On August 4, 2018, Mumbai couple Indranil Sengupta and Rabia Tewari entered into their 46th week of cleaning the Mahim beach. Only this time, after having struggled for several weeks with a handful of volunteers, 40 students from the MET Rishikul Vidyalaya joined them. Armed with gloves, they collected heaps of non-degradable single-use plastic waste washed ashore along the stretch from Hinduja Hospital towards Mahim Dargah.
When Rabia and Indranil first moved to a beautiful sea-facing home in Mahim in 2017, little did the couple think their dream view would be diminished to mounds of garbage.
Married for over seven years, Sengupta was a former Viacom18 Associate Vice-President and business head, who now runs his design firm, and Rabia worked as a merchandiser in New York before for 12 years before moving to Mumbai in 2011. She is now the business head of her husband’s firm.
Having worked right from the age of 21, Sengupta has had an illustrious career until he realised that his happiness and satisfaction had started correlating to mere hikes in pay and performance appraisals. And so he quit his job in August 2017 and began to dedicate every weekend to restore the lost beauty of the Mahim beach along with his wife.
For the longest time, it was just the two of them and perhaps five to fifteen volunteers from all over Mumbai. The local participation from Mahim was the least. In the first 35 weeks, they managed to clear over 500 tonnes of waste.
It was only after their efforts were recognised at a felicitation ceremony by UN Environment, nominated by beach-cleanup poster boy Afroz Shah, that more volunteers began to join in to sustain their initiative.
In an exclusive interview with The Better India, the power duo recall their journey, the major challenges and their road ahead.
“When we first saw the pitiable condition of the beach with plastic strewn all over it, so much so that it started getting embedded in the sand, we dialled the BMC helpline. When we realised that the work wasn’t happening as effectively as it could, we decided to take charge of it ourselves. We did not have any prior knowledge about cleaning up beaches. But we trusted our instincts and dived in.”
Every weekend from 8am to 10 am, the couple dedicatedly cleared the trash. The first weekend they started with only two volunteers from their building. While the number increased to 30 once, it wasn’t consistent; it was almost back to just five volunteers.
But they refused to give up.
They created a WhatsApp group and started a Facebook page to promote the drive and reached out to educational institutions in the vicinity too.
But the couple doesn’t disregard the efforts put in by the civic body, but only sheds light on the lack of manpower allotted to clean the stretch. Currently, the only contractor hired by the BMC has 19 ground staff, one excavator and two trucks to clean the entire three-four kilometres stretch from Mahim to Prabhadevi, when the necessity is at least 60 to 70 ground staff and three excavators to plough and pick up the thousands of tonnes of waste.
“Of the 19 staff too, only a few are spotted cleaning the stretch. Besides, the excavator, while picking the trash, ploughs more sand than plastic waste, and so it is crucial to manually empty sand from the plastic abandoned at the beach.”
A major source of waste comes from the dying Mithi river, now degraded to a nullah.
“It washes most of the waste ashore as Mahim is the first stop where it meets the sea,” says Indranil.
Rabia adds how the locals from the Koli village have been dumping household waste along the shore for the longest time, under the pretext that the civic body will eventually pick it up.
After awareness sessions with these villagers, the couple has been able to convince them of the environmental hazards of open littering, dumping waste close to the sea and open defecation. They even shelled money from their pocket to install bins for the village to avoid dumping waste close to the shore.
To deal with the waste flowing in from the Mithi river, the couple has been following up with BMC authorities on the installation of a filtration system/mesh where it meets the sea. But the authorities have not yet been able to confirm a time frame for the execution.
“Ashok G Khairnar, Assistant Commissioner G/North Ward, BMC, has been very cooperative and supportive of our initiative,” says Indranil.
Talking about the change they have noticed since the beginning of their journey, Rabia says,
“There is a visible difference from the first week itself, but this can be sustained only if bigger steps are taken. At times, we still see people from the Koli village throwing garbage, defecating and swimming — all in the same water. We distributed dustbins in the village and have been successful in controlling the amount of garbage on the beach from these households. We are supervising the timely collection of trash by the BMC waste management team. But we continue to believe there is still a long way to go.”
They have also requested the authorities to arrange for public toilets in Koli village to avoid the menace of open defecation.
Like most other Swachh warriors, the biggest challenge for the couple continues to be the mindset of the people around them. They reveal how they receive backlash from people who argue that cleaning beaches isn’t their job.
“Some people say beach cleaning is a waste of time. It is frustrating to see how we always jump to pin all responsibility onto the authorities. What we fail to realise is, by the time a mesh or filtration system comes into place, our beach will be damaged beyond repair. It might not even be a beach anymore. So why can’t we, as citizens, do our bit to keep it garbage-free out of collective goodwill and social responsibility?
“We want to keep our beaches alive. And so regardless of whether we get enough local participation, we will continue our battle. Instead of spending one weekend at the nearest mall or club, how about we make our weekends meaningful by a community activity? Is it too much to ask?” With that, they sign off.
If you wish to join Indranil and Rabia, get in touch with them on Facebook here.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)