Auroville: Over half a century ago, the idyllic township of Auroville was established in Tamil Nadu as a living experiment of human unity and a laboratory of universal collaboration. Now, the small town finds itself deeply divided.
Three months since bulldozers felled trees and demolished structures in the ‘City of Dawn’, there is palpable bitterness between groups of residents and the governing Auroville Foundation over a proposed infrastructure push.
“We are not opposed to the development but the manner in which the Auroville Foundation, headed by central government-appointed officials, is going about it is not in the spirit of Auroville,” Hemanth Lamba, member, working committee of the residents’ assembly, told ThePrint. “We are a community that treasures freedom of speech and expression and there is no place for violence. Such brute force is not Auroville’s way.”
The residents’ assembly is one of three governance tiers of Auroville, of which the working committee is a component. The Auroville Foundation is at the apex of this three-tier structure.
A set of residents has accused the Auroville Foundation — with its new governing board, headed by Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi as chairman, and Union government-appointed Gujarat-cadre IAS officer Jayanti S. Ravi as secretary — of oppressing the rights of Aurovillians and intimidation.
However, another group of residents has put its weight behind the foundation, insisting that it is time to swiftly implement the ‘Auroville Master Plan’, which was designed when the town was established in 1968.
“The Auroville Foundation Act, 1988, spells out that the governing board can ensure implementation of the master plan. There has been a lot of delay and obstruction in the past. Currently, only 8 per cent of the proposed population is occupying 85 per cent of land. We have to make way for more development so 47,000 more people can come and live in Auroville as envisioned by ‘The Mother’,” Auroville Foundation Secretary Jayanti told ThePrint.
‘The Mother’ here refers to Mirra Alfassa, a French writer, occultist and spiritual collaborator of Indian philosopher and proponent of ‘Integral Yoga’, Sri Aurobindo.
Alfassa founded the Auroville township as an ‘intended’ global community aimed at progressive collaborations for human unity beyond nationality, caste, race, creed and religion.
The divisions now come with allegations of appropriation against the Modi government, intimidation of foreigners over visas, accusations of greed and obstructing a collective spiritual evolution of the human race.
What seems to hide behind the tensions, however, is a tussle for control over Auroville — a power struggle between different generations of Aurovillians.
What fomented the issue?
Auroville was envisioned by The Mother as a densely populated, innovative and spiritual city with lush greenery, but appears to be a far cry from this today.
Just over 3,300 residents live in sporadic settlements connected by mud roads and forested pathways where bikes and cycles are the preferred mode of transport. Spread across are the tourism centres, various manufacturing, cultural and training workshops, and innovation units, besides the large farmlands where organic cultivation is prominent. Interspersed are community halls, cafes, restaurants, community kitchen, and exhibition halls.
People from across the world are welcome to live in Auroville, but the process to become an official resident is a long one. While volunteers and guests are allowed to stay in Auroville too, to become an official resident, an application process is followed where an aspiring resident has to go through an ‘exploration phase’ and ‘newcomer phase’.
The primary yardstick is to be familiar with the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother and commit oneself to the ‘Auroville Charter’. The city has a set process to evaluate applications. Aspirants are expected to contribute to Auroville through work, offerings in kind or with money, abstain from violence and politics etc.
While the discord among various groups in Auroville has existed for decades over multiple issues and decisions, it allegedly began running deeper after the appointment of Jayanti as Auroville Foundation secretary in June 2021.
“The moment she arrived, she began polarising Auroville, exploiting the difference of opinion among residents. Divisions were created on lines of hardliners versus liberals, Indians versus foreigners, locals versus outsiders,” Lamba said, alleging that Auroville’s tradition of community participation in decisionmaking was being violated.
At the crux of the current division is a road infrastructure project to build the ‘Crown’ — a circular road proposed to interconnect four proposed zones of Auroville: industrial, residential, cultural and international, as designed by Auroville’s architect Roger Anger in 1968.
On 2 December 2021, members of Auroville’s Youth Centre and Bliss Forest were informed of the foundation’s decision to begin a clearance drive over a planted area to make way for the ‘Crown’, which has a proposed width of 16.7 metres.
While the youth centre is a part of Auroville where younger residents and volunteers are provided vocational training, bliss forest is where the forest group of Aurovillians works towards soil rejuvenation.
Despite the residents’ opposition, bulldozers arrived on the morning of 4 December, but were met with protests.
“The bulldozers came back in the wee hours of 5 December and started pulling down trees. We do not want conflict but a peaceful resolution. Auroville has always discussed and debated its disputes but literal bulldozing is not the way forward,” a young Aurovillian from the youth centre told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
Even as multiple meetings of residents were held to oppose the manner in which the project was being implemented, bulldozers returned to clear a stretch of land in the Darkali forest area on 9 December.
“This time, unknown, hired hands were brought in to intimidate us. Women were manhandled and assaulted. This has never happened in Auroville before,” Kundhavi Devi, media liaison in-charge for a section of residents opposing the foundation, told ThePrint.
Devi was appointed by a section of residents to represent them in the media after the foundation allegedly asked former members of Auroville’s media office to refrain from issuing statements and appointed fresh spokespersons.
The allegations of assault were, however, denied by the foundation.
“Why were no cases filed then? We should be glad that the government is helping Auroville realise The Mother’s vision. Crown road is a crucial part of the master plan and people opposing it have vested interests in not wanting to vacate the space they have occupied,” Auroville Foundation spokesperson Joel Van Lierde told ThePrint.
After residents petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in December, an interim stay order stopped the clearance drive in forested areas of Auroville for now.
What the ‘Crown’ is
The ‘Crown’, the four zones, high-rise buildings called ‘Lines of Force’, and Matrimandir comprise the key components of the Auroville Master Plan, based on a ‘galaxy concept’ — designed by Roger Anger in 1968 and approved by ‘The Mother’.
Since Auroville’s inauguration, only the Matrimandir has been built. Envisioned as the soul of Auroville, Matrimandir is designed in the form of a golden orb at the centre of the town, meant as a place for concentration.
Over decades, large-scale reforestation efforts were undertaken, turning a barren, red-soiled parched land into man-made forests. Auroville is also a prominent contributor of eco-friendly solutions for sustainable living, progressive farming, innovation, art, architecture and a hub of spiritual, cultural living.
“We have been invited here for a purpose. We are mandated to implement The Mother’s vision for a futuristic, progressive city working towards evolution of conscience. This city was envisioned by The Mother for 50,000 people but now only 3,300 people live here. The envisioned population was to teach the world sustainable solutions for dense living with limited resources,” said Sindhuja Jagadeesh, a spokesperson for Auroville Foundation.
Jagadeesh added that a ‘small section’ of residents opposed to development were using ecology and environmental concerns as an excuse.
“People who come to Auroville, especially westerners, aren’t from rich families but because of the currency value, they lead better lives here with barely any work, gardeners, house helps. Clearly, they don’t want this lifestyle disrupted,” Lieve Claes, who has been a resident of Auroville for 12 years and is in favour of the infra push, said.
While the Auroville Foundation insists that only 134 trees have been cut so far and an estimated 1,000 trees could face the axe for the Crown, a survey by the residents’ association is said to have estimated that about 898 trees had been cut already and another 4,586 trees would be cut for the project.
“All we are saying is to consider a slight deviation — barely 30 metres from the current plan — to save more existing trees as well as watersheds. Nobody is holding on to land. Everybody in Auroville knows we don’t own the land but are only caretakers,” Kundhavi said, adding that those who “assaulted Aurovillians were felicitated by the foundation in February creating further fear among residents”.
Allegations of appropriation against Centre
While ecological concerns have been raised to oppose the proposed infra project, residents add that the issue is beyond just a few trees.
“This is a Nazi-style coercion on Aurovillians. This is RSS-BJP’s attempt to take over Auroville just as they have been doing in all religious and spiritual organisations. This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo and they want to appropriate his legacy,” alleged Navroz Kersasp Mody, a resident of Auroville since 1977.
Mody pointed out that the master plan as gazetted in 2001 was over 20 years old and needed a relook.
Political analyst Narendar Pani sees a pattern, given that the sudden push for the Crown road comes on a key anniversary.
“This is similar to what has been done in Jallianwala Bagh or is being done at Sabarmati Ashram and Central Vista. The BJP has understood that the key to cultural assertion lies in architecture and is executing this across the country,” Pani said.
Jayanti Ravi, however, deemed it a “beautiful coincidence”.
“This project is long delayed. The Mother in 1968 said she wanted Auroville built in five years. It is a beautiful coincidence that this year happens to be the 150th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo. That may give an impetus,” Ravi said.
She added that Auroville is given special privileges like tax exemption on its units, subsidised or free electricity, special visa norms, unbridled freedom, land grants as well as funding of Rs 15 crore-20 crore annually towards achieving a certain goal of realising the Mother’s vision.
In Auroville’s three-tier governing system — comprising the governing board, residents’ assembly and the international advisory board — the residents’ assembly recommends visas and extensions for foreign residents, and the secretary is empowered to approve it.
“This power is being misused to intimidate foreigners opposing the foundation. Residents who were born in Auroville are being refused a visa extension beyond three months for resisting the foundation’s decisions. Fearing repercussions, residents are worried about even voicing their opinions,” Kundhavi said.
While she denies withholding visas, Jayanti insists that it was the norm for all foreign nationals to adhere to laws of the land.
“Nobody’s visas have been withheld but, yes, it all depends on the way they abide by what is expected of them legally, ethically, morally, spiritually of this project. We have evidence of people involved in illegal activities, obstruction of the intended city and it is entirely for authorities to take a call on it,” she said.
Residents estimate that out of 3,312 residents, 1,893 Aurovillians are concerned over visas.
Generational fight in Auroville
While the tiff may be between those backing the foundation and those opposed, fissures have also appeared between the ‘pioneers’, the earliest settlers of Auroville, and the ‘later entrants’.
“I was 4 years old when Auroville’s galaxy model was unveiled at the foundation ceremony in 1968. My parents and I put in blood and sweat to rejuvenate Auroville’s soil and build the Matrimandir. Now, these newcomers tell me I am not committed to Auroville’s vision,” a 58-year-old second-generation resident of Auroville, told ThePrint.
“Mother was pragmatic and encouraged constant evolution. Using her as an excuse for rigid, cult-like imposition isn’t right,” the resident said.
The resident’s opinion finds some backing in Anger’s interviews, as cited by Auroville’s official website.
“…The city is still to be invented, everything has still to be done through the daily experience and rhythm of the Aurovillians. Apart from these lines of force, everything is flexible, nothing is fixed,” Anger is quoted as saying in an interview.
Anandi Breton, who has been residing in Auroville for 27 years, disagrees with the notion that the proposed Crown road is environmentally damaging.
“We are the world’s most ecological city. We are in support of a planned city while they are looking for organic growth but this is an intended city, already planned by The Mother,” she said.
Luigi Fabozzi, a resident of Auroville, added: “I believe in the power of divine geometry. Once the galaxy concept is built as envisioned by The Mother, we will receive divine guidance.”
However, Navroz Mody disputed the claim. “Sri Aurobindo and The Mother encouraged us to manifest a change of consciousness through constant inner development. It isn’t as if wisdom will drop down from the heavens through a project implementation. Some of the residents are opposing an entire generation of people misled by corrupt forces,” Mody said.
While Aurovillians fight over an infrastructure project, neighbouring villagers are at the receiving end. Auroville deems these villages that are centuries old as ‘bio-regions’.
The land that Auroville needs to acquire to implement The Mother’s vision extends to village land, temple land and privately owned farms.
“The surrounding villages are poverty-stricken and villagers are employed as gardeners, house helps and security guards in Auroville. But, beyond that, there has been little help for us. All we hope is that any development of Auroville is also beneficial to the villagers around,” said Arumugam Mani, Councillor, Kuilapalayam village, which is nearby.
Jayanti Ravi believes there is a need for governance reform in Auroville.
“There is a need for reforms so that the charter of Auroville is implemented in a harmonious way. There should be reform so that governance does not just suit the interest of a few people,” she said. “There is a need for a lot more transparency, accountability and we are committed to that.”
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)