Our Chennai Clean Chennai

What does it take to spread the message of cleanliness? The enthusiasm and effort of one person, apparently, says

Jane Kataria

Illustration by Maniam SELVAN

Cleanliness is attained not by cleaning up but by the consciousness of not littering.
When Virginie Vlamick shares her thoughts on what cleanliness means – as in the quote above – it is clear that she is talking about an issue that is close to her heart. She is an amazing individual, whose passion, dedication and commitment to cleaning up the world reinforces my belief in the power of a single person in making a real change.
Virginie Vlaminck is literally cleaning up the litter; and her efforts, aimed at creating awareness and raising collective consciousness about cleanliness, are having visible effects. Now, people are volunteering to not only clean up the beaches of Chennai but are also careful to not leave behind rubbish such as plastic, paper, wrappers and bottles. A cleaner and more beautiful India is in the works. I caught up with Virginie for a quick chat – excerpts from our conversation are given below.
I am very impressed to see what you are doing and how much you care about the environment and Chennai beaches in particular. How did you get the idea of pursuing this work? Also, why Chennai?
As you know, our foundation is called ‘Namma Beach, Namma Chennai’ which means ‘Our Beach, Our Chennai’. I started this project six years ago when my husband, Fileip, and I shifted to Chennai from Belgium. My husband works for a Belgian dredging company called ISD (International Seaport Dredging), which is a subsidiary of DEME – one of the largest dredging contractors in the world. Because of Filiep’s job, we have always had the pleasure of living next to the sea. Dredging is an excavation activity usually carried out underwater, in shallow seas or freshwater areas with the purpose of gathering up bottom sediments and widening the waterways. This technique is often used to keep waterways navigable and create an anti-sludge pathway for boats. The ocean has become a part of our life and we always settle in a house by the beach. I take my three dogs for a walk on the beach. The beaches and the sea in Chennai are excellent. But my morning walks were limited because of the waste and garbage all around. I had a desire to make the beaches of Chennai cleaner and to add to the beauty of the
local environment.
So did you just start picking up garbage by yourself? It seems impossible for one person to take care of the vast coastline that we have here in Chennai…
That is right. Initially, it was only me walking with a sack and collecting garbage on the way. Believe it or not, I am doing it till today! Even this very morning, before meeting you, I was picking up garbage. Over time, many people were asking what I was doing and why. Some of them would help; some of them were curious and would talk to me. Later, many of these people joined me in cleaning up the area. And one of them introduced me to Mr. I.H. Sekar, the founder of Nature Trust, which aims to protect the environment and various natural resources. The vision of the trust is to increase awareness, knowledge and interest among the public about the different aspects of nature and to motivate people to adopt eco-friendly practices including wastewater recycling, rainwater harvesting and organic farming. Nature Trust is promoting tree planting and conservation of rivers, tanks, lakes and watersheds. With common aims, we joined hands and Namma Beach, Namma Chennai was born.How do you create awareness amongst people? I guess just your own example may not be enough.
Every morning when I take a walk, bag in hand to collect garbage, I see many people jogging, doing yoga and many other sorts of activities. Most of them would pay attention to what I am doing and ask me why I would do it, there is so much waste that it would not make any difference, and so on. I always reply, ‘Cleanliness is attained not by cleaning up but by the consciousness of not littering’. We brush our teeth daily, wash the dishes and clothes, clean the house and car; then why can we not clean part of our habitat and the amazing beaches of our city? Imagine if each of us makes an effort to carry that waste to the dustbin or go further and collect it while we take a walk. We have installed many dustbins along the beach line because there were none and it was an excuse for visitors to leave the remnants after, say, a picnic. With the funds that we raised through our foundation, there is now a cleaning brigade that comes in the afternoons for cleaning activities. We installed boards and signs warning people against disposing of the garbage wherever, and we try to bring their attention to the purpose of the dustbins. And it matters to the new generation. I do not want children to grow up believing that plastic bags and litter are part of the landscape. Let the beach have nothing but our footprints.

Just think about it for a moment – for drinking water, our grandfathers had it from a river, our fathers from a tap, we have it in a bottle. And our children – in capsule form?
I wish more people thought this way. That is why I carry out educational activities targeting communities and schools, to encourage and inspire behavioural change, and to create awareness about the need to conserve our environment. Namma Beach, Namma Chennai aims to bring together schools, implement better learning conditions and enlarge the mind-set of all people involved so as to factor the environment into their lives. Twice a year we organise beach clean-up events. And, you would be surprised to know how many people take part there! Every time more and more people join our activities, it cannot but make me proud and reassured of a better tomorrow. We keep a small motivation for the little ones – fair exchange of one bag of garbage for an ice-cream. And the adults are happy with these little rewards for themselves as well.
You spend so much of your energy and personal time for this social work, and you are so passionate about what you are doing. What keeps you motivated and what has helped you build such a strong belief?
My favourite subject in school was environmental studies. As a teenager I was inspired by Green Peace. The documentaries I saw, the projects and reports that I prepared, rooted a deep love in my heart for our planet and the environment. And ever since then, I could not remain a passive observer of how we humans treat our only planet. I want to protect our world for all the future generations.
Is that what brings you to community schools?
Exactly! I believe that nothing less than everyone’s contribution is necessary to protect our environment. We all breathe the same air, and we all depend on nature for the most essential things such as water and weather. A clean, pristine, beautiful environment is the best gift that we can give for all future generations. This is what takes me to schools where I can encourage young minds to be sensitive to the world around us.

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