Mansoorudin Faridi/New Delhi
“A madrassa teacher once came to me to plead his legal case in the High Court. I told him that if you bring his students to join my cleaning campaign on Sunday, I will not charge the fee. He looked at me with a sense of disbelief and then agreed. This way, for the first time on the beach of Versova (Mumbai), the students from a madrasa participated in the cleaning campaign and this process continues.”
This is how Afroz Shah, an advocate, managed to involve the Madrasa students in his famous campaign of cleaning Mumbai's Versova beach. It may be recalled that the United Nations had declared his campaign the world's largest coastal cleaning campaign and awarded him the Champion of the Earth award.
The Magazine 'GQ' named him Man of the Year 2019 and the CNN network honoured him as 'CNN Hero 2019'.
Afroz is a hero for most Mumbaikars and has a fan following among people of all age groups for the world he does. The campaign started by Afroz Shah to clean the beach of Versova has now become a movement.
Speaking with Awaz-The Voice, Afroze said, “Cleanliness is half of faith, but it is not limited to ourselves (body and home); we should also keep the environment and atmosphere around us clean. Everyone should spare some time for cleaning spaces and preventing environmental pollution and creating awareness about it. This is Islam and this is Sunnah.”
He says that Muslims should connect with such campaigns because this is the teaching of the Prophet of Islam. “Muslims have to come forward, walk hand in hand with others in this. There is much more to do besides just celebrating Independence Day and Republic Day because there are 365 days in a year.”
The initiative of Afroz Shah has attracted attention. Superstar Amitabh Bachchan patted him on the back and donated a tractor to help him in his work. Similarly, many anonymous people provided equipment for his volunteers to pick up the trash. School children lend a helping hand, and different voluntary various organizations and known personalities associated themselves with his campaign.
The mission to create public awareness by picking up garbage and cleaning the beach every Sunday has completed 83 weeks. However, Afroz Shah says that this is the beginning, it is a long journey, in which everyone's participation is mandatory.
Afroz Shah told Awaz-the Voice about the meeting with a Maulana in the Mumbai High Court and the subsequent association of the Madrasa students with his campaign is a heartening development. He says the enthusiasm of the Madrasa students is palpable as it’s a new experience for them. “They are excited; happy at meeting others and understanding society.”
Afroz Shah and volunteers of Afroze Shah Foundation at work on Sunday
Afroz Shah says, “They not only happy at participating in this campaign but are also learning a lot from it, increase their understanding of their surrounding and the world and incorporate it into their lives. They are becoming aware of the harm caused by the garbage and plastic in the sea. They are living these two hours to the fullest.”
The Madrasa students have a tight schedule in the seminary due to which it is difficult for all of them to go out. and yet they manage to come to the beach every Sunday. "They know why they are doing all this; what is its importance and why it needs their time," Afroz said.
Afroz Shah told Awaz-the Voice: “I was a student of a municipal school. I spent my childhood in poverty, but I did not leave the path of education. Education made me understand the world. I felt my responsibility toward the world.
"I want that madrasa children to be brought into such a campaign; this will not only make them aware of the world but will also learn a lot.”
The scene at Versona on a Sunday
He further says: “I believe that if children learn, there will be a big change in the nation. I go to Madrasas and Masjids and talk to the scholars. I tell them what half faith is and how we have to make our presence felt. It is not only a matter of cleanliness but also of morals and actions.”
I think that the children who are getting religious education in Madrasas today will become Imams and deliver sermons tomorrow. We should prepare Imams to not only tell Muslims about human rights but also about the rights of other creatures, provide information about the environment rather than act as a guide; think of saving the universe with the world."
“I tell these children that it is written in the Holy Quran that you are not alone in the world, you should also think about other creatures. If we throw garbage in the sea, what will happen to the fish? Their life will become difficult. After hearing all this, the children become aware and disseminate the information. Such children will one day become the leader as the Imam.”
Afroz Shah says he not only visits mosques but also temples and churches. “We have decided to request everyone to donate two hours every week to this campaign. If there is support from places of worship, this campaign can be intensified. It is important to create awareness at this level. People listen to spiritual leaders and act.”
For the past six years, Shah has been active with his team during the Ganesh immersion festival that has just passed. Their team removes idols and flowers from the sea after immersion in the darkness of the night.
Afroz Shah's campaign during the Ganesh festival
He says beside cleaning the sea and beach, volunteers also request people to use marble or metal idols. “This will prevent pollution in the sea. The positive thing is that people are not only listening to these suggestions but also following them. This shows that if one is made aware of the rules, anything can change.”
‘I tell everyone that there should be no conflict between the rights of humans and other living beings. We (humans) are increasing in numbers and becoming a burden and killing the rights of other creatures; not seeing anything beyond our lives. Those whose rights are being destroyed are speechless. We have to understand that when we make our life simple and normal, our conflict with other creatures will be lessened. Let us all live. Only if the water is clean the fishes will be able to survive, if the air is clean the birds will survive. All this is possible only when we change our way of life.
Afroz Shah says that bringing awareness among people requires a gentle push, after which everyone follows. The guidance is needed only once.
The work started in Versova and soon spread to other beaches in Mumbai. Mumbai has 18 coastal areas which are badly affected by marine and land litter. Afroz Shah has started a campaign to clean these beaches. His volunteers have removed 20 million kilograms of garbage from Versova beach in Mumbai in three years.
The then and now image of the Versova beach
Versova is a coastal area three kilometers north of Mumbai with vast slum areas. Due to the lack of sanitation and drainage, people threw their garbage on the beach. From this plastic, garbage is washed away by the sea waves and it further pollutes the sea and endangers marine life.His campaign also involves asking people not to use plastic. For this, Shah and his teams visit the vegetable markets where he introduces alternative packaging and asks vendors not to use plastic bags.
He says that even before the garbage comes up, humans must think of changing their ways. “It makes no sense to first generate garbage and then worry about disposing of it, and starts from home. We must decide wisely how to reduce liter. How to protect the rights of all creatures in the world?”
How did Afroz start his campaign? The United Nation’s Environmental Programme (UNEP) explains this on its website: “In October 2015, Shah and his neighbor Harbansh Mathur, an 84-year-old who has since passed away, were frustrated with the piles of decomposing waste that had washed up and completely overwhelmed the city’s Versova beach. Determined to do something about it, the pair started cleaning up the beach themselves, one piece of rubbish at a time.
Every weekend since, Shah has inspired volunteers to join him – from slum-dwellers to Bollywood stars, from schoolchildren to politicians. They have been turning up at Versova for what Shah calls "a date with the ocean", but what in reality means labouring shin-deep in rotting garbage under the scorching Indian sun.”
Shah describes the view of the Versova beach in 2015 like this: There were piles of garbage up to five feet high with no one to clean them and no government or welfare organization was even contemplating raising awareness among the residents of illegal settlements.
He wanted to restore the coast of his past, but it required a lot of labour and capital and no organization was there to help him. Shah did not wait in despair. He vowed to clean the beach with the help of his friends and villagers and has become an example for every Mumbaikar.
Every day the passersby and the people living around would see that there is too much trash and just two people to clean. “Gradually other people around the beach started joining his campaign.”
The volunteers of Afzor Shah Foundation in action
Every Sunday the Versova beach is a hub of human activity. people from around, school students, and volunteers can be sought to pick plastic, discarded bottles, paper, leftover food, and other trash.
Afroz has since launched campaigns for other coastal areas of Mumbai. The campaign started by two persons has now become a caravan of thousands of environmental activists and concerned citizens whose work has prevented millions of tons of plastic litter from going into the sea.
"I am a lawyer and I still clean beaches and rivers whenever I get a chance," says Shah. All of us must devote two hours a week to cleaning. We should not only talk but also act on these words.
Afroz Shah told Awaz-the Voice: “This country has given me a lot. I want to give something to the country. The work I have chosen is a religious obligation as well as a worldly need. I am concerned about myself and the world -both of humanity and the universe.”