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Nov 2000

 

Making Auroville truly international:

Are money and politics a bar?

by Shanti


Auroville is an international township with people from over thirty countries. Thus not all the world's countries or cultures are represented; in fact, some of them are conspicuously absent. Some people believe that the explanation lies on the occult level, with each part of the planet following its own destiny in its own time. Nevertheless, many reasons can be found right here on the material plane, foremost among them political and economic circumstances. Shanti, who lives in Ecuador, explains.

Most of the countries that are not represented in Auroville are the so-called developing countries of Africa, Latin America and some parts of Asia. The simple argument that people from these areas do not come here due to their economic inability to do so is a difficult one to swallow for many European and American Aurovilians, who valiantly came to Auroville and built lives for themselves with scant resources. For them, with the noteworthy exception of those coming from Eastern Europe, a life without the possibility of travel is hard to imagine; which is not to say that it is easily affordable. For when you don't have money, even "budget" travel is expensive. It is, nonetheless, within the realm of possibility. In western countries one can still manage to earn, scrimp, and save enough money to come to a place like, for example, South India. Once the ticket is in hand, obtaining a passport is a matter of due process. The Indian visa, particularly an entry visa, can be trickier, but generally speaking, when all is said and done, most Europeans and Americans are granted such visas without significant hassle.

None of these steps might be within reach if you happen to be a citizen from some other region of the world, for instance, if you are a citizen of the South American country Ecuador. This small, peaceful "banana republic", like so many Latin American nations, has always been dominated by the United States, which from an early period has ensured that this country remained a cheap source of agricultural produce and an open market for American goods. Maintaining this comfortable arrangement has involved assistance, in the form of electoral contributions, training, etc. to politicians who don't upset the boat and who don't meddle with the powerful oligarchy that makes economic and political exploitation possible. The system basically appeared to be "working", not because Ecuador was truly democratic or working its way towards greater equity, but because it got lucky and discovered oil. As a result, the Amazon jungle was plundered and some rich people became richer. Some of the goodies trickled down to a not-so-educated middle class, made to feel content enough to be able to sit on chairs upholstered with American cloth and watch American television shows on American TV sets.

Such good things do come to an end, and they did so some years ago when Ecuador's fragile economy and political stability collapsed. From one day to the next, the financial situation, provoked by absurdly greedy politicians and bankers, spiralled down. The price of the dollar skyrocketed and inflation went through the roof. In an incomprehensible effort to stabilize things, the government froze every citizen's private bank account. Whole life savings, so painstakingly accrued for a child's education, a house, or perhaps travel to some distant place like India, were gone and most probably will never be recovered. The final blow came when Ecuador, bowing to the unmerciful experimentations of the International Monetary Fund, "dollarized" its economy. Today the national currency, the sucre, no longer exists and everything has a price in dollars. This does not mean, however, that people are earning even at the level of the pittance that illegal migrant farm workers earn in the United States. Ecuadorians have to make do somehow, earning like third-world citizens and paying like first-world ones even for life-saving medicines. It goes without saying that there isn't too much money around for travelling, let alone relocating elsewhere.

Then, of course, there is the matter of a passport and visa. There were some days in the turmoil that ensued in Ecuador last year when there would have been no office to which to apply for a passport, as there was no identifiable central government in operation. Even most of the time, however, when the waters are not so rocky, it is not an easy process. As in many developing countries, in Ecuador a passport is not really regarded as a citizen's entitlement; in other words, there is no assurance that you can get one. Firstly, it is expensive. Secondly, obtaining one requires a series of other documents, which in turn require a birth certificate, a paper which significant numbers of Ecuadorians do not possess. Finally, there is the question of what kind of weight such a passport carries in the international arena. An Ecuadorian I know was once stopped while coming through Indian customs not only because the customs officials had never heard of his country, but also because they could not fathom that such a handwritten (only in Spanish), homemade-looking document was actually legitimate.

And this particular Ecuadorian citizen was actually lucky to have come as far as the customs queue, for the obtaining of an Indian visa is no small feat. The hassle begins with the fact that India has no embassy in Ecuador: if you want even a tourist visa, you must send your application to Colombia. This adds to the expense. Once your passport reaches the embassy, there is a good chance that Indian officials will think twice before granting any kind of extended stay. The Ecuadorian citizen has earned the sorrowful distinction of possessing a nationality that even other developing countries are sometimes reluctant to provide with visas.

Suffice it to say that even the most committed and impassioned Ecuadorian would find it very, very difficult, if not impossible, to get to Auroville. And such Ecuadorians are hardly alone. There are whole populations in the world whose political-economic lot is far worse: people who have no nationality; people who live virtually imprisoned by their governments without the possibility to leave; people living amidst warfare, and people whose currencies mean absolutely nothing in dollars or even rupees.

Everyone makes deep sacrifices to come to Auroville. Sometimes it is important, however, to realize that the capacity to make such sacrifices is actually a tremendous privilege based on economic status and nationality, and not only a function of one's spiritual growth. This kind of awareness can be very humbling, and can also be very powerful on a collective level. Ultimately, understanding the material conditions which facilitate one's choice to participate in the Auroville experiment, and limit another's possibilities to do so, can be an important step towards recognizing, and eventually overcoming, some of the concrete obstacles to achieving human unity.

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