Every Saturday, a group of volunteers gather at the Sector 10A Mini Seashore or at Sagar Vihar, Sector 8 in Vashi to collect plastic debris, thermocol, broken glass bottles, chappals, fish nets, nirmaalay, chaddar and everything in between from the mangrove belt. They call themselves the Mangrove Marshalls and are responsible for removing more than 150 truckloads of harmful waste and garbage from the mangroves and promenades of Vashi.
“Every week we clean it, and the next week we have more,” says Rohitt Malhotra, 48, an Entrepreneur who started this initiative in 2018 along with his wife, son and some friends. Today, the group has 15 regular participants including Rohitt Malhotra, Rasika Malhotra, Smita Namdeo Ambavale, Kalpana Chhatre, Ganesh Shinde, Shravani Shinde (14 Years), Harshal Phade, Ashwin Kini, Nikhil Haridas, Amey Mahamunkar, Sushant Waghule, Anant Krishna, Savita Rajiv, Celine, Shivani Ojha and an additional 200 volunteers who join them from time to time. It is an entirely self-funded project and is supported by NMMC.
For those who may not be aware, Navi Mumbai has many holding ponds to prevent floods during monsoons. Full of precious plant, marine and aquatic life, these holding ponds also have promenades where citizens can run or stroll. During regular walks with his wife , Rohitt noticed a lot of plastic and other debris dumped in the pond. He also noticed a lot of broken alcohol bottles—the holding ponds were often an attraction for all kinds of nefarious activities at night time. “Municipal workers clean the peripheries but the water bodies themselves continue to have debris and are not regularly cleaned,” Rohitt explains. “Since no one else is doing it, we decided that we are going to do it ourselves.”
After conducting the first few clean-up drives around the holding pond at Mini Sea Shore in Feb 2018, Rohitt and his group realised that they needed municipal support. “We could clean the debris, but the next question was, where do we put the debris?” And so they approached the NMMC to help them segregate and responsibly dispose of the debris once collected. “The NMMC was very cooperative and were happy that we had taken the initiative. They now send trucks to segregate and pick up what we have collected.”
Around the same time, Rohitt also noticed that the mangroves adjacent to the holding ponds were turning yellow. Unlike plants that grow roots deep into the soil, aquatic plants such as mangroves depend on the CO2 in the air for nourishment. Therefore the roots of these mangroves grow upwards from the water towards the sky. “As if the shore line didn’t have enough garbage, we found more in the mangroves. Apart from the plastic debris, bottles and nirmaalay in plastic bags, there was huge quantities of Thermocol, large sheets of cloth like sarees and chaddars, pieces of plastic sheets that were covering the root system and suffocating the plants. They were on the verge of dying.” Not only did Rohitt and his group discover decaying mangroves, they also found patches where the mangroves were hacked and hollowed to create hutments, most likely for carrying on unlawful activities.
It was enough to get the Mangrove Marshalls going. “The level of difficulty in cleaning up mangroves is much more than a beach. For starters, none of the clean- up can be mechanised. The area is quite slippery, quite marshy in certain places and we have to step very carefully so that we don’t damage the root system of the mangroves,” says Rohitt. “There are days when we have cut through 5 to 6 meters of cloth piece-by-piece from under the mangroves. It is an extremely slow and painful process. The decaying debris, organic matter in the mangroves give off a stink and it is difficult to breathe under the canopy so we have to keep coming out for air every now and again.”
All the clean ups are done using simple equipment like gloves, picks and bags. So far, 85 such cleanliness drives have been conducted by the group in the Mini Seashore and Sagar Vihar areas of Vashi alone. They have a WhatsApp group of active participants who are informed on a Thursday of an upcoming drive along with a reminder on Friday. On Saturdays (from October to May), the group assembles at 7 AM and cleans the holding ponds till 9.30 AM. “You will find kids from the age of 5 and 6 to older ladies who are 77 and 78 years old participating in our cleanliness drive,” says Rohitt proudly.
“One of the things we get asked is why we haven’t been able to go beyond Vashi. The reason is that it is a never-ending process,” Rohitt explains. Debris that are dumped into Thane creek (a very large belt spanning several kilometres with Navi Mumbai on one end and Mulund, Thane, Mankhurd, Vikhroli on the other)are carried by the tides and deposited all across the shoreline including in the mangroves at Vashi. “The sea has a bad digestive system. You put something in it, it throws it out. So, no matter how much we clean in a week, the next week there is more debris to collect.” The only way that the Marshalls will ever see a day when there is debris to collect is when people become more mindful of their consumption. “Everybody’s effort is required if we want to create an impact. How carelessly we discard our waste. I have seen even well-educated people throwing things mindlessly into the sea. People don’t separate the bio degradable and degradable, and so it goes on,” he says.
Despite the relentless nature of their initiative, Rohitt Malhotra and his Marshalls have kept going. This hard work and consistency has found appreciation not only within the country but internationally as well. Indeed, it has earned them an award from the United Nations Environmental Programme for this effort. They run the longest running mangrove clean-up campaign anywhere in the world! Rohitt’s message to anyone who joins them for a drive is to take back the message to be conscious of what they are consuming and how they are discarding the waste. The mantra for saving the ecosystem and the planet should be Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. “If even one person is inspired by what we are doing, they can begin making a change in their own neighbourhoods. It always begins with one,” he concludes.
Because of the pandemic, the lockdown and then the monsoon in Mumbai, the group have not been able to organise a clean-up drive for the last several months. They plan to resume in October 2020. If you wish to stay updated or join the Mangrove Marshalls on upcoming drives, please watch this space.