. But as Mumbai’s population exploded and Versova was co-opted into the suburbs, the same currents began ferrying the city’s refuse into the cove. The neighbourhood grew side by side with Mumbai’s TV and film industry, and when studios and production houses moved to Andheri next door, the actors and strugglers followed. Versova is home to a sizeable population from the film industry, including director Anurag Kashyap and actors Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Priyanka Chopra. Today, step into the many cafés here and you’ll be party to casting calls, script readings and directorial meetings with preening starlets and muscle-bound aspirants.

The Kolis still live here, but exploding construction has squeezed them into a parcel of land at the tip of Versova abutting the jetty.

Afroz Shah (left), who kick-started the beach clean-up
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Afroz Shah (left), who kick-started the beach clean-up

Lawyer Afroz Shah moved into his Versova apartment in March last year. For six months, he watched the patches of garbage grow on the beach and walked every morning past the piles of refuse that turned into an open-air toilet for residents of the fishing village and the slums nearby. He had, he says, just a couple of options: “I could have gone to the BMC (Brihanmumbai municipal corporation, also known as the municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai), written letters as people do. Or I could have approached the court and filed a PIL, invited the chief justice to do something about it." But working as a lawyer for eight years had taught him that a legal piece of paper might not be enough, even for the government.

So, in October 2015, he put together the Versova Resident Volunteers. Initially, it consisted of just him and his 84-year-old neighbour Harbansh Mathur, who died battling cancer. “The first day, we filled four-five plastic bags with garbage and we were so happy. I didn’t understand the enormity of what I would face at the jetty." They didn’t know then, but they were to become the vanguard of the biggest beach clean-up by citizens anywhere in the world.

They began knocking on doors in the neighbourhood, trying to get people to volunteer. “My thought process was that if I went to the beach, the BMC would be forced to come. And sure, there’s lethargy and corruption there, but there are still people working hard at the BMC. I thought if I explained the gravity of the problem, they would understand."

BMC workers
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BMC workers

Versova is situated perfectly to catch debris from the coastline around it. On the southern end, the waste from Bandra and Juhu creates a logjam. Meanwhile, drains from Malad and Lokhandwala empty their noxious contents directly into the Malad Creek, which ends at the northern end of Versova beach. Both ends are abutted by slums and fishermen’s colonies, with lanes too narrow for the BMC’s dump trucks to navigate. And if garbage is not collected from these settlements, the residents are forced to dispose of it by tossing it into the sea. The result is a mountain of waste—Shah says the piles of garbage were 5ft-high in places—that no one seems inclined to move.

The clean-up is a Sisyphean task. On any given weekend, about 20-40 volunteers scavenge manually for garbage, joined by around eight BMC workers. Together, they pick up about 3,000kg of garbage on average over 2 hours each on Saturday and Sunday. During the week, the unforgiving tide brings more.

Picking through the refuse gives you an insight into Mumbai’s solid waste management problem. Plastic bags comprise 90% of the waste, followed by clothes, bottles, shoes and, strangely enough, school bags. All of this is compacted and buried in the sand by successive waves of garbage, so volunteers have to dig it out, empty the wet sand and then dispose of it.

The lone tractor and digger assigned to the beach.
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The lone tractor and digger assigned to the beach.

This is where the BMC is meant to step in. Diggers can excavate the garbage that volunteers can’t, and a tractor is needed to haul it all away. But often the machinery doesn’t show up and Shah is forced to pay for and hire it on his own. The beach is divided between two tenders. The northern end, which includes the jetty, has eight BMC workers for 1.5km of beach, while the other side has 12 workers for a 1km stretch. “The tender says workers will come in the morning, 9am-4pm; there are no supervisors. Now, Versova beach is under water most of the time. If the tide is up, how do they clean? So they show up, watch the sky and go away. The public exchequer bleeds," says Shah.

The scale of the task almost comically overwhelms the BMC workers assigned to the northern end of the beach, and there’s little motivation for the job. “But despite everything, the BMC is helping," says Keshwani. “They may be slow, but their help has made a difference." Keshwani and her family joined the group in December and are now part of the core group of volunteers, who have developed an easy camaraderie. “Community service and community living is quite a myth in cities like Mumbai and New York," says actor and director Pooja Bhatt, a regular volunteer, who, by her own admission, is not really a social person. “But this has actually brought together a community of people who had nothing in common and who possibly would never have met. It’s become kind of an addiction."

New volunteers show up at the beach every week, from all parts of the city and from every walk of life. It’s not uncommon to see the fisherfolk pitch in to help alongside foreign dignitaries such as Norwegian consulate general Tor-Arnt Dahlstrom, who’s a regular. And just a year after Shah first began picking up waste, the volunteers had cleared up three million kg of garbage and drawn the attention of the UN Environment Programme. Unep’s executive director, Erik Solheim, came down to mark the one-year anniversary of the clean-up on 2 October, happily donning boots and gloves to join the clean-up. To date, though, not a single Indian politician has shown up to help, other than to provide lip service. And despite 1,300 volunteers showing up to welcome Solheim, the next week saw the same core 20 volunteers on the beach.

Shah is under no illusion that a handful of citizens alone will be able to solve this problem. “These are just preventive measures. Institutionally, they will have to put up some sort of mechanism. We’re just trying to prevent this plastic from going into the deep ocean, from where it will never come back."

Plastic that washes out into the ocean is drawn and trapped in gyres—circulating ocean currents—to form giant floating islands of garbage. Here, the plastic breaks down into microplastics—minuscule particles that are then ingested by marine life and subsequently find their way to humans. “By 2050, they’re saying there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean," says Shah, citing a report from the World Economic Forum. So the next step, he says, is to take this to schools and colleges, to educate more people about garbage disposal so that part of the problem is resolved at source. After November, he also plans to take earth movers into the drains, to clean the waste at its point of origin. “I’ll shoot a video while I’m cleaning it and then show the video to the BMC and ask them, if citizens can do it, what are you waiting for?"

And that’s the nub and primary lesson of this problem. “Never underestimate the power of the individual," says Bhatt. “When governments fail—and they will; they’re set up to fail—we need to step up and take over, not wait."


Debris check

■275 million tonnes (MT) of plastic was estimated to have been generated by 192 countries in 2010

■Of this, 4.8-12.7 MT found its way into the world’s oceans

■By 2025, a conservative estimate suggests, the figure for debris in the ocean will rise to around 150 MT

■In 2010, 87% of India’s plastic was categorized as mismanaged waste, and the country ranked 12th in the world for the amount of mismanaged plastic waste generated (600,000 tonnes per year)

■China topped the list of countries with mismanaged waste in 2010, with 1.10kg of plastic waste generated per person per day

■India generates an average of 140,000 tonnes of solid waste per day

■Maharashtra alone produces 22,570 tonnes of solid waste per day, out of which Greater Mumbai generates 10,400 tonnes per day

*Source: report on plastic waste inputs from land to ocean, February 2015, and the annual report “Implementation And Management Of Municipal Solid Waste" by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, 2014-15.


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Things to do in Versova

Versova seafood festival

Organized by the local fisherfolk, the seafood festival is a glimpse into the culinary traditions and culture of the Kolis. The freshest catch from the coast—pomfret, seer fish, mussels and Bombay duck—is cooked in traditional masalas right in front of patrons. Show up early in the evening to stay ahead of the stampede and the gracious Koli women will serve up some sea stories with your meal.

Where: Versova Koliwada, Ganesh Mandir, Church Road, Andheri (West), in the last week of January.

Cat Café studio

Mriidu Khosla’s production house Zcyphher Studios doubles as a cat rescue centre and a café. Drop by for a coffee and a cuddle with the café’s 30-odd residents and, if you make a strong enough case, you can adopt one of them.

Where: Bungalow No.68, Aram Nagar, Versova, Andheri (West).

Dariya Mahal

The last of the original seven bungalows that gave the Versova neighbourhood its name, Dariya Mahal was built in the early 1930s by British architect Claude Bately for textile merchant Maneklal Chunilal Chinai. The 15-bedroom mansion has long been used as a film set and it’s also given out for weddings, but visitors can gawk at its beautiful architecture from outside.

Where: JP Road, Jeet Nagar, Versova, Andheri (West).

Madh Fort

A relic of Versova’s Portuguese past, this little fort was wrested from the Portuguese by the Marathas and subsequently by the British. Today, it’s controlled by the Indian Air Force, and you will need written permission to see its dilapidated interiors and the sweeping panorama it affords of the Versova-Juhu coastline and the Marvé creek. The fort can be accessed by ferry from the Versova Jetty.

Where: Madh Island.

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Published: 28 Oct 2016, 01:24 PM IST
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