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December 2007

Fresh winds blow
at Pour Tous in Aspiration

- Carel

New freezers with glass window doors are some of the recent improvements that have made the Aspiration Pour Tous a much nicer shopping space. “They save electricity,” explains executive Denis. “There is no need to open the door to see what is inside. Auroville donated them a few months ago, together with a van. Both were necessary improvements.”

Denis, a Canadian Aurovilian, runs the place together with his partner, Sabine, 38 employees, 3 Aurovilians and 1 newcomer. In their case, the word ‘run' can be taken literally. “Sabine and I are here from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week,” he says. “The work is fulfilling, but mentally and physically exhausting. Every Sunday I am finished, as if I have been beaten with a big stick.”

Sabine explains that after Denis got involved with Aspiration Pour Tous, a change in management style slowly manifested. “Denis has a way of working with people which perhaps best translates as ‘kindness'. There is no longer a top-down approach, we do the work together,” she says. “But we have continuously to set the example and pull the employees up to our rhythm of work. We help stack the goods in the shelves to make sure that the work is done nicely, with the labels facing the front. We help with the daily cleaning. We help unload the goods from the van. We supervise the accounts and prepare the orders with the purchase workers. The team is now taking collective responsibility and it is nice to hear from all sides that the atmosphere has changed.”

Why did he choose to come to one of the most difficult work places in Auroville? “I needed a concrete challenge,” says Denis. “I had been discussing ideas around tables for too long. I wrote documents for groups such as Vision 2012, but then realized that the problems are not in 2012 but right here and now. So I agreed to join Pour Tous, knowing fully well that it wouldn't be easy. For here you deal with the basics: food. When that is not available, it tends to bring out the worst in people; they start behaving arrogantly or even aggressively.”


The new van at the entrance to the Aspiration Pour Tous stall

With the guest season coming up, an increase in the workload can be expected. ‘Our normal turnover is Rs 30 lakhs a month,” says Sabine. “But on the first Saturday of November we did Rs 2.1 lakhs of business in one day! The shop was full and we couldn't get the shelves stocked-up fast enough.” “We need more Aurovilians. Ideally, Aspiration Pour Tous should have two teams,” says Denis. “But it isn't easy to find committed people. Most Aurovilians we talked to were only looking for a maintenance, not for a hard-working service job. The first thing they ask when they apply is if there is time off. That work-ethic won't do here.” The problem, he says, will become urgent in April when both he and Sabine have to leave temporarily to fulfil family obligations.

Contrary to the cooperative experiment of the Prosperity Pour Tous near the Solar Kitchen [see AVToday # 218, April 2007], Aspiration Pour Tous is a self-supporting service. It is not subsidized by the community and has to cover all its overhead expenditure from a 10% charge on Auroville items and an average charge of 15% on products brought from outside Auroville. “We manage, but only just,” says Denis. “With the recent introduction of Value Added Tax the, our margins on some products have been substantially reduced. As the law says that we can't reclaim sales tax paid in Pondicherry , we now shop more in Tindivanam, Villupuram and Chennai. We have also managed to become official distributor for a few products, so that we could cut-out the middleman and ensure that what you buy at the Aspiration Pour Tous is less expensive than in Pondicherry .”

“It's a strange anomaly,” says Sabine. “that Prosperity Pour Tous is community subsidized and doesn't need to add a percentage to cover its overheads. The Aurovilian who shops over there pays in effect less for some products than in Aspiration. As for the things they can't find, they simply come here to purchase what they need. These Aurovilians tell us that their prime motivation to go to Prosperity Pour Tous is either its proximity or the cheaper prices. Thus the present system allows a certain group of Aurovilians to take advantage of the best of both worlds. I find it quite unfair for the Aurovilians who can only afford or prefer going to Aspiration Pour Tous.”

“In July 2007 we did an analysis of who is purchasing at Aspiration Pour Tous and how much money they spent,” says Denis. The results [see box] indicate that almost 60% of our clientele are Aurovilians; 30% are Auroville commercial units, guesthouses and community kitchens, and only 10% are guests. We noticed that two-thirds of the Aurovilians who shop here are self-supporting, while about one third are maintained by the community. That third represents almost 81% of all Aurovilians maintained by the community! The figures give compelling reasons to stop giving Aspiration Pour Tous the unequal treatment it is receiving as compared to Prosperity Pour Tous.”

The comparison raises another issue. While the Prosperity Pour Tous benefits from a brand-new building, Aspiration Pour Tous is still struggling in premises that are now over 30 years old. “The building is falling down around our ears,” says Denis, “and there is not much we can do. In fact, both the stall and the storerooms need to be completely pulled down and replaced by something more suitable. But we don't have the energy to even look into it. For it is not only a question of replacing a building. The main question is determining where the new Pour Tous should be built.”

Denis refers to the fact that Auroville is split into two parts with Aspiration and a number of other Auroville settlements situated a few kilometres outside the city. While it is obvious that a shop needs to continue in Aspiration, it is not obvious there should be a Pour Tous shop in the city that operates on the same lines as Aspiration Pour Tous. “I have difficulty imagining there could be a City Pour Tous on the Crown road in competition with the Prosperity Pour Tous a few hundred metres further down,” says Denis. “Perhaps it is unavoidable. But my preference is to find a third option since I do not believe that both systems can merge. The starting point should be that all Aurovilians should receive the basic goods at the same price. A certain range of essential products should be made available to everyone at cost price, while other products should be charged separately. If this could be agreed upon, then both locations could offer the basic range of goods and remain free as to what other products they put on their shelves.”

 

Purchase break-down at Aspiration Pour Tous (July 2007)
Customer Description
Purchase (Rs)
%
Commercial Units, Guest Houses and Community Kitchens
802,555.00
30.6%
Guests
261,465.00
10.0%
Aurovilians not included in the Maintenance List
1,103,461.00
42.0%
Aurovilians included in the
Maintenance List
457,412.00
17.4%

TOTAL

2,624,893.00
100.0%

 

 

Monthly expenditure of Aurovilians
depending on a maintenance (July 2007 )
Purchase range
%
Average monthly expenditure
per person in rupees
Rs. 1 - 100
4.9%
42.47
Rs. 101-500
15.7%
257.90
Rs. 501-1000
17.0%
689.33
Rs. 1001-2000
31.5%
1,295.73
Rs. 2001
30.8%
3,022.99

TOTAL

100%

1,499.71

 

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