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An interview with Mr Bala Baskar

 
Interview published in March 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archive:
Departure of Mr. Bala Baskar in 2001

 

 

 

 

You have been the most popular Secretary in Auroville. How do you explain this?
I am not sure I have been the most popular. If that is so, I am not sure I can explain why. It is a grace, I suppose.

It probably means that you have an understanding of Auroville that others did not have.
I am not too sure about that too. I think Mr L. K. Tripathy also had a very good understanding of Auroville. I talked to him before joining. Maybe because Mr Tripathy preceded me, I am considered popular. But it is not correct to say that I understand Auroville better than others.

Some people from outside have even criticized you for going too much the Auroville way.
I try not to block people wanting to do something. I have always seen myself as a facilitator. And this is also what the Auroville Foundation Act says. I do agree that I don’t block anybody trying to do something -- which I think is what many Aurovilians are doing to others. I am always trying to find a way to help if a person wants to do something. It is in accordance with the spirit of the Act. The Foundation Act gives lots of freedom to explore and do things. It is not being against the Government. The Government role should be limited in Auroville.

Perhaps people like you because you have a correct interpretation of the Act. Some others have other interpretations of the Act.
No, it is not a matter of my interpretation. You see, when this office Order business for the units of Auroville was discussed during my first tenure, I had talked to Mr Tripathi about it and he explained to me that he did not want to do this. He wanted to leave it outside of the Foundation. He did not want to be responsible for whatever the Aurovilians were doing. He wanted to keep the role of the Secretary limited. He got a legal opinion. Mr. Mohan Parasaran’s legal opinion suggested that the government cannot abdicate this responsibility and the Secretary had to do this. So if you carefully analyze whatever
happened with Mr Tripathy, this was more of interpersonal nature, but not about understanding Auroville. He had a certain attitude and many people in Auroville could not work with him. That is why probably you say I am the most popular -- because I came after Mr Tripathy. That is why I cannot take all the credit for this thing of popularity.

You are able to communicate with people, you are also a good story teller, isn’t it?
It is a question of relationships. Mr Tripathy probably -- of course he is no more so we should not talk about him -- he thought that he had a certain place and the other person had his own place. I don’t have any such problem.
Anybody can come and we make an attempt to do something together.

Is it a rare quality amongst IAS?
Yes, it is not very common in the Administrative Service. Throughout my career, I was known for that, that I was more accessible than others.

Some Aurovilians attribute the Auroville bureaucracy to the fact that Auroville is under the Foundation? Do you agree with that?
No, I don’t agree with that. Auroville residents have created this monster themselves. The Foundation or the Government has nothing to do with all this.
This is my impression. The Government did not ask you to do all this. The only thing is, in the last few years the Governing Board issued standing orders creating many bodies, that is something with which I disagree. And even that was done because the Auroville community wanted these things. You wanted these structures. Most of these standing orders were written by resident Aurovilians. They were not drafted by the Government.

How to go back on that bureaucracy?
This is something you should do! This is something the Aurovilians can do. Reduce the bureaucracy.

What would be your advice to achieve this?
One of the things I have been saying from the beginning is: “Have some basic and very simple rules which nobody should transgress.” This thing is recurring all the time. I keep talking to everyone in Auroville about this. Then it will not be dependent on anybody. These basic rules should apply to everybody.

Could you give an example?
Yes. Supposing you say that anyone leaving Auroville will be given some repatriation allowance. People come here knowing that this is the vision, and this is how things are (i.e. no private property, etc.) It is also understood that it is not an ashram and some people, for various reasons, may be compelled to go out, may be a parent is sick, health problem, any other problem.
OK, that person wants to leave. Then you should not see the value of the property he has created, how much work he has done or not done. This is where you are getting into difficulties. Suppose you have a simple rule, like : anyone who has been here for 5 years if he/she wants to leave, the Auroville community will give him/her a ticket and “x” amount of money. Finished. That’s all. Nothing more than that. It will apply to every person, not according to any subjective assessment.
I have seen so much time being wasted, because someone wants to leave and then we discuss how “her father was so good and he was so helpful, and he did so much work”, or, “this person did not do anything for Auroville, he should not be given repatriation”, things like that. It becomes complicated and it creates its own dynamics and then we are dividing ourselves into groups, for and against.
Like this so many things happen. You should have a simple rule. Now you have a group deciding on repatriation allowance and it has been there for about 4/5 months, they are still discussing what should be the repatriation allowance.
I may be wrong, but my impression is that they want to have the discretion, to accommodate someone at a lower level, someone at a higher level. But if you say: should you leave before 5 years, you will not get anything, but if you have been here for 5 years or more, we will give you a ticket to go back to your place, and so much money.
In the case of Indians, you will get some allowance to go home. Something like that. And you should not change it. Or only change the quantum of money, but not the format.
That is the only thing you should do. On everything you should have a simple system like that. But we want to keep everything flexible so that the groups have the discretion. This is how I see it. These groups want to have the discretion. Then they get into trouble.

You have mentioned to many people your idea of having a lottery for choosing people for major working groups. (1)

(1) Mr Bala Baskar often alludes to what is related in the inscriptions on stone found in a Tamil Nadu village, Uttiramerur. During the Chola period, this village had a written constitution with a very particular system of election. Certain criteria were fixed, indicating those who could be qualified (for instance be not less than 35 and not more than 70 years of age), and those who were disqualified (for instance those who in their past positions had not submitted their accounts, along with their whole family). The names of those eligible for posts were written on pieces of paper and placed in a pot. A child then drew 30 names by lot. This system, declares the assembly of the village, was established “so that evil people perish and others prosper”.

You see, you need to have some faith in something. You need to have faith that this place will run like what Mother has said. If you have that faith, it does not matter whether it is Christine who is there in the Working Committee or Claude who is there in the Working Committee or Vijaya or Daniele. Then that Working Committee should become responsible to you, the entire community.
If you do it by lots, the selected people do not owe any reward to anybody.
They have come by some process. You don’t owe them anything, and they don’t owe you anything. You don’t have to support them if they do something wrong, and they don’t have to do something wrong because you supported them to be there. This is where the problem lies today; should any issue be discussed in these working groups, already there are some people wanting to defend something and some people opposing it. This is because they all owe something to somebody, and their presence there also is dependent upon some lobbies or something like that. So you do away with this.
All you need is a little faith. It is not correct to say that somebody is more competent than the other person. Competence comes with the experience one gets on the job, and they will do a good job. Difference is only between 19 and 20, as we say in Hindi.

You mention about lobbies. Do you mean that between your first and second tenure, there is more politics within the community?
Yes, much more. And this is hindering the growth of Auroville, because of lobbies opposing each other. It has become much more than what it was.

But how to do… we keep asking your advice
You need to take some steps. One of the things I always say: between the present working groups and Auroville community there is a major disconnect.
The ‘community’ doesn’t trust the working groups and some of the working groups also don’t seem to trust the way the decisions are made in the community. For some valid reasons also; because they say, if you say it is a decision of the resident assembly, it will be about 25/30 people who have a certain view. They are very interested and the rest of the people are very apathetic, indifferent to this. So these 30 people will have their way, though the support they muster may have come for personal reasons and not for the issue. This might cause a lot of damage in the long run.
This is the way the whole thing is going. So it is better in most of these issues to have some clear agreed upon principles: this will be what governs this. It does not need to be official regulations. We keep saying that you have regulations for everything, but to begin with, you have your own community regulations which are basic and simple that all of you accept.
You have resident assembly meetings where you say: this is the system and it will apply equally to everybody and it will not be changed. If you start doing that on many of the issues, slowly everything will change. And move away from this present kind of selection system. You say election is not good, therefore we want to have selection. But selection itself is having a lot of problems, lobbies etc.

You served in MEA and also director of an institute of management. Did your Auroville experience during your first tenure help you to understand better human beings?
Yes, this is an enriching experience because you don’t find so much talent as you find in Auroville in any other place. So many people are so focused, so talented and so interesting. Nowhere else can you meet so many talented people in a single day. You can’t see that in any other place.

Which makes it all the more amazing that things don’t work.
This is why they don’t work I think. These are highly individualistic people. To ask them to subordinate to a common will is difficult. That is what the experiment is all about. I think it is what the Mother wanted. She did not want nitwits to come here and get together. It would have been easy. They would have obeyed one person, it would have been easy. That is not what the experiment is about. It is about people who have their own mind, and coming together. But we don’t know how to do it!

If you look at the last 2 days for example, there was the Auroville marathon, the performance by the Tibetans, a French play, a seminar organized by Aster…
Yes, you should do more of things like that. It will create a dynamic of its own. I have been saying this for quite some time, and in the Vision Task Force meetings also. I keep telling them that you should focus on things that will lead to a spin-off. Like getting people together more often and let them forget their individual agenda. Everybody works together, a play, a music programme, a seminar and people come together to do something. It does not matter what direct effect it has on the growth of Auroville. Make them see the value of togetherness more and more. Next time when an issue is to be tackled by these people, their attitude will change. That is how it works, I feel.

Some people feel that the construction of the Town Hall has brought more bureaucracy. It is why we need a more convivial place where people could meet in the evenings, it would balance those Town Hall administrative forces
I agree with you. It had its effect on me also. Even I am not comfortable in this building. In the old building of the Foundation Office in Bharat Nivas, I had a different feeling. I came from a government background, so it was quite a change for me to come to that place. It was more in keeping with the spirit of Auroville than to be in a place like this with conference room, etc. These things decide the way you are, I am sure that in subtle ways the way I talk to people has probably changed because this is the same kind of office I have been in all my life, which was not the same in that [previous] place.

Many officers from administrative offices have worked all their lives in this type of environment with a proper office, staff, etc… I remember when Mr PN Ojha came here in the early 1980s; he was so surprised, because there was absolutely nothing. But he was very flexible and though shocked, he managed to adapt.
But many people might adapt.

When officers come, they don’t expect something so different.
No, not now. People know what Auroville is about. There may be some
personal reasons why they want to come here. But they know what Auroville is about.

I think before your first tenure someone advised you not to accept this post?
The Additional Secretary in the HRD ministry. He thought there are a lot of problems because he knew of Mr. Tripathi’s time and the difficulties he faced; he told me not to go to Auroville.

What about the land and our incapacity to arrive at a decision?
You see, our training as bureaucrats goes into how to manage a problem, not necessarily how to solve a problem. Because solving a problem might create various other questions which you will be uncomfortable with. If you solve a problem, somebody might say that you have done a favour to somebody or you have lost some value for the system. Questions can be asked. So people only want to see that the problem does not get any worse -- ultimately not resolving it. The solution has to come from outside the bureaucratic system.

Would you say that the whole land situation and the various blockages are due to that attitude within Auroville?
Yes, it is that attitude here.
For example, Aurovilians should be saying : we need to resolve the issue and therefore we do it, though we will be questioned as to why we did it. But you are neither willing to make people accountable nor are you willing to solve the issue, therefore it is getting worse and worse. For example, there was some piece of land, which went into a dispute, this is a very long story. Some 40/50 cents of land are in dispute, and the owner said: because you have failed to give me these 40 cents, I am not vacating that piece of land -- and he sits on
6 acres of Auroville land. For the last 20 years he has been sitting on that land.
So 6 acres today is probably worth one and a half crore, which we may lose just because that 40 cents is not given to him. I called that person and I told him: Look, you take 40 cents elsewhere but you vacate this. It was about one year and three months back. I should not have done it because tomorrow somebody might complain that the Secretary gave away 40 cents of land. But I wrote a long note saying that he is sitting on 6 acres of land and Auroville is losing money so in such a situation it is better to resolve the problem by giving
him 40 cents elsewhere. Give him that land and let him get lost. I told
Auroville people: give him this and let us go on.
One year and three months have passed and they have not done it. They keep saying: “No, we have to fight a case or something like that”. So they will not resolve it at all. This is the problem.
Near Sri Ma, there is a dispute, which, I think could have been resolved but it is getting into prolonged litigation.

Actually you just answered our first question. Why you are popular is because you are more flexible than many Aurovilians. As a government representative you are more flexible than us
But my being flexible does not help. Because the Auroville bureaucracy has to be flexible also. We all have to be flexible without discretion.

Would you say that if this particular problem of land has been pending for more than one year, it is also because too many groups are looking after it?
Maybe. They are scared also that they will be accused afterwards. Or maybe they are favouring that owner who is sitting on these 6 acres of land, that’s possible.

Would you say that there is corruption in Auroville?
Yes. I have no doubt about it. I will be naïve to think there is no corruption - of various shades.

To conclude, could you tell us a story?
I told the Working Committee about Tenali Raman’s pot. Tenali Raman, the jester in the Court of the King Krishna Deva Raya, advised the king to keep a big pot outside the palace, into which all citizens were asked to pour one cup of milk. The milk was to be used for the ritual bath of the idol of Shiva in the Temple. At the end of the day when the king looked into the pot, there was only water! Everybody had thought that all others will put milk, “so let me put one glass of water, how does it matter?”
Auroville somehow reminds me of that. You see, in Auroville everyone has to make an effort, to do his bit. If some people think that the others will do the job and I need not contribute to Auroville in any way, it will end up like Tenali Raman’s pot. So I told the Working Committee, you have to tell people that everyone should contribute.
Now people are saying that I am working in the Matrimandir -- they probably go and do some gardening in the morning, and then we don’t know what they do.
Are they actively participating in the growth of Auroville? Everybody has to contribute in some way, they should not have this feeling that someone else will do the job and I have come here for my lifestyle. This does not work.

When are you going to do after leaving Auroville?
I am planning to go back to teaching.

Thank you, Mr Bala Baskar!


Interview by Claude Arpi and Christine

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