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Debate | Why Auroville Needs to Be a Model of Exemplary Development Practice

What Aurovillians are asking for is a town planning process that upholds and reflects the ideals of 'the city the earth needs.'

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In her article on The Wire, Anu Majumdar has painted a picture of a “wilful blockade of the Master Plan by an organised group” in the international township of Auroville in Tamil Nadu. She claims that “no violence” occurred in authorities’ recent forceful bulldozing to implement the Crown way, a proposed 4-km circular road within Auroville.

Let’s consider the facts, starting with a short account of two recent events.

It’s around midnight on Saturday, December 5. JCB bulldozers leave the parking area in front of the office of the Secretariat of the Auroville Foundation, and make their way towards Auroville’s Youth Centre. Members of Auroville’s Working Committee – a body selected by the community to represent them, of which Anu Majumdar is a current member – and members of the Auroville Town Development Council (ATDC) are seen in the building in what appears to be a late-night meeting.

Soon after, the bulldozers crash through the forest close to the Youth Centre, where six scared young resident Aurovillians call out for help as the bulldozers head to demolish structures. As community members rush in on two-wheelers to support the youth, they are stopped at multiple police checkpoints that have been preemptively set up on all access roads. At the Youth Centre, police officers grab some of the youth and bundle them into a police vehicle, taking their phones.

At the height of the chaos, Working Committee members are called and asked to intervene (so was the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, who apparently hung up the phone). They succeed in halting the mayhem, and later publish individual statements reflecting how they were “shocked to the core” by the event, which aimed to forcibly implement the Crown way. 

Photo: Abhijit Shylanath/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In a community meeting called the following day to process the traumatic events, over 500 Aurovillians signed a statement which asserted their commitment to peaceful, collaborative urban planning processes, and which rejected “violence, threats and actions which undermine community processes and our collective work.”

Despite this clear statement by the community to the authorities, the intimidation and aggressive tactics continued. In another appalling incident on December 9, bulldozers again arrived early morning at the Youth Centre, accompanied by large groups of people from outside the community, some of whom confirmed they were paid to physically enforce the clearance. They proceeded to raze buildings to the ground and reportedly instigated violent scenes, despite the peaceful protest measures of the Auroville residents. Further bulldozing without necessary work orders and other aggressive measures took place within the week of December 4 to 10.  During those six days, 900 trees were felled, some of them, preserved species. 

Majumdar suggests that the conflict has largely been “orchestrated via media and petitions”, none of which had actually occurred before the midnight bulldozing (December 5). If anything contributed to a crisis situation, it was the lack of communication to residents from Auroville’s authorities, and those residents working closely with them, such as Majumdar. 

So what is this conflict really about? 

The crux of the ongoing conflict in Auroville is not about whether Auroville will develop, but about how. And if Auroville is to realize the vision of its founder, the Mother, of being “the city the earth needs”, its development practice ought to be exemplary. “If this is how we are going to build Auroville, which is supposed to be an expression of spiritual consciousness – in the middle of the night, in the presence of police – then this is not the Auroville that I want to live in,” shared a resident youth.

Photo: Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Auroville’s Master Plan is based on a galaxy model developed in the 1960s by French architect Roger Anger, in collaboration with the Mother. After Mother’s time, this concept was developed into a Master Plan (1999, 2001). The plan takes the form of a policy framework or concept note, and it lacks the required Detailed Development Plans (DDPs) which are necessary to flesh out the plan’s sketches before moving towards implementation. The 20-year-old Plan also needs to be updated to take into account the present-day ground realities and environmental concerns. A number of Auroville residents with expertise in town planning have – in the spirit of collaboration – conducted studies in recent years and offered their integrative proposals to authorities.  

In recent months, since the arrival of a new government-appointed Secretary to the Auroville Foundation, the pressure exerted by authorities on the Auroville community to implement the Master Plan has increased in intensity, and has focused on rapid development of the Crown way. 

“Those who opposed development did not offer proposals that would successfully integrate with the Plan,” writes Majumdar.

This is simply false. The two most directly-affected communities within Auroville that lie on the Crown way (Darkali and Bliss Forest/Youth Centre) recently presented their alternative development proposals to ATDC, showing how the Crown concept could be slightly adapted to preserve precious forest and water catchment systems that are vital to the whole bioregion.

The Darkali stewards proposed an alternate route just a few meters away, in a proposal backed up with detailed maps and documentation, which would avoid their largest and oldest trees and would keep thriving water bodies intact. (Darkali alone harvests three million litres of fresh water, which can support the drinking requirements of one lakh people). Other alternative proposals presented by residents were elegant solutions that met the key criteria for the Crown Road as defined in the Master Plan. 

However, Majumdar and Auroville authorities, including the ATDC – which lacks planning expertise and contains some members appointed in questionable processes – ignored these proposals. Instead, they assert that the Crown must manifest as a perfect circle shape, a symbolism which they allegedly believe has a particular power that will aid the spiritual evolution of Auroville.

Photo: Olivier/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Instead of collaborating with the community in the planning process, the ATDC blindsided the community with sudden bulldozing. The furtive late-night meetings, lack of communication and sudden bulldozing suggests the covert manner in which some authorities and some community members are currently operating – against the values of a community that has long claimed to be an experiment in human unity and collaboration.

Majumdar claims “there was no violence, and no one was hurt” in the process of clearing for the Crown, but numerous videos circulating on social media demonstrate that this is simply not true.

Majumdar has painted a picture of a “wilful blockade of the Master Plan by an organised group”, but other members of her own Working Committee team (the elected body) were unaware of these late-night arrangements for a sudden and forceful implementation of the Master Plan by a small group of Aurovilians who are not acting on behalf of the community. 

The larger part of the community has requested a pause of all development on the Crown until further notice, to allow time to define a harmonious way forward. According to the Auroville Foundation Act (1988), the Residents’ Assembly (one of the three authorities of the Auroville Foundation) is to consult in the formulation and implementation of the Master Plan (section 17 (e)). But Majumdar and others who feel frustrated that the physical development of the city is not happening fast enough are today claiming that a community decision-making process on this topic is illegitimate, and have attempted to override the Residents Assembly, whose role is enshrined in Indian law.   

Majumdar claims that implementation of the Master Plan has been stalled for 20 years due to “trees, environmental and topographical concerns”. Yet the Master Plan 2001 itself states (in section 2.9.7) that an “Environmental Management process… will be integrated within all development, planning and urban design elements.” Rather than blocking the Master Plan, the community’s call for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) aims to ensure the plan is upheld in the best possible way. Auroville’s International Advisory Council has also called for the same.

Suhasini Ayer, one of Auroville’s leading architects and town planning consultants – who recently won the Green Solutions Award at COP26 for a residential project on the Crown – emphasises that the Master Plan itself is not being disputed. Her concern – shared by many Auroville residents and expert town planners – is the need for development to take into account the local (and global) challenges, notably ecological sensitivity and the need to preserve important water catchment areas, given the bioregion is on the brink of a water scarcity crisis. Today, if Auroville wants to demonstrate exemplary development, it needs to provide local solutions to such global challenges, in a truly participative way.

Photo: Barry Pousman/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mobility plan and afforestation

While Majumdar claims that “Holding up the Crown would mean holding up the new pedestrian-friendly mobility, adding to the pollution”, a key concern amongst residents is that a mobility plan has not been done.

The already-developed stretches of the Crown Road have dramatically increased motorised traffic, therefore the mobility plan needs to consider how further development of the Crown will manage the anticipated increase in regional traffic wanting to use the Crown and other Auroville roads as a thoroughfare between two nearby highways. 

The planned ‘right-of-way’ clearing of the Crown Road would also require the felling of approximately 150,000 trees and shrubs of Tropical Dry Evergreen forest species, some of which are endangered trees. Auroville’s re-afforestation work is globally-recognised for reviving this rare forest type, and any professional planners would integrate trees of value into development proposals. “What message does it send out to the world,” exclaimed one resident, “that in Auroville, we destroy forests to build a city?”

Majumdar has said in her article that the many of the 900 trees bulldozed last week were “deliberately being planted over sections of the Crown” as a way to block its development. While there is truth in her claim that the Youth Centre was intentionally placed years ago on the Crown Road, the other area that was bulldozed into last week, a forest sanctuary named Darkali, is another matter altogether.

In contrast to Majumdar’s claim that “trees were planted without consulting the plans for the area”, the stewards of Darkali had earlier, in accordance with the ATDC’s wishes, planted trees to the side of where the future Crown Road would be laid. They were then told in recent years by ATDC that the road had been moved (in the plan), and it would now run through the path of these special trees. 

Photo: InOutPeaceProject/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The rigid interpretation and imposition of an outdated plan goes against the spirit of the original Master Plan itself, which states that it will “neither be traditional, nor static and rigid” (Master Plan Perspective 2025, section 2.11.1). The Plan has in-built review processes,  including 5-yearly Detailed Development Plans – which have never been done. Rather than being against the Master Plan, as Majumdar portrays it, what Aurovillians are asking for is that the Master Plan actually be respected and upheld “as a visionary plan supported by a charter to hold an experiment”, by following processes designed for it to yield the development of a township that reflects and sustains the unique trajectory of an experimental society.  

Majumdar mentions the French architect Roger Anger, saying that “Auroville cannot claim to stand for ‘human unity’ until the city announced and promised to the world in February 1968 is built together with agreements and concord.” Indeed, the majority of residents are attempting to move forward in this spirit of collaboration (despite authorities’ heavy-handed tactics), while keeping in mind Anger’s statement that the main aim of Auroville was to grow new human beings, and that the city would have to evolve in accordance with the evolution of consciousness of its residents.

In response to Majumdar’s statement that the recent Stay Order on clearing (issued by the National Green Tribunal) allegedly takes “the rest of Auroville and its hopes for the future hostage,” a youth of Auroville poignantly posted on Auroville’s online forum, “We can stand for human unity in so many ways that have nothing to do with building the city. But to say, we can only stand for human unity until the city is built, is holding our spiritual progress hostage.” 

The “orchestrated” petitions that Majumdar refers to is most likely the global support that is now flowing towards the Auroville community for its commitment to building the city in a collaborative, peaceful and ecologically-sensitive manner – as the petition (currently at 33,000 signatures) and many letters from high-level dignitaries indicate. 

If Auroville is to demonstrate exemplary development practice, it must find a way to:

  • urbanise while upholding the exemplary ecological work it is known for today;
  • uphold its uniquely participatory mode of decision-making, which is enshrined in Indian law (The Auroville Foundation Act 1988);
  • be led by the ideals set forth in its Charter, which say that Auroville will be a place of “unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages” and “a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.”

The community’s own architects and urban planners are right now undertaking a collaborative brain-storming process (the Dreamweavers method) to integrate the galaxy concept and Master Plan framework, while being sensitive to local conditions. They will soon offer their findings to ATDC and the Auroville Foundation, in the hope of fruitful collaboration with authorities.

Lakshmi Venugopal is an Auroville resident and an environmental sustainability professional focusing on environmental education, leadership, community climate adaptation and resilience. Tejaswini Mistri-Kapoor is a former member of Auroville’s Town Development Council. An architect and designer, she has lived and worked in Auroville for the past 18 years.