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Auroville Adventure


November 2003

Bridges between neighbours

-by Sunaura

With the dream of unity and fraternity surrounding us, a complex relationship between Auroville and its neighbouring villages has developed throughout the years

Village children goat herding by Aspiration's first huts


Over the last fifteen years, Auroville Today has covered a variety of aspects on village life such as education, youth groups, history, health, village action, women's groups and cultural events. Going deeper we have also tried to examine the complex relationship between the rich local culture and the variety of international cultures which have been coexisting for the last 35 years. To attempt to summarize in one article the dynamics of such relationships is unrealistic. But a brief insight into some of the trials and triumphs of such an experiment can be given.

At the time of Auroville's inauguration, the surrounding area was one of the poorest in the south of India. The land had been robbed of its natural flora, leaving it desolate and dry. The working population consisted of small farmers, skilled and unskilled labourers and fishermen. Families worked night and day to make ends meet. The whole area was certified as "backward and in need of development" by the Collector of South Arcot District in 1984.

Collecting water at the local well


When the first foreigners came to the local lands, there were mixed feelings among the people who had been living here for generations. "Some of the villagers were very scared because they felt that the white people would come and rule them again," reported an elder from a local village. "But I read about the project in a local newspaper and explained to them that Auroville was meant to help them, not dominate them. Afterwards, I was taken to meet the Mother a number of times. She told me many times that the villagers should cooperate with the project, because it was for them. And this wasn't just words. She said it in a way that I knew she would make it happen. This made me very happy" (Auroville Today, May 1995). During Auroville's first few years, the Mother's physical presence calmed many fears and bridged understandings between the diverse backgrounds. Her Dream reached out to all the people coming to and already inhabiting the area of Auroville. It was a chance for new beginnings and growth on both external and internal levels.

The first years are often recalled with affection. Life seemed much more simple and straightforward. A larger percentage of the newly formed community participated in local customs and activities which created a feeling of 'doing it together.' Furthermore, the Matrimandir, which was very much the 'soul work' of Auroville at that time, brought everyone together in a harmonious routine. However, as the years rolled by, life became more complex. With the growth of the Auroville community as well as the villages, new dimensions appeared and gaps between common understandings seemed to grow. As one villager said, "In the beginning we worked with the first Aurovilians to help purchase the land. But after this some of these people just forgot us. Auroville has done a lot for the villages over the years, like improving the water supply, building the Health Centre and providing employment but I would be happy if Aurovilians came to our meetings again. We live beside each other, we must work things out together" (Auroville Today, June 1993). Though some of the Aurovilians turned their focus in directions that were not entwined with that of the local people, others of this growing population dedicated themselves to building bridges between the varying backgrounds and striving to achieve the 'fraternity' Mother spoke of. The following summary touches on a few of the many projects that have been started over the years and continue to succeed today.

Education

In the beginning of Auroville, Udavi school was started by the Mother to provide an ongoing education for local village students. Today, this school, located in Edayanchavadi, educates 250 students who come from Edayancha-vadi, Kottakarai, Alankuppam, Irum-bai and even Kuilapalayam. Udavi school is unique as it has remained a project of both the Ashram and Auroville. Under the Udyog Trust of the Ashram and SAIIER of Auroville, the school is situated on Ashram land while being managed by Aurovilians.
Isaiambalam School in Kotta-karai was started in 1979. Today there are 120 children attending from Edayanchavadi, Alankuppam and Kottakarai. Along with pre-school and primary education, Isaiambalam School teaches many teenagers who have not had primary education and now hope to educate themselves for future possibilities.

Children at New Creation

New Creation School opened in 1983, offering children from the neighbouring villages (largely from Kuilapalayam) a well rounded education which incorporates dance, pottery, singing and theatre. Currently, there are over 250 students in New Creation, 37 of whom live in the community.

Other schools such as After School, the Kuilapalayam Trust School and a recently constructed school for the children from Bommayarpalayam continue to grow and succeed.

Neighbourly interactions


Village Action

The Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG), which started in 1983, actively works today with 40 villages in the Auroville bioregion. The work of AVAG not only improves the lives of villagers through education and employment but largely empowers individuals to take charge of their lives and their community development. Approximately 2000 women and 750 men have joined the network of AVAG and are monitored by a group of 50 development workers consisting of men and women from neighbouring villages who have been trained by AVAG in community development and social work. Last year 2000 women participated in the AVAG's Women Power Program. An example of women's empowerment can be seen when in village elections in October of 2001, twenty women with the encouragement and support of AVAG ran for office; fifteen were elected as Panchayat ward members and one as Panchayat vice president. Such successes have encouraged the women today to believe in themselves.

Delegates at the Women's Day organised by the Auroville Village Action Group

An Auroville Village newsletter called Auroville Grama Seydhi Madal was started in 1998 by Meenakshi, a Tamil Aurovilian well known and appreciated throughout Auroville and the villages alike for her continual optimistic outreach. This newsletter covers such topics as village life, school celebrations, and includes quotations of Mother and Sri Aurobindo, stories of Tamil culture and heritage as well as reporting on aspects of Auroville such as the Residents' Assembly, Governing Board meetings and commonly asked questions concerning the Auroville community. Currently entering it's 7th year of publication, the Auroville Grama Seydhi Madal sends out over 300 copies per month and is read by over 1,000. Meenakshi is also a founder of SEWA (Small Employees Welfare Administration) that deals with Auroville conflict/resolution forum, pension fund and employment services, and she is currently active with the Tamil Heritage Centre.

Health Care

The Dental Clinic of Auroville treats approximately 250 non-Aurovilians per month, and does extensive work with the villages. In an experiment started in 1994, the first sub-centre was opened in Edayanchavadi training women to become Dental workers. The success of this outreach led to the introduction of ART (Atraumatic Restoration Treatment) promoted by the World Health Organisation in 1999. This program further trains workers to deal with caries (tooth bone decay) and small cavities. It also promotes training in oral hygiene. Currently there are 32 women from local villages, some of whom have no more than a 10th standard education, but have been sufficiently trained through these programs. To their credit, the Auroville Dentistry is the only clinic working in 'rural dentistry', through the ART program in India.

dental hygiene campaign

The Auroville Health Centre treats over 30 and provides medication and advice to another 300 non-Aurovilians per day. It has trained many health workers who go out to approximately 20 villages in the surrounding area, providing for those who cannot get to a medical centre outside their village. Six village sub-centres have also been created for this purpose. Education on hygienic care and prevention are given alongside treatment. The Health Centre also provides an ambulance for emergency cases.

Challenges

Yet, even with these clearly positive developments regarding Auroville's relationship with the surrounding region, there have been some more controversial aspects which have led to resentment and frustration. Though Auroville's presence and Mother's dream brought much into the lives of the Tamilians, it also brought rapid change among a people whose place in society is very defined by their culture. For example, "There is no full caste system in every village. There is mostly one caste, and a separate Harijan (untouchables) colony. Sometimes Harijans from the colonies are not even allowed to walk into the main village. Many Harijans have found work in Auroville and benefit by the absence of caste restrictions here" (Auroville Today, January 1990). Some employers in Auroville found those of the Harijan caste to be willing, hardworking and honest, but their employment and economic raising brought in contradictory feelings from other village members.

There was also a change occurring on the home front of many village households. Whereas before, women were typically at home caring for the household at large, they began to get jobs in Auroville and their absence demanded an adjustment from the rest of the family. Children being raised in Auroville soon became young adults with views and outspoken opinions contradictory to that of their parents. Family crafts and trade were sometimes disregarded by the son assigned to carry on the tradition. Increasingly daughters wanted to continue their studies and postpone marriage while elders sought to secure their lineage. The whole concept of 'love' marriage or even relationships without marriage as seen in Auroville, caused some to question what had not been questioned before.

Furthermore, with the economic rise of the region, consumerism has grown and continues to grow within and around Auroville. The differences in personal income can often be seen, leading to feelings of resentment, jealousy and frustration between the villagers themselves as well as between the villagers and Aurovilians. When Mother was asked how the Aurovilians should relate to the villagers, she responded,"The best way, you see, is education. To educate them not by words and speeches but by example. If you can make them mix with your life and your work, and they get the influence of your way of being, your way of understanding, then, little by little, they will change"(21 April 1970, CWM, XIII, p.333). However, with materialism and the lack of economic equality visible in the Auroville community, the examples are sometimes different from those that Mother envisioned.

Another common upset revolves around feelings of racism and discrimination. One Tamil Aurovilian said, "In the past there was less theft and everyone moved freely and received a warm welcome. These days Auroville is not a free city. Whites enter places easily, while we must answer many questions. Our own people, who work as watchmen, respect foreigners more!" (Auroville Today, August 2001). From a different angle, many Aurovilian women have found themselves being judged and approached by Tamil men who have preconceived perceptions towards women in general and a discriminating attitude toward Western women in particular because of different cultural backgrounds and sometimes because of socially inappropriate behaviour of visitors to Auroville. With such a mixing of cultural sensitivities, it is not a surprise that these issues arise.

Trust is a very important aspect in building a strong relationship between Auroville and the villages. While there are many trustworthy relationships between Auroville and its neighbours, there are also areas that could use more work. For example, some of the villagers around Auroville, especially from Kottakarai, feel cheated by having been encouraged to sell their land in the early years of Auroville's development. Though at the time the land was not so high prized and selling it provided money for family functions such as marriages, the money was not being re-invested, leaving a family twenty some years later in the same economic state, knowing that the piece of land they sold is now worth much more than what they got. Furthermore, some villagers recall being promised jobs in Auroville. "Everybody in the village wanted to sell land to Auroville," explained an elder from Kottakarai, "because they could have good food and a good life. They stopped doing crops, and the land spoiled. When they sold their land, they didn't buy more. They lived well, but afterwards they had to go to Auroville for work. But sometimes there was no work. I sold 15 acres of land to Auroville and I understood my son would get a job with Auroville. But, he never got one. If people sell land to Auroville, Auroville should try to help them by giving them a job" (Auroville Today, Feb.1989).

One of the most important links between Auroville and the surrounding villages is in those who walk between both worlds: the Tamil Aurovilians. Today, Tamil Aurovi-lians represent 38% of the Auroville community. The number has increased from 25% in 1993. "People who wish to join Auroville from the neighbouring villages are in something of a special situation. They are born into a culture where certain traditions are still strong and as their families are just 'across the road', the demand made upon them to fulfil certain family responsibilities and traditional religious practices can be overwhelming" (Auroville Today, June 1993). Many of the Tamil Aurovilians grew up in Auroville surrounded by its ideals, freedoms and possibilities.

Particularly in the 80's and early 90's, a clear economic division could be seen among the young adult Tamil Aurovilians and those from the village. This led to a build up of resentment. One young villager expressed his views, "The Tamil Aurovilians could do so much for the village, but they've turned their backs on us, forgotten us completely; they behave like foreigners now. If some villagers dislike Auroville, it's because of the arrogance of these people" (Auroville Today, May 1995). But for a Tamil Aurovilian the balance is not easy to find.

Gathering of Panchayat leaders and Aurovilians, September 2003

Today, the complexities of our neighbouring relationships continue to be a challenge and new avenues are sought in building stronger, more trusting relationships. Just this past month, 22 Panchayat leaders and village representatives met with a group of Aurovilians for a very successful day of cultural exchange including visits to Auroville's farms, schools and the Matrimandir. Future events of this kind will hopefully help to bridge our communication gaps and strengthen our mutual respect while working toward the true fraternity Mother spoke of…one step at a time.

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