NewsLaundry: Behind Auroville uproar: No consensus on residents’ concerns, ‘half-baked’ proposals

A road project, part of a plan to make a universal city, has left Auroville divided. Residents now pin their hopes on the NGT.

By Laasya Shekhar 24 Dec, 2021

“It is tough to imagine that the administration demolished this place for a road,” said a 17-year-old from France, standing below a copper pod tree at the recently razed youth centre in Auroville in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district. Once a buzzing centre for cultural activities, it was home to many youngsters like him.

“Every year this time, people from across South India would take part in events such as the Christmas fair. We had pizza nights every Friday, farmers market on Saturdays and the money earned from these events were used in developing Auroville,” he said, wishing not to be named.

The centre was demolished by the Auroville Foundation on December 9 to make way for the Crown way﹘a road project connecting Auroville’s various zones﹘as part of a sketch envisaged in 1968 to build a “city of the future” with residents from all over the world.

But the project has now left people divided.

For many in Auroville, with the youth centre demolished and clearing of a forest strip measuring around 600 square metres, this Christmas is unlike any other due to an “authoritarian” Auroville Foundation proceeding with the plan despite environmental concerns and in the wake of alleged violence on protesters opposing the same. The foundation, on the other hand, maintains they have followed due process.

In a temporary relief to residents, the National Green Tribunal on December 21 directed the Auroville Foundation to stall the project until the next hearing on January 3. Despite the NGT order, the foundation has been proceeding with work.

The crown road is part of a master plan notified in 2001.
Crown Plan

What the project is about

The crown road is part of the Auroville Master Plan notified by the human resource development ministry in April 2001; it is a 4.3 km ring road connecting residential, international, industrial and cultural zones of Auroville. According to the affidavit filed by the Auroville Foundation, a major part of the right of way has already been cleared and infrastructure installed alongside. “Auroville foundation is now clearing the last parts of the Crown Right of Way (RoW) with a width of 16.7 m. The land area of the Crown RoW is only 0.36 percent of the total Auroville Master Plan land area,” states the affidavit.

Why residents are concerned

The master plan was designed as per the tree cover, said Natasha, a local resident. “The plan shifted later and by that time the trees were already planted. What was formulated by the residents’ assembly in 1999 was different from the final plan that the HRD Ministry notified. Trees that were planted specifically for the crown project as avenue trees were also uprooted in bliss forest. All these reiterate the need for a detailed development plan as the master plan is a vague document,” she said. “There is no community process as the foundation just wants to implement their interpretation of the plan.”

Auroville, which was red barren land, saw development 53 years ago through community initiatives. “These forest areas are a result of decades of work by the Forest Group, a collective of Aurovillians,” said Kundhavi Devi, who has been living in the town for 15 years now. “These forests were planted even before the master plan came into existence.”

“We are not against development. We only wanted the foundation to build the road, just a few metres away from the proposed road so that less number of trees would be cut down,” said Navroz Kersasp Mody, a resident who filed the petition before the NGT objecting to the process of implementation.

At Darkali and Bliss forests, in the vicinity of the youth centre, the foundation felled a total of 898 trees belonging to 44 species to make way for the road project, according to a report by foresters in Auroville. The forest group brings together the green thumbs of Auroville who restore, conserve soil and water and take lead in environmental education and innovation. “If the same proposal is allowed to continue, a total of 4,586 trees belonging to 85 species will be destroyed. But if the alternative alignment proposed by residents were to be followed, the tree loss would be only 136,” it stated.

A section of residents has proposed several alternative plans over the past few years which they claim are more suited to the landscape and needs of the people. They feel there is a need for a fresh consensus on the project.

Local foresters claim 898 trees have been felled in the Darkali and Bliss forests to make way for the project.
Local foresters claim 898 trees have been felled in the Darkali and Bliss forests to make way for the project.

The master plan was notified in 2001 for a projected population of 15,000 by the year 2010 and an ultimate population of 50,000. However, the current population of Auroville is only 3,500. The master plan itself states that it provides a policy framework which will serve in the preparation of five-year development plans and annual plans for implementation of proposals. Residents want detailed development plans to be prepared based on existing ground level realities and sustainable design and execution of projects after due assessment.

At a watershed in Darkali forest.
At a watershed in Darkali forest.

Why is there no consensus?

“Having liked many of our proposals, the TDC assured us to incorporate the suggestions. But to our shock, TDC went ahead with the work even when the talks were underway and despite knowing that the majority opposes the plan,” said Natasha.

“We offered to collaborate with the Auroville Town Development Council to work on a trajectory for the crown that takes into account their concerns for a Right of Way (that accommodates mobility and infrastructure needs), while integrating water sheds/topography and existing development,” said Auroville resident Suhasini Ayer, a prominent architect and winner of the Green Solutions Award at CoP2021.

But such concerns were not considered by the Auroville Foundation which is fixated on the crown being a perfect circle as indicated in the master plan, she said, “because the foundation believes a perfect circle has the occult power to accelerate the development of Auroville”. If a perfect circle road is built, a water catchment area at Darkali forest and many significant trees such as red sandalwood would be destroyed, she said.

In the Residents’ Assembly held on December 20, around 800 of around 1,000 participants opposed the plan.

Residents protest against felling of trees in Darkali and Bliss forests.
Residents protest against felling of trees in Darkali and Bliss forests.

Established under the Auroville Foundation Act 1988, Auroville Foundation consists of three authorities: International Advisory Council, Residents’ Assembly and the Governing Board. According to the Act, the Residents’ Assembly should formulate the master plan and make necessary recommendations for the recognition of organisations engaged in activities related to Auroville for the approval of the governing body.

The governing body, on its part, has made several attempts to come to a consensus, holding at least 50 meetings with stakeholders so far over five years.

“I have spent time with stewards of these forests; their designs have been looked at. For a city of this dimension, beauty and a futuristic design, we cannot have sketchy and half-baked ways of going about it. We have taken inputs from stakeholders but it had to be vetted by experts. The TDC looked at all requirements and came up with the current plan,” Secretary of Auroville Foundation, Dr Jayanti S Ravi, told Newslaundry.

Ravi also pointed to the “sacrosanct” design of the crown road. “A circle without sharp corners is also symbolic of eternity and unity. This was the design by the mother,” she said, referring to Mira Alfassa, the spiritual leader who established Auroville as a universal town with the objective of integral living and human unity.

But Navroz Kersasp Mody, who approached the NGT, thinks the “foundation is rigid about following a diagram from a policy document (master plan) from two decades ago”.

When the plan was formulated by the Residents’ Assembly in 1999 under section 19(2)(c) of the Auroville Foundation Act, several Aurovillians thought it was “flexible” and a detailed development plan was underway.

Shortcomings have been alleged too. “The Auroville foundation is attempting to implement a diagram from the master plan in the real world without any micro-level planning, detailed development plan, feasibility studies and environmental and social impact assessments, without reference to ground realities and without consultation with the residents. RTI replies show that no such studies have been conducted,” Mody said in the affidavit filed before the NGT.

No environmental impact assessment has been carried out so far by an independent body.

The foundation is unwilling to depart from the original plan. “Years ago, trees were planted to stop soil erosion and with the clarity that they would be felled when the crown project commences. These trees are not matured, with less than 300 mm girth,” said Govindranjan, implementation and monitoring in-charge of Town Development Council. “Trees that are aggressive and suck in a lot of groundwater are rampant in Auroville. The claims of the residents are baseless,” said Govindranjan.

But Navroz Kersasp Mody said the “trees both destroyed and potentially affected are mainly species classed under the tropical dry evergreen forest type and more specifically as the east deccan dry evergreen forests with the status: critical/ endangered according to the world wildlife foundation.”

Dr Jayanti S Ravi termed the resident’s opposition a process to mute the development in Auroville.

There is also a section of residents who feel there is no need for a fresh consensus for the crown RoW project. “The master plan as formulated by the Residents Assembly was referred to the Town and Country Planning Organisation of the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India. TCPO retained the township layout, including the circular crown road…as proposed in the plan formulated by the Residents Assembly but made improvements in the plan while aligning it with Urban Plan Formulation and Implementation Guidelines,” said Anu Majumdar, who authored the book Auroville: A city for the future. Residents are aware of the details mentioned in the master plan, she said.

But local residents have claimed that there have been no detailed development plans, the significance of which has been explained in the Tamil Nadu Department of Town and Country planning handbook.

With no apparent end to the controversy, the township is now pinning its hopes on the NGT’s judgment.

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