World Environment Day 2019: Citizens have enormous power in bringing about climate action, says Afroz Shah

In October 2015, a young lawyer in Mumbai and his neighbour, an 84-year-old gentleman who has passed away since then, didn't plan on sparking a citizen-action revolution across India when they decided to clean up their messy neighbourhood beach in Versova, one of the multiple beaches along the Mumbai coastline. Yet, they did. And today, the name "Afroz Shah" has become synonymous with the world’s largest citizen-driven beach clean-up project.

Citizens (including school-going kids) are looking to the government to act on the biggest looming environmental threats. But is the real power to help or heal the planet in the hands of people or politicians? We spoke to Afroz Shah, a renowned local hero who has, since the first news of his clean-up projects made the news, won the 2016 "Champion of the Earth—Inspiration and Action" award by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and been voted "Indian Of the Year, 2017" by CNN News18. Shah spoke of the biggest challenges to the environment in India, and where he thinks the real power lies to change a bad (environmental) situation.

When it comes to global warming and climate change, we need to speak with one voice, and one mind and one heart. Scientists may be telling us it’s a big problem, we as common citizens can see symptoms of it in our day-to-day lives. When you go the beach, it's full of plastic, you go to rivers and instead of flowing they are drying up, you see the level of heat we’re living in, luckily in places like Mumbai, we’re spared what with being closer to the ocean. Still, we’re seeing temperatures touch 38-40 degrees, which is something we haven’t experienced before.

Where do you stand on the seriousness of climate change?

Afroz Shah (AS): In my view, what scientists tell us, we must follow. I don’t how many scientists are telling you and me that there isn’t any global warming or there isn’t plastic in the oceans. But there seems to be a majority in the scientific community that do tell us the negative changes and impact are real. It's politicians that are crying horse – one group believes there is global warming, and the other is convinced there isn’t. Of course, humans are allowed to have diverse views, but having diverse views on something so reckoning can be very dangerous.

You yourself can feel it. I don’t think in the good old days when they had changes in climate 400-500 years ago… the global climate churns itself every 300 or so years… they also followed what they saw all those years back. Their skin felt it, their breath felt it, and their eyes saw it. And our ancestors simply responded. That’s exactly who we are today. I, for one, have no doubt that there’s something drastically wrong on this planet. The fact that we’re a world of 7 billion itself is a problem. We’re too many, there’s too many of us, and the Earth can’t sustain us. There’s 7 billion of us, each with their own carbon footprint. Each person is born with a capacity to create heat on this planet.

 World Environment Day 2019: Citizens have enormous power in bringing about climate action, says Afroz Shah

A weekly clean-up drive on Mithi River, which has dried up completely. Image: Twitter/Afroz Shah

Overpopulation – how should we address it?

AS: Fertility Management, quite simply. If you look at the forecast for Africa, Africa is going to zoom ahead of India and China in the next 50 years. Imagine a continent like Africa where this is little discipline, a shortage of food, shortage of basic necessities and a huge population. It's a pretty scary scenario for all of us. The solution lies in fertility management.

We can talk about condoms, other devices for safe sex, sure. But at the end of the day, every family needs to be told how they can plan for a family. I work with slums in Mumbai, and you see a girl who comes out of her home, she’s 21. At 21, she’s got three children already. It breaks your heart because when I asked her why she has so many kids, did someone tell you that it will have adverse effects on your health, on the health of your children? It’s a violation of human rights in a way sometimes if a child is born in circumstances that are dire. He doesn’t have the space to move, food to eat, healthy air to breathe, he has nothing. And the young woman responded saying that her family and husband wanted them, so I did it.

A weekly clean-up drive along Daana Pani river. Image: Twitter/Afroz Shah

A weekly clean-up drive along Daana Pani river. Image: Twitter/Afroz Shah

If you want to control the population, it’s not about telling people that there are many ways and many devices to have protected sex that won’t end it an pregnancy. It’s about reaching out to them and telling them they are in danger. It isn’t about you producing a child — it’s about your health, and the health of whom you’re choosing to bring into the world.

You need a comprehensive training program for that kind of thing – like the one we do with plastics in oceans – relentless. I don’t have the time right now to take this on myself but the solution on a global scale lies in people reaching out to each other, and we should definitely look into it.

The government has taken on initiatives to educate, electrify and empower rural India. Where do citizens play a role?

AS: I feel there’s an imbalance. There are two distinct spheres of action when it comes to the environment – one is the government, the second is citizens.

Citizens vote, they pay their taxes, and by voting, they elect the government and indirectly decide where their tax money is spent. What we’ve forgotten in this whole process, though, is that “individuals” also exists. Individuals are the real decision makers – if he wants to be a polluter, he will be. If she wants to adopt family planning, she will. From the time we’ve become a democracy, we as citizens have agreed that this system is good – we vote, we pay our taxes and the government decides on what’s to be done, some of us will make our feelings about that known along the way. At this point in time, that is not working out.

Afroz Shah and UN Environment celebrate 100-week anniversary of world’s largest beach cleanup…with another cleanup. Image: UN Environment

Afroz Shah and UN Environment celebrating the 100-week anniversary of the world’s largest beach cleanup…with another cleanup. Image: UN Environment

There's a negative balance in our Constitution – the negative being this: the Government will do – and so will you. What's happened now is that people say they won't do it. They'll say that PM Modi must do it, CM Fadnavis will do it, Aaditya Thackeray will do. Yes, they will have to do it, but you also need to contribute to nation-building. Nation building is not about paying taxes and voting – it doesn’t begin and end there. Each one of us will have to come forward and say, “Okay, I can spare an hour, 2 hours or 3 hours and do something for the country… or do something for the planet.” How lovely would it be?

That narrative, that balance is not delicately done up now. It’s lopsided, and heavily in favour of what governments must do all the time – even Mother Nature is left at the doorstep of the government. Mother Nature is our mother – she’s MY mother, and I have stepped out every week to support and encourage my Mother. Whether someone else does it or not, I will do it. That’s the narrative that we need to have in the 21st century, and our Constitution lays this philosophy down very clearly.

What are some of the biggest environmental concerns for India in your view?

AS: For me, since I work with the oceans, water is on top of that list. Water pollution, be it a river or a lake or an ocean. Polluting river bodies to such a degree that it isn’t fit to use for anybody is a drastic change we’ve caused as a human race, particularly in India.

Second, air pollution – of course, this is a big problem for many cities in our country. In Delhi, you can’t get a clean breathe of air at any time of the year. At least in coastal cities like Mumbai, you have the oceans that settle a lot of the particulate pollution in the air. We need to address this urgently, and it’s great to see this being the focus theme for Environment Day this year.

Third, global warming. Individuals can cut down on ACs, cut down on fossil fuels, cut down on a lot more. But coal power plants will have to watch out.

Afroz Shah in conversation with students at the Whistling Woods School. Image credit: Whistling Woods

Afroz Shah in conversation with students at the Whistling Woods School. Image credit: Whistling Woods

Nature has a very good way of telling us what’s good for us. When the Sun goes down, you should power yourself down, too – that’s what nature tells us. But we’ve grown out of that, built coal plants for electricity and it tells us to go on. Sure, we may need it for our survival but it comes at a price – the more we deviate from nature, the more we pay the price. Nature doesn’t care for efficiency or working long hours. We would be doing nature and ourselves a favour by paying it heed.

Greta Thunberg has inspired a movement world over demanding climate action. How do you feel about the millions of youth protesting, putting pressure on adults, politicians to act on climate change?

AS: I’m very happy, very happy that Greta – or any student of India for that matter –are coming out to say that they’re worried for their future, that adults are messing up – don’t mess up. So far, so good.

I also feel that now that the pressure is being put on the system, the system needs to deliver. I’m more worried that their strike can go on for months without results. What if they’re winging it for three years, four years, when governments really don’t have a mechanism or a module in place to restrict the warming to 1 degree or 1 and a half degrees, but not beyond that. They should have that be part of their demands.

It’s good that the movement is creating an impact – politicians are looking at it. God forbid, it shouldn’t happen that it dies down because nobody took an interest. I get quite worried about that.

My movement is quite different, I go myself and do it. I don’t protest or come on the streets. It’s a Gandhian system, start with yourself. So I have no worry even if nobody picks up their trash, I do, I pick up my garbage, I make sure others who want to help come together and work with me.

I’m worried about these young kids, they’re so bright, they’re passionate, they love the planet, Greta loves it and so do thousands and millions of students. I hope people in the government don’t let Greta and the students down, let me down or anyone else from the human race down.

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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 13:05:36 IST