You may have come across a famous quote of Darwin “Survival of the Fittest.” There is a competitive struggle for existence in this world where one needs to be authentic, smart, driven and dedicated. RITZ Magazine speaks with the Belgian Consul General for Southern India, Mark Van de Vreken, who took us through his journey of his diplomatic mission in India. The pleasure was once again ours when Abishek Rengasamy, a social entrepreneur, who owns ‘Dumbell’, agreed to open up to us about the biggest passion in his life. On one side, we have a Belgian diplomat, who aims to leave his consular legacy in India for others to build on at the end of his four-year tenure. On the other side, we have an Indian sports entrepreneur, who aims to build a fitness legacy internationally with his clothing line. Despite their differences, these men share the same zeal towards their work, the common motto of ‘BE Fit’!
Photographer: Dinesh Baburaj
Styling: Subhathra Shankar
Makeup: Anushya Devi A
Hairdo: Komal Shanmugam
Location courtesy: Savera Hotel, Chennai
Mark Van de Vreken is the Consul General of Belgium for Southern India based in Chennai. He is here on a four-year tenure. He has already completed half of his tenure, and even in this short span has achieved many things that are part of his Consular mission. Here is a tête-à-tête with the Consul General that gives a peek into his prospective as well as his retrospective journey in India.
The Consul General in Chennai
What are your first impressions of India and what would you like to do during your tenure here?
The Consulate General in Chennai was opened by H.R.H. Princess Astrid of Belgium who represented H.M. the King in November 2013. I arrived in August 2017, and I am the second Consul General serving here. India was a big unknown as I had never visited before. Many people warned me about the “big shock”, so I prepared for a fairly adventurous journey by even reading books like Shantaram. In the end, I found the shock was not at all that big. South India is one of the main engines of the economic growth of India. My role is twofold: To put Belgium on the map in India and also to put the South of India more on the map in Belgium. When we talk about India, I feel we still talk too much about Mumbai and Delhi only. I want to show back home the important role of South India. The entrepreneurial spirit is very similar between Belgium and the South: many of our companies are family owned, deliver quality without deviating from their focus, and they don’t like to brag but prefer making achievements. In South India, which has more than 250 million people, it is important to have a focus. What I often call the “golden triangle” -Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad- is a key focus for me during my tenure, without forgetting the opportunities elsewhere.
Health care in a changing world
What potential do you see for collaboration in health research and innovation between Belgium and India?
Hyderabad, the “Pharmaceutical capital” of India, is high on my agenda. Both Belgium and Hyderabad have approximately 11 million inhabitants. Together, they generate half of the global vaccine production. With 1.3 billion people you have to ensure the quality of medicines, and for that you need a massive shift from imitation to innovation. That is exactly why the state visit by Their Majesties the King and Queen of the Belgians to India, in November 2017, was organized around the theme “Towards an innovative partnership for the 21st century”. We are EU’s second most important exporter and the third most important importer to India. However, about 75% is trade in diamonds and precious stones, so the challenge now is how to diversify our collaboration.
Smart people migration
Belgium is a country of expats but faces the challenge of brain drain. What are the strategies to retain the most knowledgeable of a country?
The issue of brain drain can only be tackled by making sure you have cutting-edge technology, by staying the leader in your field because only this will get the interest of people especially expats to settle in a country and all thiswill happen only through R&D and innovation.That is what Belgium does. Our universities in Belgium are all top-notch performers.
Are there any concrete plans such as imparting specific language (Dutch & French) and cultural training for Indians?
The biggest advantage of India is that you speak good English and have already got French language here. Belgium is so multicultural and multi-linguistic that it becomes necessary to speak good English. Yes, we can of course try to promote our language, also in collaboration with our Dutch friends.
Belgium ranks high on health care, education and innovation. Why is that? Our success goes back to the immediate post WWII years when we invested in the creation of a social welfare state.This means that we pay our taxes. Now, some people may feel that we pay too much tax. But what we get in return is worth it.Every citizen, no matter his background or wealth, has access to a high-quality healthcare system, to excellent medicines, to an advanced pension system and to unemployment benefits. Like that we can prevent people from ending up in poverty.
Belgium, the EU and the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Belgium recently became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for a period of two years. And, H.M. Queen Mathilde of the Belgians is one of the 17 Global Advocates for the UN SDGs. Why?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 goals that were adopted by a major UN summit in New York in September 2015, where it was declared that every nation and individual has to put in an effort to tackle global challenges such as climate change, pollution, gender equality, education, and poverty. I was part of the delegation that wrote and defended the Belgian SDG report. Belgium ranks 12th worldwide in terms of sustainable development. Also, the government of India has prioritised this agenda, and I am glad to know that Kerala ranks first in India in terms of SDG implementation. Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of the Belgians plays a key role in the implementation of this Agenda, along with 16 other advocates, such as Jeffrey Sachs, Shakira, Jack Ma, Lionel Messi, Forest Whitaker and Muhammad Yunus. Queen Mathilde has set two main priorities in this, namely health (principally mental health), and education.
Women in society
Tell us about the ‘She Decides’ and ‘She is equal’ initiative?
What can India learn from it?
It started in 2017, when the reinstatement of the so-called US Mexico City Policy resulted in a drastic cut of funds to organizations and NGOs that are dealing with women rights, especially in the field of sexual and reproductive health. So, the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister responsible for International Development Mr. Alexander De Croo, whom I was working for before coming to Chennai, and the Dutch Development Minister Ms. Liliane Ploumen, together decided that an urgent action was needed to safeguard funding for women’s rights. This gave birth to the ‘She decides’ initiative. The main motto of the campaign is that every woman has the right to decide about her reproductive decisions. In 2018 this agenda was combined with the ‘She is Equal’ campaign that was also launched by Mr. De Croo. In just two years, we have generated 790 million Euros in support of women’s rights. I am proud that I was actively part of launching this agenda, prior to coming to Chennai. In India there are major challenges, but in Europe and the US we have our challenges as well. After all, the #MeToo movement started in the US and Europe and was an important wake-up call that things are definitely not yet what they should be. Even in Belgium, politics and business are still male-dominated, despite all measures that are being taken. There is still an incredible amount of work to be done, whether it is in Europe or in India. And let us not forget that India was one of the first countries with a female Prime Minister, and every day I meet Indian women that are incredibly empowered!
Did you get to watch the world cup matches of Red Devils? Who is your favourite player from your team? And what about cricket?
I was in Chennai when Belgium played the World Cup. We organised live screenings of every match that Belgium played in a pub on ECR and whenever Belgium made a goal, I offered a free round of beers. Right now Eden Hazard, the captain and the main player of Chelsea, is my personal favourite. It is really a pity that we got defeated at the world cup; we should have been the world champions. We are now no.1 in FIFA world ranking, we were at that spot 5 years ago as well. In Hockey, we became world champion with our Red Lions, three weeks ago in Orissa. As far as cricket is concerned, my knowledge is limited and I should learn more about it. Cricket is not very popular in Belgium. However, cricket may have been invented in Belgium by Flemish weavers. In medieval times, they apparently used their herding staffs as bats, and they used to play a game which they expressed in the local language as “met de krikketsen” (meaning chase with a curved stick). They then crossed the channel to England and “met de krikketsen” became “cricket”.
Have you managed to find authentic Belgian waffle in Chennai or elsewhere in India?
There is a place called Waf ‘O Bel in Chennai that does delicious waffles, also the eggless ones to cater to the local needs. It belongs to a Belgian so the waffles are authentic for sure. In Belgium, we have two types of waffles: those from Brussels which are lighter to digest and the ones from Liège which are loaded with crystal sugar. This Waf ‘O Bel has them both! I also try to actively promote Belgian culture and gastronomy. In the past years, I have brought Belgian chefs to Chennai to serve Belgian gastronomy. After all, Belgium has the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants per capita in the world.