Home > Lounge > Features > Afroz Shah's new year lesson

You and I have sworn that we will read better books, sleep more and eat healthier this year. Mumbai-based lawyer Afroz Shah has decided that he will spend every weekend of the next five years—driving 1 hour from home each time—to shower some love on a river with a bad rap.

“Every river has a story to tell us. We’re not listening," says Shah, 36, when we meet at the Good Luck café in Bandra over bun maska, keema pav and chai.

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.

Shah’s efforts at educating businesses and residents around the beach to embrace a circular economy were successful too. Total garbage collected between the months of August and December in 2018 fell to less than half that collected in the same period the previous year, according to a report in Mumbai Mirror. One of Shah’s volunteers continues to keep an eye on the private company that has now been contracted for six years to ensure the beach stays clean.

Shah’s style is to gather a group and plug away at a problem until it slowly disappears, one piece of plastic at a time. When we meet, he has been working on his new project for eight weeks. Thus far, he and his volunteers have cleaned 200m of the 18km river. “The solid waste is out, the water hyacinth is out and to tackle liquid waste we have installed a bioremediation plant in the first nala (sewer) which enters the Mithi," he says. “Let’s see how that experiment goes." It’s slow going and will only get more challenging when they face the polluting industries located along the river’s banks 6km ahead.

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.

Over the last couple of years, his collection of vehicles has grown. Now, in addition to his Mercedes, he owns three small boats (one donated by a plastics company, two gifted by Adidas), a tractor and a tough excavator called Jungli (both given by actor Amitabh Bachchan).

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.

Tor A. Dahlstrøm, the deputy head of the Norwegian consulate general in Mumbai, volunteers occasionally, always wearing a T-shirt with the same message: Just do it. When Shah asked him about it, Dahlstrøm replied that policies, laws, regulations, advisories, all take a back seat to hard work. The Norwegians are among Shah’s biggest supporters and he has travelled there on more than one occasion to exchange ideas with fellow environmentalists.

Shah prefers to use the word nature rather than environment. Observing how fish ingest hazardous microplastics has put him off seafood completely, but his love for nature was inculcated early in life when the five-year-old tagged along with his father, a businessman, on fishing trips to Powai Lake, waiting hours to hook rohu or black pomfret.

His parents met when they were teenagers at the annual Navy Ball in south Mumbai. “They hooked up after my father watched my mother dance," he says. His dad was Muslim, his mum was Catholic and his extended family could easily feature in any “Unity in Diversity" advertisement for India.

Now, the people he unites with to fix the country’s seemingly insurmountable problem of garbage are mostly students. “I love talking to people who are between 8-21 years old. I see fire in their eyes. Adults want to be inspired, we hear a talk, we say ‘Wow! Great!’ and it ends there," says Shah.

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."

Garbage selfies (yes, that’s a thing), big budget advertisement campaigns and politicians talking from the ramparts of Red Fort won’t do the trick, he believes. “Environmental protection suffers all over the globe because of jingoism. You have to make it monotonous. Loving nature must be an everyday affair."

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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