Auroville is founded on the evolutionary vision of the Indian sage and philosopher, Sri Aurobindo. His spiritual partner, Mirra Alfassa from France, known as the Mother, initiated the realisation of Auroville: the City the Earth Needs, “as the first realization of human unity based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo where men and women of all countries would be at home.” This unity needed a decisive change of Consciousness.
Foreseeing the humanitarian crisis and the plight of cities worldwide, the Mother commissioned the top award-winning French architect Roger Anger, from Paris, in 1965, to prepare a city plan integrating the spiritual, social, cultural, educational, economic and environmental factors, to create the conditions for the growth and manifestation of Consciousness in life and through life.
With this city plan, known as the Galaxy, and a Charter, Auroville was inaugurated on February 28, 1968. It was intended for 50,000 people for the experiment to succeed and be the model town Sri Aurobindo had aimed for.
In 1988, at the request of residents, the Auroville Foundation came into effect through an Act of Parliament following a period of conflict. A certain period of stability saw the completion of the Matrimandir, the growth of schools, communities, services and activities and a greening environment.
However, 34 years on, with a roughly 2,500 adult population, a certain stagnation seems to have set in. Earlier governing boards had urged getting the city started and its land protected. However, an undercurrent of resistance has continued to persist within a faction. One example of this is the Crown, Auroville’s urban commons, detailed and approved by the Mother in the 1969 master plan study. We are now in 2022 and it is still blocked.
The new governing board (GB) appointed in 2021 has committed to taking the city forward in honour of Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birth anniversary by focusing on the Crown. Since then, Auroville has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. An overwhelming assembly line of videos, articles and social media posts have decried the destruction of forests, run slanderous campaigns nationally and internationally, against the secretary of the Auroville Foundation and fellow Aurovilians, and forcibly stopped work on the Crown by invoking a National Green Tribunal (NGT) stay order. The last months have seen all this escalating as the faction grew bolder, heaping court cases, one after another, against the work initiated, against Auroville Foundation and working group members it is determined to oust.
What lies behind the dramatic actions and accusations of the past months that threaten to destroy Auroville, under the pretext of saving Auroville’s ‘forests’ and thus saving the planet? This needs careful examination.
THE CROWN OPPOSITION
On the face of it, there was a clearing of trees for the Crown path, for which JCBs were used on December 4, 2021. They were brought back again at night after the work was prevented in the daytime. This has been conflated dramatically with Jallianwala Bagh and Nazi Germany—a callous disrespect towards the terrible human tragedy faced at both moments. The Crown ring represents Auroville’s collective urban life and holds together all four zones of the city circle and marks a clear transition towards a pedestrian town and quiet, non-polluting mobility. The Crown was defined in the first Master Plan study of 1969 as the development to be taken up in the city area. It will also provide the infrastructure corridors, for water, electricity, OFC and more—for the whole town.
Let me go back a little, to Cyclone Thane of December 2011, which brought down half a million trees in one night. Two decisions were taken after that. One: that all overhead electric lines would be transferred underground along the Crown infrastructure corridor to prevent the 25-day power outage that many in Auroville had faced. Fund-raising efforts led to a donation and a government grant. The high tension (HT) cables were laid along the Crown ring except where we did not have the land. In two areas, it was possible after much difficulty where houses were placed on the road, and a toilet still battles for rights. The last 400-metre stretch for the HT cables became a continuing battleground that persists and festers. This is the Youth Centre passage for the Crown. A ‘temporary’ building had been placed over it deliberately, by an adult group, defying all agreements. The cable could not pass through for over two years. Thus the HT ring could not be made operational and Auroville ran a loss of Rs 5,000 per day in terms of energy.
Two: as the trees had been downed by the cyclone, the Crown could now be marked and cleared to start the work. Agreements were signed with the then-secretary, but nothing happened. Instead, trees got deliberately planted on the path, in defiance of the Master Plan.
In 2020, queries were received regarding the HT cables lying in the sun for two years. Would they be used, refunded or returned? The Auroville Town Development Council (ATDC) finally issued a work order to start the survey. The surveyors were sent packing, four times, by the youth, foresters and friends. Next, an anonymous petition went up on Change.org, by an ex-Aurovilian, living outside, accusing the Auroville Foundation of destroying Auroville’s forests. There was no mention that the area in question was in fact Auroville’s main urban hub, the Crown. Let it be noted that in 2020, the secretary, currently being demonised, had not been deputed to Auroville.
THE MASTER PLAN OPPOSITION
Auroville started with a master plan model in February 1968, commissioned by the Mother, known as the Galaxy Plan. The initiative to have a full-fledged master plan was taken up in 1998, by the then GB. The Auroville Foundation Act asks the GB to take the recommendations of the Residents Assembly in formulating the master plan. This was done from 1998 onwards and approved in 2000 by the GB and again in 2001 after further inputs from the TCPO. The responsibility of ensuring that the city develops according to the master plan then lies with the GB. For this, the GB constituted a Town Development Council with a standing order; it works with them to ensure that the city develops according to the master plan.
The master plan followed along the lines set in the 1969 plan but with more elaboration and data, not just to help raise funds but to begin development with defined land-use parameters. It went through all the approvals by 2001 but was published in the Gazette only in 2010. The Master Plan Perspective 2025 is not a closed box but a progressive plan. It had aimed for the completion of the city by 2025. Systematic blockades prevented all the steps needed to prevent this from happening. Thus no DDPs, no NDTA, and no Crown were possible despite repeated efforts. As now, so also then, the same vocal grouping, which is well-organised, well-connected and media savvy, has held Auroville hostage.
For a start, the master plan was declared “controversial”, so everyone could conveniently sit back and argue forever and only do what this faction decided was right. Earlier, in 1971, the Mother had to drive home the following: Auroville is in the construction stage and disciplined workers are needed. Those who do not want or are not able to follow a discipline should not be here at present. Goodwill, sincerity and discipline are indispensable qualities for those who want to be Aurovilians.
Auroville is still under construction, greatly delayed by incessant resistance and blockades and now getting a stay by NGT by declaring this unique and beautiful project a “deemed” forest—abruptly cancelling the Mother’s visionary city where the city and the green are planned to work in harmony. It is a dangerous time for Auroville, where the whims and desires of a few dressed up in green run the risk of drowning an experiment that carries hope for thousands in the world.
‘FOREST’ vs MASTER PLAN
In October 1999, as master plan deliberations were on in the community, tree-planting preparations started in the Crown area and in parts of the Cultural zone. The Auroville News no.809 of October 1999 carried a report. Following objections raised by residents, the Development Group contacted Glenn Baldwin, Aurovilian and the forester. Though they appreciated his green work it was advised that he plant in the designated green areas so that no trees would have to be cut when future development would start. His reply was that the trees were to be used for timber in future and not to create a forest. This was not followed. Land, specifically bought with donations for the city area, was progressively appropriated without permission and planted over. This particular area, Bliss, falls to the northern City Centre which connects with the Industrial zone. It is meant to have green corridors, waterways, and parks interspersed with administrative and habitat areas, a vocational training area and the Crown buildings. This well-planned area neatly follows the original Galaxy plan (see images). By taking over this northern Industrial sector of the City Centre and turning it into a forest, four things were achieved: one, the Crown was dismissed as forest in the Youth Centre area thus blocking the circulation for the whole town; two, a first project in the Vocational Training strip was adamantly stopped in 2018, even after the Bhoomi Puja was attended by the Governing Board Chairman, Dr Karan Singh, and the project was cancelled; three, the ‘forest’ would make sure that no development that connects the Industrial zone with the Crown and the Vocational Training area would be allowed; four, the forest friends would then make cycle paths as they wished, used to this day by very few people. No wooded parks are allowed, no flowering bushes or herb gardens, no water bodies, no pathways for people to walk, to sit, to read a book, or for children to play, all of which are part of the urban City Centre Green Network.
Detailed Development Plans (DDPs) are suddenly being demanded. One wonders why DDPs were earlier objected to by the protesting architects, nor were existing studies checked by the ‘foresters’ before randomly planting and taking over land to do as they pleased. Foresters and architects like Glenn Baldwin, Christoph Pohl, Allan Bennet (who is very new and has no idea what he is saying in this video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4bho8AFhjs or, Dorle Heller, who posts cockroaches in her spare time https://youtu.be/lFztgQ9S-uI, all profess to accept the master plan but in reality, have succeeded in obstructing the Crown for decades. The land thus appropriated, without permission, stays stubbornly under their diktat while the media fills with victim stories of forests being endangered, an evil authoritarian secretary, of not being consulted, a faulty master plan, ad infinitum.
The latest is a cycle path clearing by the ATDC with the CPWD that goes through the Bliss area. This was once again blocked with more rhetoric and lectures on governance, how the engineers had to do their work, which they could only carry out after consulting the Residents Assembly.
The paths being cleared are adjusted to the ground tree cover by the ATDC and the CPWD to the width followed at the Mahalakshmi Park, which the forester group failed to respect. No trees were cut, only the thick shrubbery blocking the passage cleared. Anupama Kundoo, the ATDC Urban Design Head, mentioned in the video, is typically derided for having worked with Roger Anger. She produced the City Centre study with him in 2006 which was never consulted. Kundoo is the recipient of several international awards, including the prestigious RIBA Charles Jenks award and the Auguste Perret award given by the International Union of Architects, for her use of local building techniques, material sourcing, construction principles and acute responsiveness to the environment, climate and culture.
Concocted myths about the Residents Assembly ‘decides everything’ need to be busted: The Mother had made it very clear, already in July 1965, that she was deciding on all the details for the city with her architect, Roger Anger, and nobody else has any say in the matter1. Possibly sensing that a lot of interference would emerge another categorical statement says: Auroville: To the architects and engineers: You are not here to discuss the project. You are here to build the city2 The endless discussions and objections to keep hold over land have led to a loss of crores of rupees by these delay tactics, and donations wasted, not to speak of the land lost to outside developers in the Master Plan area. Hardly an example of conscious growth or of unity. As already clarified, the master plan was prepared with the recommendations of the Residents Assembly, as stipulated in the Act. The development of the city based on the master plan is the responsibility of the GB which it constituted the ATDC to do the work. The Residents Assembly does not need to interfere.
There is no hope for Auroville if territorial domains and blockades are allowed to continue. As it is, all development has come to a halt with the enforced NGT stay order without any discussion in the community. It is a one-way rule in which no one else counts. While the NGT order has given clearance to allow the Crown work to continue, without cutting down trees, and to remove structures that were obstructing it, no other project can now proceed and are all stuck as prices go up. Meanwhile, efforts are on, by this faction of foresters, the architect group and friends, to overrule the master plan.
What is authoritarian in this context? Let us look at the history: land meant for development according to the master plan has been appropriated authoritatively, despite an initial commitment given to the Development Group that the trees were for timber, not forest. No collaboration has been possible with the ATDC despite many attempts. In fact, the trend has been to call general meetings and lie about the ATDC, ridicule the master plan and not allow anyone else to speak and, of course, boycott them: We don’t recognise you. All of this is on record and has been happening long before the current secretary arrived.
The JCB Jurisdiction: in 1968 the circulation plan of the city was marked. There would be an access path from the Crown into the City Centre area for each of the four zones. Permission for access from the Crown into the northern City Centre was given by the ATDC for a residential habitat project, Citadines. Objections were raised by the foresters: the project would not be allowed access through the ‘forest’. Clearly, the trees were now forest and territory. An agreement was made that the path would remain till the construction was completed. In 2010, barely a month after the residents moved into the new apartments, a JCB rode in triumphantly with a forester at the helm and proceeded to dig a large and deep trench to block all access. No prior discussion had happened with the residents nor with the project holder; no Residents Assembly gave approval for such a high-handed act. It was full-on intimidation. The residents were prevented from filling the trench for the next two weeks. Had there been an emergency, no ambulance could have come. Finally, the foresters ‘gave’ a strip of land, as landlords would, which continues to be the access but has no bearing on the master plan. The question of authoritarianism combined with a bland demonstration of ownership, misappropriated for free, stares us in the face. Why nothing could be done then about such domineering ways and why nothing can be done now as court cases are heaped against the secretary, against those who support the city while Auroville is held hostage, needs to be questioned.
Dr. Jayanti Ravi took office on July 5, 2021. A senior bureaucrat and high-ranking IAS officer, Dr. Ravi holds a Masters in nuclear physics, another in public administration from Harvard and a PhD in e-governance. She initiated the long-awaited push for land acquisition, both for the city area and the Greenbelt; she has also set in motion the preparation of DDPs that had gone into hibernation, opened the Crown to the residents for the first time in decades by initiating the Crown Walk, held up to 50 rounds of discussion with architects, youth and others to break the stalemate and start imagining the city and get to work. In parallel, she involved infrastructure professionals to ensure technical stability. Other residents reached out to the GB twice to request that they stay the course for work on the Crown and not buckle under pressure. The entry of JCBs on the night of December 4 has been flogged to death while the violence of parents putting children on JCBs was brushed aside. Psychological violence of ostracising people and children in public, in schools or workplaces, grotesque videos with false accusations circulating widely and the abusive behaviour against Dr. Ravi, live-streamed at public meetings with no apology have all been ‘normalised’. Meanwhile, the drive to update the register of residents pending since 2005 was taken up, bringing more protests. Feverish attempts to defame and demonise her in the eyes of the world and the government continue. The narrative paints a rosy picture of Auroville where all is peace and love and unity, followed by the sudden arrival of the secretary who then destroys everyone’s yogic paradise. Such selfish strategies have only harmed Auroville and squandered all goodwill.
FAST, FAKE, FAMOUS
As we have seen, the tree-planting drive began as the master plan was being finalised. Around the same time, this faction decided to change the narrative from the City of the Future, the City the Earth Needs to a project dedicated to sustainable development only, an eco-village model with green tourism to sustain it. It was soon declared that we did not need 50,000 people, 5,000 would suffice. It was all going to be decided by this faction. That the city plan was always intended for solar energy, rainwater harvesting, appropriate building materials and new technology, be pedestrian-friendly and protected for children—all this was never mentioned. Nor the fact that it has a Greenbelt, three times the size of the city, as part of the master plan meant to be used for agriculture to provide for the city and environmental regeneration. In proportion today, there are more forests than farms. In both cases, large tracts of land are stewarded by very few people. To want all the land to ourselves without building a city is unsustainable and selfish in today’s world. Auroville was meant to be a model town, not a model forest. As Roger Anger said in an Auroville Today interview: “One has to learn to live together as one will not always have enough land to build a house kilometres away from one’s nearest neighbour, and certainly not in Auroville… One has to take an inventive step, an urbanistic one… including contemporary life, human relationships, technology, and respect for nature, within a very creative context to show the world that it is possible. For the time being, we are simply continuing to perpetuate a hollow, comfortable, uncreative system that has nothing to do with the future, nor with the Mother’s dream. It is a revolution from within that one must envisage.
In the media, Auroville is all about trees, bio-diversity, flora and fauna that have fast-covered all visible land, often without permission. This has led to the thumping fake narrative about Auroville, as a forest and eco-village, saving the planet with single-handed authority. This narrative is famous all over YouTube and social media, gradually replacing the original vision of Auroville. The master plan accounts for a very green city and a Green Belt three times its size. Both city and green are meant to co-exist and neither needs to be ruled out.
The city was meant to be built in five to 10 years. Auroville has waited 54 years. It is time to end the enforced stagnation, walk ahead to a fresh start and truly, work in unity.
Anu Majumdar has been part of Auroville since 1979 and is the author of Auroville: a City for the Future.
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