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Virgine Vlaminck moved to the city seven years ago, and now heads several campaigns and programmes to clean Chennai’s beaches.

Beach warrior Meet the Belgian woman on a mission to clean Chennais coastline
Features Human Interest Monday, February 12, 2018 - 13:55

Even as Virginie Vlaminck is making her way to the beach, greeting morning walkers, joggers and neighbours on her way in, her two dogs run out, mapping out her path for the day. Virginie seems to clean the beach almost instinctively- her actions suggesting she has done this many times before. As she walks, she swoops down to pick up everything from discarded bottles of alcohol left behind by revellers to bits of stray plastic that have ripped away from garbage bags.

“This is the best time of day,” Virginie smiles, greeting this reporter who barely managed to roll out of bed, at 6 am. We’re at the Injambakkam beach which Virginie has been cleaning every day for the past seven years.

“When I first came here, I was angry. It’s a beautiful city and a beautiful beach. I thought how much more beautiful it would be if it was just clean. So I decided that instead of staying angry, I should do something about it,” she says.

And that’s how the city has come to know Virginie: the Belgian woman who cleans our beach. But there’s more to her than just this.

Virginie moved to Chennai seven years ago when her husband was transferred to a dredging company in the city. Having settled down here, she started beach-cleaning initiatives and made this a part of her morning walk. Going one step further, she brought together expats in the locality and initiated workshops and awareness sessions for students at government schools in Akkarai and Panayur.

Virginie, a photographer by profession, sells her art in order to raise money for these schools. She supervises everything from painting the walls of the schools to the libraries they set up.

In order to bring visibility to her work, she started a Facebook page called ‘Namma Beach Namma Chennai’ which posts regular updates about upcoming events and the work that the community has been doing.

As I trudge along to keep up with Virginie, she waves to Rajan, an office bearer of the neighbourhood association. “Once I started, they also came together and helped me,” she smiles.

But how does she view the fact that she, a foreigner, is far more involved in this than most of the locals?

Virginie immediately retorts, “Well, this is my home. Every place I go to, I try and make it a home.”

For all the heart she puts into her work, she is also incredibly pragmatic in her approach, especially since the vast majority of locals come from low-income families.

“We pick up the garbage in the morning. They pick it up in the afternoon and give it to the Corporation. We pay them for this because that way they can also be involved in the effort,” she says.

However, her biggest grouse is the posh houses in the area that continue to pollute the beach. “All they want is a beach house. They could easily spend a few thousand rupees and clear the garbage, but they just don’t care.”

Virginie points to one of the houses along the beach. Upon closer inspection, I see that all the debris from constructing the beachfront property has been dumped along the entrance to the beach.

“Children come here to play, and they end up stepping on the glass and rubble,” says Shekar, of the Nature Trust who has now joined Virginie on her morning cleaning walk.

Shekar recounts the disastrous 2015 Chennai floods when Virginie gathered together members of the local community and collected unending piles of garbage floating out from the sea to be picked up by officials. “One after the other, we all fell sick, but she still went every day,” he remembers.

After seven years of cleaning the beach, day in and day out, does she feel there has been a change in people’s attitudes?

There has been a change, she agrees, in the way people view the beach and how clean it should be. But, she goes on to say, the one day beach clean-ups are not sustainable long term. She says, “One day beach clean-ups just don’t work. They are good for awareness, for children and for students. But the best way to go about it is to start doing it. Then people will join you along the way.”

We pass Godwin, a jogger, who Virginie stops to greet. He says, “If even half of us can keep the beach clean, it would be a great place.”

Virginie’s efforts have impressed officials in the Chennai Corporation, who began helping her by providing green bins along the beach.

Soon enough, Sathyaseelan, a Corporation official from Injambakkam, joins them. He says, “We saw her cleaning the beach every day … So we thought we will join her efforts and help her. The Chennai Corporation is proud to be working with her.”

Virginie is now preparing to attend a parent and teacher meet at the Panayur government school. “If we tell the parents to keep the beach, hopefully the kids will listen,” she laughs.

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