Filthy mumbai beach rebreeds turtles, thanks to a city lawyer environment al jazeera

An overwhelmed Shah immediately called for help to ensure that the turtles were not attacked by stray dogs on the beach. Soon, a large crowd of people began to record on their mobile phones the slow march of the hatchlings towards the sea, which went on for half an hour.

"I was in tears as soon as I saw those turtles. It’s almost as if I had fathered them," said the 37-year-old lawyer, who has spent the last three years cleaning up the Versova beach. … We think we fulfil the duty only by bashing the government. But the government is not littering, we are.

Last year, the Maharashtra state’s Pollution Control Board (MPCB) conducted a Water Quality Index (WQI) of Mumbai’s coast and found that the highly-polluted seafronts fell within the indices of 38 and 50 on a scale of 0-100, which means the water quality was poor.

Another study last year by Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany found an average of 68.83 items every sq metre at four of Mumbai’s beaches, including Versova. Most of the pollutants were microplastics.

And that perhaps explains why the olive ridley turtles finally showed up at Versova after two decades. The olive ridley sea turtles are listed as "vulnerable" in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. They are also protected under India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

In India, the mass nesting site of olive ridley turtles is on the eastern coast: earlier this year, 428,000 turtles nested at the Rushikulya rookery coast in eastern Odisha state’s Ganjam district. So, how did he think of cleaning the beach?

Shah explained that each tractor loads 4,000kg of waste, so on any given weekend, a tractor is loaded about 20 times. Currently, there are three tractors on the beach, used for cleanups, while an excavator is taken on rent for 7,000 rupees (a little more than $100).

YB Sontakke, a senior official with MPCB, told Al Jazeera that his office tests water quality and develops an action plan, which is forwarded to another department to implement. He, however, refused to say anything on Shah’s clean-up drive impacting the quality of water on the Versova beach.

For three years, 40 to 50 volunteers would gather at Shah’s residence every weekend. When Al Jazeera visited him on one such Sunday in the first week of April, it found volunteers in orange T-shirts marked VRV – Versova Resident Volunteers – giving him a helping hand.

The first dignitary to take a note of Shah’s campaign was Lewis Pugh, UN Environment Patron of Oceans, who arrived on Versova a year after the drive began. The UN Environment Programme called his campaign the "world’s largest beach clean-up in history" and gave Shah the UN’s Champions of the Earth award.

Shah blames the hyper-consumerist lifestyle that has led to plastic becoming the largest element in rubbish. Growing up in Versova, he remembers no rubbish on the beach. He moved to another suburb for a few years, and returned to Versova in 2015, the year he began his drive.

Recently, Chief Minister Fadnavis declared the state free of open defecation, but the truth is nowhere close. While cleaning the toilets in the slums close to the beach, Shah says he was surprised to find just 52 toilet seats for over 25,000 people.

Shah says his bigger ruse is that India’s democratic process is far from participatory. "Along with our rights, we have duties, and one of them is to protect the environment. But we think we fulfil the duty only by bashing the government. But the government is not littering, we are."