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Auroville Experience


April 2009

 

“Behind our products is a whole
value-system”

- Alan

Tency was one of the founders of the Centre for Scientific Research (CSR). Among other things, CSR specialises in manufacturing and installing wastewater treatment plants and its services and products are more and more in demand in India today.

 

Auroville Today: Can you remember the first time you worked outside Auroville?

Tency: In the 1990s the government of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands asked CSR to provide them with biogas plants. We got the contract because they wanted a finished product – it was too expensive for them to construct their own plants as they had to import all the materials from the mainland. So we shipped them our prefabricated plants and it seems they are very satisfied – nearly every year for the past 15 years they have ordered more. I sometimes wonder where they put them all!

 

You already had a professional product.

Ramu and Tency. Photo by HemantYes. All our skills and expertise had already been built up in Auroville. It's an unbelievable blessing to be able to fine-tune products within our wider family before they go outside. Aurovilians are the perfect guinea-pigs because they are crazy enough to take up every new thing that's produced here.

 

That first time must have been a big learning experience.

It's a whole experience which had to be built up. First of all we had to price everything correctly – that's a whole story in itself, estimates, quotations, at that time none of us had a clue about such things. Then we had to make the paperwork in the form the government needed – the administrative side is almost as important as the technology because if you goof up on the paperwork you lose money. That first time the officials helped us a lot, they were tolerant of our mistakes and after a couple of times the process went very smoothly. Then we had to learn how to pack the plants so they would survive a road trip, a three day sea voyage and then, often, another voyage on smaller ships. We got it right – none of them ever broke. The first time, Ramu and myself went there and installed two of them and did a one week compressed course. Since that time they have been able to handle all the installations themselves.

 

And the payment?

Whoever we have dealt with over the years, final payment is always a problem. It's often delayed, sometimes for years! We didn't realise that at the beginning – we were so naïve, we learned everything the hard way.

 

Since then you've worked not only with the government but with a whole range of clients – NGOs, corporates, individuals.

One of most satisfying experiences we had was working with an NGO. In the early 1990s we started working with Sushma Iyengar who co-founded the Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan to help the organization develop new and appropriate technologies in Kutch , Gujurat. Since then CSR and AuroRE have been doing projects with Abhiyan and they have been sending people here for trainings. We tried working with a lot of other NGOs over the years but none have worked so well – probably because we have similar values to the people in Abhiyan: it definitely helps to have shared values.

 

What about the corporate world?

We have more and more contact with this world. When CSR was founded in 1984 Prem Malik put us in touch with the Imperial Tobacco Company (ITC). Apart from a donation for the land on which CSR was built, not much came out of that at the time, but much later another friend put us back in contact and that relationship has since blossomed. They were interested in the two fields in which we have built up experience, renewable energy and wastewater treatment. Our renewable energy devices never took off with ITC, basically because it's a very competitive area and we are involved in small to medium-scale applications whereas they need huge systems to power their factories.

Where we did find a niche was in the area of water treatment. Over twenty years we have built up the experience and skill to design and implement natural wastewater treatment systems from the small to the big-scale. ITC were interested because they are very conscious about sustainability and want to reduce their energy consumption – all conventional treatment systems are dependent on huge electricity inputs and most of the time also on chemicals.

Our first installation was in their big tobacco factory in Nepal . It was a very tough test of our technology, but it worked well and since then we have done further work for them, including installing a large system in their five star hotels (ITC owns a hotel group).

Working with ITC was a completely different experience for us. ITC is pure business, very cost-conscious like all large corporations, and you have to be 100% sure of your product because you have to offer guarantees, you have to sign on the dotted line. Also, all your paperwork and your presentations have to be on a level which we are absolutely not used to in Auroville. It was a tremendous learning experience. Fortunately we had a team which could divide up the tasks and the two people in ITC head office whom we dealt with believed in our technology and helped us a lot.

Often we were late in getting in the necessary documentation because the Auroville scene is so unpredictable. Then I would have the painful task of apologising for the delay. I know and admire how professionals work; if your paper has to be somewhere at 5 o'clock in the afternoon you get it there, whatever the circumstances. Forget about the excuses. There are very few people in Auroville who have that capacity. This is why it is important that the client has faith in your product and that you develop a close connection based on trust.

 

What about working with individual clients. Is it easier?

No. Often you have to dilute your product or services to fit their budget. Then there is a whole dance, a whole ritual, involved before you sign the contract. You don't dance twice round the table, you dance 500 times! So if we work for individuals there has to be an interesting angle, there has to be something innovative about the project so we can learn something new. For us it's a process of growing, not of making extra money. If we simply wanted to make money we would be into mass-production, but we've never done well with this. We try it for a while, and then it fizzles out. I guess it's not interesting enough for us.

 

Do people develop a relationship with Auroville through purchasing your product?

This is another area which is so unpredictable and so satisfying at the same time because we're not a company which sells only products. We're also part and parcel of the Auroville experience. In our product is embedded a whole value system and life-style; we try to make sure that our values are part of the product so that it carries those values to the place it is installed. Because people won't have seen that effort at perfection in a normal concrete box, they see that the details are taken care of and, if something goes wrong, they see that we put it right. This makes people curious. It's as if there is a special magic around the product that attracts people and causes them to ask, what's behind this, where is this coming from? Then, very often, they visit and become more and more interested in Auroville itself.

And it's not just the product. If you work outside you need to travel, and when people hear where you come from, there is always an interest, they look at you as someone special – most people in India know something about Auroville. So, inevitably, you become a kind of representative for Auroville and it's up to you to carry something of our values outside. This is not something you can fake. It's important that you are true to yourself and what you believe in.

It's interesting. When you start working outside you don't think about any of these aspects – most of the time you're freaking out because of all the things that are going wrong – but at the end of the cycle you start to realize that you're not just doing business: many things are happening on a lot of different levels. It's interesting that after a 25 -year roller-coaster journey the will to progress and continue is still very much alive in me. It's a flame that is still burning strong.

 

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