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November 2007

Reflecting on Auroville's economy

Lyle

On August 31st, the Auroville Economy group completed its tenure of three years. A new group, now termed the Budget Coordination Committee, needs to be created. But before doing so, a reflection on the policies and successes of the work of the Economy Group is required. Have the ideals, as envisioned by The Mother, been in the forefront of their vision or have these ideals been put on the back-burner in favour of so-called practicality? Critics say that the Economy Group has only paid lip service to The Mother's ideals, and that their objectives were too narrow, both in terms of philosophy and in their vision of the economy.

A major criticism concerns the Economy Group's maintenance policy. “The effect upon Aurovilians who have been subjected to these policies has been brutal, creating a distressing atmosphere in Auroville, which, regardless of the intention behind the decisions taken by the Economy Group, is not acceptable,” writes a group of critical Aurovilians. They acknowledge, however, that “there are also quite a few residents who are trying to abuse Auroville's economic system and profit by it, which makes the work of any Economy Group difficult and may induce an exaggerated urge to control and over-structure.”

Here Lyle, a former member of the Economy Group, responds to the criticism by submitting his personal reflections on the work of the Group.

The work of the Economy Group

The work of the Economy Group was to supervise the collection and disbursement of income and expenses for the Central Fund. The Central Fund, essentially Auroville's municipal budget, includes over 60 activities, including school budgets, village education, road repair, security, forests and so on. The income consists largely of contributions from commercial units and guest houses.

When the former Economy Group started three years ago, we felt that a lack of transparency clouded our collective judgment; a lack of accountability prevented us from understanding our real needs; and a lack of interest in the efficient use of funds resulted in spending beyond our means. We felt that these concerns required immediate attention because they threatened the very integrity of our economic life. Our primary aims were, therefore, to increase our accountability, our transparency, and our efficient allocation of resources.

As of today, many of these critical areas have been addressed, particularly on the expenditure side. All activities now submit proper budget requests that include the previous year's income and expenditure and present financial reports. An accounting system for all Central Fund activities has been developed which shows a full picture of the cost of our various activities.

We have also developed an accurate maintenance database, which shows where Aurovilians work who receive community maintenance. Together with this database, we have developed transparent policies to promote an egalitarian allocation of maintenances. What is still lacking is a database of those who do not work or work only minimally for Auroville and of those who cannot participate in Auroville's economy.

We were less successful in organizing the income side. We have not yet succeeded in clarifying the contribution guidelines for commercial units, guest houses, and individuals who do not contribute toward Auroville through work. Neither have we developed an adequate contribution tracking system. All this means that there is still significant work to be done before we can claim to have a Central Fund Budget that has real transparency.

In the course of our work, there have been three primary criticisms of the Economy Group. The first has been that we did not change the economy in any fundamental way by moving it toward a more in-kind system. The second has been the maintenance policy. The third, most recent, criticism is that we have requested Central Fund activities to submit regular expense reports.

We have promoted less ‘in-kind' payment of maintenance than was desired. We received much criticism when we increased maintenances but at the same time eliminated the Solar Kitchen lunch subsidy – something we did to allow people greater choice and to push the Solar Kitchen to be more efficient. Another decision that evoked outspoken criticism was our questioning of the budget for the Pour Tous Distribution Centre, the community experiment that aims at evolving a system that will take are of the essential needs of all Aurovilians without money circulation in one with the ideals of The Mother. [see AVToday #218, April 2007] Our main concerns, that the project is divisive and inefficient, still need to be addressed.

The Economy Group's maintenance policy has resulted in some of the most significant criticism. The Economy Group took the position that people should work and that work was required to get a maintenance. We agree that, as per Mother's directions, work should not be linked to a maintenance. However, there are differences of opinion concerning how this should affect our maintenance policy. Most people who receive a Central Fund maintenance do not work 35 hours a week. According to the policy implemented by the former Economy Group they were not eligible for a full time maintenance, but were allocated a part-time maintenance. This was not appreciated by some of those who do not work full-time.

The most recent criticism has been more limited but no less vocal. The Economy Group was accused of ‘brutality' for requiring managers of activities to submit monthly financial statements. It has been our position that simply reporting on Central Fund disbursements and not on actual expenditures is inconsistent with the Economy Group mandate. Central Fund money is not the private domain of any individual. The community has the right to know how its money is spent, and not simply that it was given.

I hope that the work done by the former Economy Group to clarify the community's financial situation will be continued by the next group responsible for the Central Fund budget, and that whatever new directions are taken do not sacrifice transparency, accountability, or efficiency. It is dangerous for us to believe that an in-kind economy does not have to fulfil these criteria. An economy that embraces spiritual ideals must also be honest, transparent, efficient, and accountable. It must have in place mechanisms to reduce our egoistic tendencies to abuse the power that comes with money.

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