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January 2007

 

Seeing without blinkers

- Carel

In the period August 2004 – November 2006, Auroville’s population grew by a mere 2%. What can be done to stimulate faster growth?

Auroville's slow population growth is a concern for many, amongst which the Governing Board, whose chairman Dr. Karan Singh stated publicly that he would like to see more young people from India and abroad joining Auroville. Auroville's town planners too are concerned: they would love to start building the city but cannot proceed as effective planning without a realistic idea of the expected population increase is impossible.

Over the last years, that increase has been minimal. Some believe that we can expect an influx once the Matrimandir is ready. Others doubt it. They point to the problems that confront anyone who wishes to join Auroville. Three of them are certainly obstacles.

The first is Auroville's property structure. All immoveable assets such as land, houses, wells, etc. are owned by the Auroville Foundation, which, according to the Auroville Housing Policy, ‘holds the ownership in trust for humanity as a whole.' Private ownership of immoveable assets in Auroville is not possible. Consequently, and unlike anywhere else in the world, a person wishing to join Auroville cannot finance a house by taking a bank loan against a mortgage on the house and repay the loan from one's monthly earnings. Instead, a donation to the value of the house or apartment has to be made to the Auroville Foundation for the right to be nominated as steward of an existing apartment or house. If houses are not available, a donation has to be made to build a house or apartment, of which one becomes the steward afterwards. This donation is non-refundable in case someone decides to leave Auroville after being accepted as a permanent resident. For young people in particular, this is a barrier. It is unrealistic to expect that a 30-year old has been able to save the substantial amount required – of the order of Rs 15 lakhs (approximately US $ 35,000) upwards – to start a life in Auroville. And if he or she has managed it, it takes courage to make the jump and donate this amount.

An obvious solution to this problem would be that Auroville build and finance its houses and apartments and make them available for free or against a monthly rent to those who wish to join. But this is easier said than done. At present only one project, Citadines, seeks to build apartments, most of which will be made freely available to those who work for and live in Auroville. Funding for this project comes from abroad but construction has not yet begun. Once finished, however, Citadines will be little more than a drop in the ocean and only relieve the present housing crises to a small extent.

But even those who come with sufficient savings face a problem: they can't make a donation to move into an existing house as there are hardly any houses available; and they can't build a new house as, due to stagnation in planning, areas in the Residential Zone where new houses can be built have not been freed for development. Moreover, those new areas are planned for high density living – not to everybody's liking – and the houses or apartments will be small in size. According to the Housing Policy, ‘the recommended size of a residence should not exceed 60 m2 carpet area for an individual plus 30 m2 for each additional projected inhabitant'. The question arises as to why newcomers are expected to live in small units that are crammed together while many old-timers enjoy large residences in spacious surroundings.

In these circumstances, the condition of the current Entry Policy that ‘a Newcomer should find suitable housing in Auroville in accordance with the Auroville Housing Policy,' has become something of an impossibility. Yet, a Newcomer who takes the obvious next step and rents a house in a nearby village is, rather illogically, frowned upon.

While the issue of planning may, in all likelihood eventually be solved, there are two more obstacles the lack of work opportunities and the low levels of ‘maintenance.' Auroville has only a small economic base and newcomers often cannot find suitable work in the commercial units or in the services. If they can, the levels of ‘maintenance' paid – Rs 5,000 for those who work full-time for Auroville's services, a bit more for those who work for commercial units – are just sufficient to cover basic living costs, but not to pay for a house, either as rent or by paying-off a loan.

Visa and residential permits for Auroville are granted on the condition that ‘one lives in and works for Auroville.' But what if Auroville cannot offer either suitable work or housing? Do we simply have to wait till either is available? If so, the population cannot be expected to show any meaningful growth in the foreseeable future.

A solution might be to think outside the box and create a structure so that Aurovilians can work elsewhere in India . A former Secretary to the Auroville Foundation, Mr. N. Bala Baskar I.A.S., already suggested it, but for unclear reasons it never took off: make an Auroville Employment Unit under the Auroville Foundation. Such a unit could enter into agreements with outside parties to temporarily deploy individual Aurovilians for specific jobs and periods, so that their expertise, skills and talents could be fully utilised. Payment for services rendered can be made to the Auroville Employment Unit (AEU), which in turn would pay the individual's salary. The AEU would function alike any of Auroville's other commercial units which operate anywhere in India and the world and use their income to pay the salaries of their executives and employees, and to contribute to Auroville. As salaries paid outside Auroville are considerably more realistic than what is available in Auroville, an Aurovilian employed by the AEU could also take a loan to finance a house in Auroville, while other income of the Unit could be used to help improve the maintenances of those working for Auroville's services. It seems like a win-win situation for all.

See also: Census - AV population on our website

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