In June, the previous Working Committee, the main liaison between the residents and the Governing Board, held its last meeting after more than two years in office. What were the challenges, the achievements, the failures? What were the most important things they learned, both collectively and individually? Auroville Today spoke to six of the members (Raman, the seventh, had decided not to continue beyond March 30, when the original tenure of the Working Committee expired).
The outgoing Working Committee. From left to right (sitting) Angela, Dhanapal and Hilde; (standing) Sanjeev, Hemant and Carel
Auroville Today: In one of your first meetings you specified a number of initiatives you wished to take. One of these was clarifying what constituted a valid decision of the Residents Assembly (RA). Did you succeed in doing this?
Carel: Very much so. We drew up a proposal for a method of decision-making which was endorsed by the Residents Assembly in a referendum in August 2007. Among other things, this specified that at least 10% of registered residents should participate in voting and that a proposal had to receive a minimum of 50% of votes cast for it to be passed. The new policy also enabled people to vote from their homes, thus preventing a few individuals dominating the process through meetings. The community also agreed to set up a Residents Assembly Service to supervise the whole process.
Recently, however, when a list of options was presented to the RA concerning how to choose a new Working Committee and Council, the winning option received less than 50% of the votes. Yet it was adopted. Why was the new decision-making procedure not followed?
Sanjeev: There were some very vocal people who wanted to push a particular option. They were aware of the proper procedure but, as happens often in Auroville, the correct process was less important to them than their own wishes. After a certain point we thought there was no point in quarrelling about it, so we went along with it.
Is this representative of one of the problems that you faced? That you came up with proposals or recommendations that were then ignored or modified?
Carel: A major focus for this Working Committee was to ensure that all working groups in Auroville operate with community-approved mandates that specify their accountability to the RA and the terms of office of their members. We have partially succeeded, but there are still many groups that function on their own, though they take decisions that affect the community or individuals. Our attempt was also not helped by the fact that the Governing Board, for reasons that were valid at the time, created a few major Auroville working groups, such as the Funds and Assets Management Committee and L'Avenir d'Auroville, as subcommittees of the Governing Board without specifying their accountability to the RA. Even though the groups do report to the community, this affects our self-management
Hemant: Some of our proposals for new mandates or changes in existing mandates were stalled in other working groups. In Auroville we have an amorphous power structure, each group has its own dynamic, and to get a new proposal through this maze of groups as well as the community you have to believe very strongly in it and have great perseverance.
Sanjeev: One of the big challenges Auroville faces is the structure of the Foundation Act. According to this Act, certain decisions concerning the running of the community fall under the purview of the Governing Board. This is a direct challenge to Auroville and its internal processes.
How did this Working Committee deal with this challenge?
Sanjeev: We thought that the only way to strengthen Auroville vis-a-vis the government component of the Foundation is to unite ourselves. If individuals and the working groups cooperate, there is nobody who can stand against us but if we are fighting among ourselves, we only invite outsiders to interfere. So we invited a group of people representing different strands of Auroville society to come together to see if we could agree upon a plan of action. This group met once a month for 6-7 months but eventually it collapsed because people only wanted to talk about their own concerns.
Hemant: In Auroville only a crisis unites. We didn't want to wait for a crisis, we wanted to create a safe space where outstanding issues could be dealt with so we would emerge more united. Although our initiative didn't yield the results we had hoped, we did create some kind of a coming together. One of our objectives as a Working Committee was also to set up an advisory group to broader our circle of seven members and this larger representative group could have been such a body.
Sanjeev: Seven members cannot represent the diversity of Auroville. When a major decision has to be taken other perspectives have to be included so we can stand united.
Division comes when people seek personal solutions by bypassing the community and going straight to the Secretary or Chairman of the Governing Board.
Don't people do this because they feel there is no possibility of having their grievances redressed in the present set-up?
Sanjeev: The main reason why people want to bypass the Residents Assembly is they want to do things in their way and they align themselves with those given power by the government as a way of achieving this. In my view, this is the major problem.
Carel: However, if the planning group, for example, doesn't allow you to build a house, where can you go? There's nowhere at present. That is why we talked about setting up an appeal body. But we didn't manage to manifest it.
Isn't one of the reasons why some people oppose such 'apex' groups is they fear these groups will have too much power?
Carel: Actually we in the Working Committee didn't have the power to implement anything. When there were conflicts, we spent a lot of time and energy coming up with recommendations but the individual or group concerned often ignored them. I think this is the main problem we faced. It's a big handicap for Auroville because it encourages some people to do what they like as they know there is no authority which can enforce anything against them.
This suggests that your experience of doing this work has been very frustrating.
Sanjeev: These situations are not cropping up all the time. Our day-to-day work is bureaucratic – approving nominations for executives, giving small permissions etc. – because the Foundation refers to the Working committee for every little thing. To do this work well you need a wide consciousness and to be very scrupulous as a wrong decision can make life miserable for an individual.
I think on this day-to-day level this was a good, effective Working Committee.
How did you deal with the diversity of perspectives and personalities in this Working Committee?
Hilde: I think the fact that we met three times a week meant we had to work through our differences. Although we differed at times, there was a willingness to look at the differences, to accept each other's viewpoint and try to come up with a solution. We realized that if we could not solve something here it wouldn't happen anywhere else. We also knew there were interests ready to take advantage of any disharmony between us.
Angela: This Working Committee had a high level of professionalism and people with specific skills. But it also had people who could keep the balance, who could preserve a certain atmosphere through joking and keeping things light. I think this helped the group grow together in its diversity.
Dhanapal: I was also in the previous Working Committee. There, when people had clashes, they sometimes ended up leaving the group. However, this group stuck together. We had our differences, but everybody was always thinking about the larger needs of Auroville. At the same time, we were not prepared to be a dummy Working Committee which said 'yes' to everybody. We were willing to touch difficult issues – if an individual or group was not behaving correctly we said so – and some people didn't like us very much because of this. I didn't mind. I know if you want to do something good for Auroville you will get criticism, and this Working Committee has done something good, I can show you a list of things!
Dhanapal, your particular responsibility in this Working Committee was the relationship with the villages. Was any progress made here?
Dhanapal: Over the last two years we have established a good relationship with all the leaders of the local villages. However, when I joined the Working Committee I wanted to set up Development Councils in eight neighbouring villages so that Auroville and the villages could develop together through sharing knowledge, finances and resources. This is very important but I didn't succeed: only one Development Council has been set up so far. Getting all the headmen, panchayat and political leaders to come together for a joint adventure is not that easy, but I blame myself for not putting enough effort into this; over the past two years, my mind has been more on Auroville challenges than on the villages.
One of the big issues you haven't mentioned yet is your relationship with the present Secretary. To what extent have you managed to get him to understand your perspective on Auroville matters and to work with you as an equal partner?
Carel: I don't think we have been very successful in this. This Secretary holds a very definite opinion that he is at the helm of the Auroville Foundation, that he is steering it. This view is not shared in Auroville. We felt we couldn't work with him as equal partners as he didn't accept our full participation in decision-making. I think if we had had a different relationship with the Secretary we could have done much more as a group.
We also had differences with him concerning whether the Auroville Foundation is a government entity or an autonomous institution. Finally we obtained a legal opinion from one of India 's most respected lawyers which clarified that the Auroville Foundation is an autonomous institution.
Dhanapal: Some Aurovilians said we were hand-in-glove with the Secretary, that we were selling Auroville to the government, but this was not so. We never gave up our position if we felt it was right one. However, we had to find a way to work with him for the future of Auroville.
Hemant: I think the office of the Secretary will remain unpredictable and we have to find ways of dealing with whoever sits in that chair. That's one of the big tasks of any Working Committee. I would say we have been quite successful in keeping a balance. There were no disastrous confrontations. When we disagreed with him we stated our points of disagreement clearly and when we agreed with him we supported him equally strongly – and it's not as if there were no points of agreement. The first year was a difficult one as we had to understand each other's personalities and ways of working but by the end there was a good atmosphere in our interactions with him.
Carel: We also strengthened our contacts with members of the Governing Board and the International Advisory Council. What we see as a handicap of the present Governing Board structure is that members come here for one or two meetings a year, they discuss two hours with the community, two hours among themselves, and then they go home. This doesn't work. To truly understand this place the members have to come here more often and for a longer period of time, just as the members of the Advisory Council are doing. We have proposed that individual Board members would relate to certain aspects of Auroville and spend more time here in order to increase their understanding and participation. For we can't go on thinking Auroville is only us; the Secretary and the Governing Board are also part and parcel of it and we have to find ways to integrate them.
Hemant: The reason why we wanted the present Governing Board and International Advisory Council to continue for a second term is that these people have gone through a process of understanding Auroville and a second term will allow them to make use of this knowledge. An important aspect of our work was to involve these bodies in our issues and I think we have been fairly successful in doing this.
What has been the most satisfying part of this experience for you?
Angela: We were not only fully committed but also enthusiastic about the work, and this made it a great experience for me. I came to every meeting with enthusiasm and joy because I loved to work with these people.
Hemant: It has been a very enriching experience – I've gained a huge amount of knowledge.
Carel: It was never a matter of one person dominating and the others giving way. We complemented and enriched each other and when we had differences we always tried to climb up to a higher level of understanding. This was a very good process.
Sanjeev: We worked as a team and even though certain issues took a long time to resolve, even people like Carel learned to be patient!
Dhanapal: Watching people like Carel and Sanjeev at work has given me a good foundation for how I want to be in the future. They were very knowledgeable and when they felt they were right they would go ahead, even if people opposed them. This is something I can learn from.
Hilde: What made it a very positive experience for me was that nobody was sitting round this table trying to promote their own project. Everybody was here for Auroville. This made it a very joyful working space.