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Auroville Adventure


August 2003

Auroville City Development

- David C

For the last three years, the Interim Development Council has overseen the development of Auroville. Its mandate expired in May

 

Development is controversial everywhere in the world. Managing development well means balancing the known needs of today against the uncertain needs of the long-term future: weighing-up the conflicting interests of industry, the environment, commerce and the general public. This is difficult.
In Auroville, there is the added complication that we are not just building a city. We are participating in an Experiment of which the City is merely the physical manifestation. So Ideals have to be added to the scales, with their attached baggage of passionately held interpretations and irreconcilable disagreements.
Auroville Today decided to take the temperature, so to speak, of that section of the community which has day-to-day responsibility for developing the City of Dawn. We spoke separately to the Interim Development Council, Auroville's Future, the International Zone Group and the Green Group. (The Industrial Zone Group were out of town, and there are currently no bodies representing the Residential or Cultural Zones.)
We asked them how they see the next three to five years. What do they want? How will they be working with other groups? What do they actually do?

 

A note on the Masterplan

The Auroville Masterplan is the official development plan for Auroville which was approved by the Ministry of Human Resource Development on April 12, 2001. It is a "perspective plan", which contains the broad concepts and philosophies of the township's development. It has a time-span of about 25 years. Within the framework of the perspective plan, detailed development plans will be made, which have time-scales up to five years. Development plans can only be made once the ground realities are clear; they require surveys to acquire the necessary data. Lastly, there will be annual plans made for implementation.
The Masterplan also forms a crucial safeguard for Auroville's place within the bio-region. Without it, Auroville cannot request any kind of protection from the Tamil Nadu or Central Governments. Since land-purchase is still a problem, this protection is of the utmost importance.
The need for a Masterplan was therefore accepted fairly equanimously by the community. However, it is by no means regarded by all Aurovilians as a definite plan for how Auroville will actually develop. Nevertheless, both Auroville's Future and the Interim Development Council regard the Masterplan as the basic blueprint for the City.

The Interim Development Council

If any group can be said to manage the process of what gets built where in Auroville, it is the IDC. All planning applications must be referred to them, and they can effectively veto any projects. They are also responsible for developing the city's public infrastructure.
This is a very difficult task, considering that they have almost no resources. Auroville is chronically short of human and financial capital. Since it takes enormous amounts of both to build even a small town, the IDC really are trying to make bricks without straw.
The IDC also, in the nature of things, attract the most direct criticism from the community. There are several reasons. Firstly, implementing the Masterplan means upsetting existing residents. "Take the road plan," says Joseba. "When the plan is put into execution, and the road work commences, someone challenges the concept entirely, or starts asking for the road to be shifted an extra 10 or 20 meters from where they are living!"
Secondly, being the body responsible for saying No to peoples' cherished projects does not make the IDC popular.
Finally, since the IDC are seen as champions of the Masterplan, they become a lightning-rod for community discontent on that subject.

 

Auroville's Future

L'Avenir d'Auroville, or Auroville's Future, dates back to 1965, and has the distinction of being created by Mother Herself.
"Three things were established during Mother's own time," says Pashi. "One was the Architect, Roger Anger. Second was the concept of Auroville. Third was the creation of Auroville's Future as the department to assist Roger in executing it."
After nearly forty years, including a period where it ceased to exist altogether, Auroville's Future is still fulfilling this role. They function as the town planning department for the City. They start by making assumptions about the population growth of Auroville. From there, they can estimate likely patterns of consumption for water, energy, transport and so forth. The level of detail required for this work is considerable. The team is awesomely knowledgeable, dedicated and energetic. And they are quite happy to call in outside help: one of the key consultants in developing the Masterplan was Mr Dattatri, former Chief Town Planner of the Chennai Metropolitan Authority.
Like the IDC, Auroville's Future are completely committed to implementing the Masterplan. They are not unsympathetic to desires for a more "organic" growth of the City. But as Anandi explains, "Mother was very clear she really wanted a plan. And She discussed with Roger so many small details about it. For us that is also a sign that there had to be a plan. Otherwise we would be developing like other cities all over the world - they have grown organically."

 

The International Zone

The International Zone perhaps presents the smoothest road in terms of its development. Many of the problems that make life extremely difficult for Auroville's Future, the IDC and the Green Group do not exist in the International Zone.
Auroville owns all but five acres of the land. There is nothing much there to knock down. No-one lives in it or near it, so NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitudes to new roads and infrastructure aren't a problem. Relationships with likely providers of capital and inspiration (the Auroville International centres overseas) are good. Finally, uniquely, Auroville as a whole is not yet passionately married to any particular outcome. So the constant cataract of complaints that pours down on development debate elsewhere is only experienced as a tiny drip in the International Zone.
To top it all off, the team doing the work is as passionate, informed, diverse and committed as you could wish to meet. And positive! The word "problem" only occurred once during the interview.

The Unity Pavilion under constructionin the International Zone.
The existing buildings in the International Zone are Bharat Nivas (soon to be restored to its rightful role as the Indian Pavilion rather than de facto Auroville Town Hall), Savitri Bhavan, the Tibetan Pavilion, the Guest House of the American Pavilion and the Unity Pavilion. This last will be "very important" says Sergei. "It will be where we co-ordinate development of the International Zone. And it refers to the soul of humanity as a whole, if other buildings are referring to souls of the nations. The International Zone Group office will be there, as will architectural planning. And it will be a place for Pavilion Groups who have no places of their own."
The team sees itself as having two main tasks at present. The first is to understand Mother's vision for the International Zone. The second is to work very closely with the Auroville Ineternational centres who will be prime movers in actually building the Pavilions - "the spiritual embassies of the nations," in Sergei's words.

The Green Group

In some ways, the Green Group are the odd-people-out in our group of interviews. They are not specifically responsible for developing any part of the City. They have no formal powers of veto. They do not make development proposals.
However, perhaps more than any of the development working-groups, the Green Group provides a bridge between Auroville's eco-village past and its hopefully eco-friendly future. And they are custodians of Auroville's most visible and precious external achievement - the trees. It is as if they are holding our collective conscience.
Interviewing AuroFuture at their (old) office in the morning, and then meeting the Green Group at Oasis Juice Bar the same afternoon, was like flying from Singapore's Changi airport to Tibet. A different world, a different worldview. Much gentler, more diffuse, but just as well-defined. So what about development?
Kireet, whose work with check-dams has reached a point where a monsoon of up to 20cm is contained with no run-off, agrees. "It should be in harmony with Nature, all the building, the landscaping and everything we are going to do in Auroville. No pollution during and after building. Not abusing nature, but taking all the steps in line with nature. It will ask us to be very conscious on the way."
The other groups talked mostly about "what" they are doing and "why". But the Green Group is primarily concerned with "how we do it," says Gemma. "All these people with passionate views about This Is What It Should Be… If we can find a way to create something with a reasonable degree of harmony and peace, instead of what we do at the moment, then that's actually the aim, isn't it?"
This makes working with Auroville's Future and the IDC, in particular, a little difficult. It is not because of any wish - on either side - to be stand-offish. But the working-methods don't quite meet in the middle. Kireet explains, "Fixed proposals have to be somehow flexible as well. If necessary, we have to change the plan and do it better. Everything changes so fast we that have to adapt constantly."

 

Conclusion

It seems worth repeating that development is difficult. Not counting Matrimandir and the Matrimandir Lake & Gardens, few issues carry such an emotional charge in Auroville, or affect our everyday lives to such an extent.

Development has a long tail. Once a block of flats is put up, or a canyon is built-over, that is the end of the story for many years to come. So it seems right that we should vigorously debate the principles on which to build the City the Earth Needs. What do we need, come to that?

Asking lots of "what" and "why" and "how" questions can help to make sure that we - and the earth - don't suffer unnecessarily when the bull-dozers move in. And the grandeur of the vision must be weighed against the costs, both financial and human. Even projects that come to be seen as iconic often have very shaky beginnings. Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge involved demolishing half a suburb, compulsorily displacing thousands of people. Was it worth it? Probably. But let's hope that they talked about it for a bit before starting.

Luckily, this is Auroville. There will, no doubt, have been very many words exchanged by the time we are a city of 50,000.

 

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