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June-July 2007

 

Facing a land crisis

- Alan

In April, the Land Consolidation Committee made a radical proposal to secure the remaining land in the city area.
In their words, “We have to act. Now.”

 

On a hot afternoon in June, 1999, Guy Ryckaert stood in the amphitheatre and told his fellow Aurovilians that ‘the house is on fire'. He was referring to the fact that a large plot of land in the Green Belt had recently been bought by a developer who was planning to build a housing estate (called ‘ Peaceful City ') upon it. Today, in spite of plans by the new Secretary to speed up securing land in the city and to deal with a specific development in the greenbelt (see Auroville Today, January, 2007), the situation is grimmer still. For while the Peaceful City site was eventually bought by Auroville, other large plots in the same area remain in private ownership, and a women's college is being constructed in the middle of the Green Belt east of the city area.

The imposing gate of the latest development in the greenbelt. Photo by Priya Sundaravalli

The present situation

It was against this background that the LCC called for a general meeting of Auroville residents to present a radical proposal. They began by laying out the present situation. Today, Auroville holds 955 acres in the city area: 196 acres still need to be acquired. In the greenbelt Auroville holds about 1,000 acres and needs to acquire another 2,000 acres to consolidate the whole area. For the past thirty years the tendency has been to purchase land in the city and greenbelt areas whenever it became available. However, the price of land has now skyrocketed all over India – over the past three months alone it has doubled in value in our area.

This has a number of implications. First and most obviously, it will cost much more money to secure all the land in the city and greenbelt areas, money which Auroville does not have.

Secondly, many landowners no longer want to sell because, given its swift rise in value, land is a superb investment. The only people who want to sell, explained the LCC, are those who need the money desperately, and these are being approached by private parties who, in spite of the grossly inflated prices, are actively looking to purchase land in the area covered by Auroville's Master Plan. For Auroville is now a desirable and potentially profitable address. “This means,” said LCC member Paul Blanchflower, “that if we do not act fast there could be hotels, private houses etc. in the city and the greenbelt. Without government protection, outsiders will do whatever they want to do with the land. And this is the endgame. Within six months to one year it will all be over.”

 

The proposal

And the LCC's proposal? Noting that of the 3,000 acres of land that Auroville owns, 1,000 acres fall outside the city and greenbelt area, the LCC proposed that we exchange some of this outlying land for the 196 acres we need to consolidate the city area. The LCC pointed out that land exchange is not a new strategy – we have, in fact, been exchanging land for almost 20 years, although not on the scale now proposed and not land which has already been developed. Moreover, some of the landowners – who hold, in all, about 50 acres in the city area – are open to exchanging land as this way they will retain and, in most cases, increase their investment. The LCC also emphasised that this is a strategy we can carry out ourselves, without the need for government intervention.

The LCC went on to present a suggested list of Auroville lands they want to exchange. This Auroville land is either given over to cashews, or has commercial potential, or a minimum of infrastructure on it. It also took into account the wishes of the landowners in the city area regarding their preferred location and the value of the land they would acquire in the exchange. The list included, in addition to some cashew and tamarind topes, three beach communities, three outlying farms and parts of some other outlying Auroville communities.

“It doesn't come to exactly 196 acres,” explained Francis, “but hopefully in terms of value it is the equivalent of the land we want to acquire in the city.”

“We know what we are bringing is not very pleasant,” concluded Paul, “and our proposal may seem too radical for some people. One year ago, when the LCC was created, it would have seemed too radical for most of us – at that time we all had different opinions about how to secure the land. But after months of discussing it among ourselves, of talking to local villagers and to people who have bought land, all the members of the LCC have come to the conclusion that this is the only strategy which will work in the present situation. But we have to act now.”

After the presentation there were requests for clarification. Why was the LCC concentrating upon acquiring land in the city rather than in greenbelt where we are threatened by a lot of unwanted new developments?

“Because in the city area the bubble hasn't burst yet. In the greenbelt it has burst – some areas of the greenbelt we may never secure in our lifetime. However, if we can achieve our target in the city, then we can move on to the greenbelt area.”

What will happen to those Aurovilians living on land that is slated for exchange? “Money will be put aside to relocate them. They will be encouraged to move into the city or the greenbelt.” Will people be forced to move? “Any exchange has to happen with the consent of the larger community. We are simply making a proposal, it's up to the community to decide whether it supports it or not.” Can Auroville buy land elsewhere and offer this land in exchange for privately-owned land in the city? “In theory, yes, but prices are going up everywhere, and we can only exchange for land that the landowner wants.” Should we also be concentrating upon fund-raising? “Yes!”

 

Reservations

At the first meeting at which the LCC's proposal was presented, the response was generally appreciative. In two subsequent meetings, however, opposition to the proposal hardened. One comment was that there is no urgency to acquire all the land in the city now: it's more important to improve our relationship with the local people. Others felt that no Auroville land should be exchanged because it is ‘sacred'. Instead, we should initiate a massive fund-raising to purchase all the land we require, or seek government protection for that land or both.

Many people, while not dismissing the option of land exchange out of hand, questioned the LCC's priorities. It was pointed out, for example, that no land which had been afforested or organically-farmed should be offered for exchange as this would give the wrong message about Auroville's environmental aims and ideals. Others wondered if the LCC had considered the commercial potential to Auroville of some of the land slated for exchange, and the need for good access to beach land if one day we may want to construct a desalination plant by the sea. Yet others felt that the LCC should concentrate first upon acquiring strategic land in the greenbelt (by the road, for example) rather than upon consolidating the city area.

There were also one or two ‘out of the box' proposals, including allowing Aurovilians to buy and develop land without restriction in the city, and making it possible for far more people to join Auroville. “Because once we have more people here, the land problem will take care of itself.” There was also a call for a “more ecological and sustainable Master Plan which addresses the environment of Auroville and India today, because if we are seen to be taking into consideration real needs like water etc. we will get protection from outside organizations.” Finally, Aurovilians were exhorted to rededicate themselves to the ideal.

“Only then will everybody – the government as well as the local villagers – want to actively help us protect the land.”

How should one interpret the opposition to the LCC's proposal? Clearly, there are genuine concerns about certain aspects of the proposal. For example if, as proposed, parts of existing communities are exchanged, this could lead to unwanted forms of development which might seriously compromise the work and atmosphere in those communities.

 

The personal factor

At the same time, personal factors are also involved. For example, members of two communities which were included in the exchange list protested that they had not been properly consulted before the list was announced. One family stewarding a beach community also felt that the LCC had not taken into account their deep emotional ties to the place and the huge effort they had put into developing the land.

Another Aurovilian charged certain members of the LCC with incompetence, claiming that past flawed policies were partially responsible for the present land crisis. He called for an enlargement of the present LCC and a change in those responsible for land purchase as, he claimed, the villagers were not willing to sell to those Aurovilians who are at present in charge of securing the land. Yet another felt that the LCC should start buying land with the funds they have accumulated as “money must be used in order to call more money”.

Another factor which seemed to prejudice some people against the LCC's proposal was their feeling that this was yet another example of a secretive, bureaucratic group trying to impose a top-down solution. And then, of course, there are the less rational factors which may have caused people to reject the proposal. These include resistance to change, a wish to retain control over land which some people have come to think of as ‘theirs', and personal antipathy to certain members of the LCC.

So what is the present status of the LCC's proposal? While one participant in a later meeting claimed that the community is “clearly against it”, this is, to say the least, unproven. (In fact, some stewards of land proposed for exchange have already agreed to the proposal, and others have come forward with certain conditions.) The criticism voiced at the two subsequent meetings is more likely a reflection of a familiar syndrome in which follow-up meetings tend to be attended by those with strong objections rather than by those who gave their assent to the original proposal.

Since the last general meeting on the topic, two other proposals to deal with the land crisis have been put forward, one of which opposes any exchange of Auroville land. Meanwhile the Council has announced that they will chair a meeting of different parties at which they hope a consolidated proposal can be agreed upon.

However, almost everybody seems to agree upon at least two things. Firstly, we are facing a major crisis concerning the land and, secondly, any decision concerning a radical change in our land policy will have to be taken by the community as a whole. “This means,” opined one Council member, “that we cannot take any decision until July when Aurovilians return from abroad.”

Which highlights yet another problem….

 

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