MUMBAI, India — Lawyer Afroz Shah moved to Mumbai with a dream of looking out at the wild, blue Arabian Sea. What he saw instead was nauseating — waves churning with plastic shopping bags and empty chip packets, beaches covered so thick with soda bottles and snack wrappers he could no longer see the sand.
The coast off India’s financial capital, like so many other places across the South Asian nation, has become choked by garbage tossed without much thought by the millions of people who live there.
“I could have gone to the court. I could have complained” to municipal authorities, said Shah, 34. Instead, he decided to take action with his own two hands.
He and a neighbour near Mumbai’s Versova Beach pulled on glove and face masks and began picking rubbish out of the sand. Gradually, they were joined by other volunteers and sometimes tourists. Over 98 weekends they gathered more than 5 million kilograms (11 million pounds) of trash.
“This littering is done by us,” Shah says of his fellow Indian citizens. “I should pick it up.”
One environmental activist calls India’s garbage problem a “ticking time bomb” that will ultimately bury the nation’s cities and towns unless its 1.3 billion people stop littering at will. The country is “drowning in trash,” says Chitra Mukherjee of the New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.
Each day, every Indian generates about 200 to 600 grams (7 ounces to 1.3 pounds) of garbage, the government estimates. The vast majority of that ends up tossed into the country’s forests, parks, streets and sidewalks, rivers or surrounding oceans.
“The citizen has to realize that ‘this is my waste, nobody is going to take care of it but me,”’ says Mukherjee.
In 2014, the government tried to raise awareness with a campaign called “Swacch Bharath Abhiyan,” or “Clean India Mission.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi even hammed it up for media photographers by posing with a broom.
But three years later, little has changed. People still carry their household trash in plastic bags to the edge of the water and toss it out to sea, watching as it bobs away.
The slow progress means Shah and others continue leading small citizens’ movements to help. But not every effort has been successful.
A group called New Delhi Rising says it’s been unable to find enough volunteers to handle the 15,500 tons of waste generated every day in the Indian capital.
New Delhi’s three landfills are already overflowing, says the group’s founder, Nakul, who like many in India goes by only one name.
Even the swankiest neighbourhoods often have garbage tucked into the corners between buildings or beneath park benches.
Some Delhi students volunteer regularly to help pick it up, but most of New Delhi Rising’s engagement has come from social media ‘likes’ and follows. Nakul hopes more residents will come out to help.
“It only takes two hours, it doesn’t take money,” he said.