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Can Auroville become a model for cities of the future?

Auroville’s quarrels over ecology and governance point to deep discord over urbanism and what a place for human unity should look like on the ground

People near the gardens of Matrimandir. (Istockphoto)

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The year is 1999 in the fictional landscape of Ernest Callenbach’s self-published 1975 novel, Ecotopia. A new nation carved out of the Pacific Northwest United States by a green “survivalist” party is two decades old. A journalist visits—the first officially allowed in—and he produces an account that becomes this novel about a “stable-state” economy built fundamentally around ecological protections. Conservation laws are strict, biodegradable materials have replaced all that is non-compostable, recycling is enforced. Energy is geothermal, solar, wind—anything but petroleum. Food-producing farms have taken the place of urban sprawl. Cities are walkable, cars are gone so streets can be narrower, electric buses and trains are key modes of transport. This is a society “striving for stability,” explains one resident, for “in practice there’s no stable point. [W]e disagree on what is to be done, we only agree on the root essentials.”

“I’ve noticed that—you’re a quarrelsome lot!” quips the journalist.

“We can afford to be, because of that root agreement,” comes the ready response. “Besides, that’s half the fun of relating to each other—trying to work through different perspectives…”

Speed ahead another two decades into the present, and it is tempting to identify the consonances between Callenbach’s imaginary Ecotopia and a very real present-day Auroville. Here, too, is a community apparently unified by ecological sensibilities—and though it has had 50-plus real-world years to Ecotopia’s fictional 20, it is striving in many similar ways: to tackle waste, to develop renewable energy sources and resources, to conserve water and replenish aquifers with rainwater, to reintroduce native species and fulfil ever-greater proportions of Auroville’s food requirements via organic and regenerative approaches, and to balance all this with the need for roads, buildings and such other necessities of urban development. Descriptions of Auroville as a “bioregion” or an “ecovillage” with exemplary afforestation, resource conservation and permaculture practices abound. So obviously transformative and impactful has been Auroville’s “greenwork”, it could easily be taken as the community’s ecotopian coming of age.

Except that by itself, it’s not. Auroville was never intended to be an ecotopia, much less a utopia. The path to realising Auroville’s “root essentials” has been thorny from the start, the role of ecology as unifying as divisive.

The Galaxy concept of Auroville city.
The Galaxy concept of Auroville city. (Auroville.org)

The most recent flashpoint was the directive issued by the Auroville Town Development Council in early December 2021 to commence clearance work for the laying of high-tension cables on a strip of the proposed “Crown corridor” which roughly circles the central areas of Auroville—part of the Master Plan approved by the Mother, on whose vision the township was founded. The strip had been blocked by temporary and/or unsanctioned structures and forest growth in three areas (Centre Field, Darkali and Bliss/Youth Center) but it was the last two that would prove the most contentious: the Youth Center because the arrival of JCBs/earth excavators for demolition set the stage for a polarising stand-off between residents, and Darkali as the site of trees and water catchment areas that would be disturbed by the Crown passage.

In the abundance of media reportage and online information following these events, the impression most projected was of a familiar confrontation. On the one side were the heavy bulldozing instruments of development and the heavy-handed methods of industry and government; on the other were people, residents, children, participatory process, transparency and collaboration all clustered, Chipko-style, around the fragile trunks of precious trees.

What was the Crown project trying to achieve? Is Auroville an ecological project or an urban development? Who makes decisions about work towards the Master Plan, the control of traffic, the clearing of overgrowth, and even the protection of Auroville from “unwanted elements and activities” in local villages? Who governs Auroville—and how? These fraught questions are at the heart of Auroville’s present crisis.

THE DREAM OF A CITY: Auroville was envisioned by a Frenchwoman born Mirra Alfassa but known as the Mother: She was the spiritual collaborator of the revolutionary freedom fighter and yogi Sri Aurobindo, whose 150th birth anniversary coincides with India’s independence this 15 August. Hers was a “dream” of a city transcending difference, belonging to all humankind, given to inner discovery and never-ceasing progress, in which each individual would be a “willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness”. It was to be an ideal city, not a perfect one, not a “termite civilisation” with rigid roles and individual suppressions (the socialist model) nor a state of organised licentiousness (the Ecotopian model), but one which strove inwardly and outwardly for what Sri Aurobindo called “the perfect harmony of a collective being”.

Quite in contrast to Ecotopia’s dry utilitarianism, the Mother’s futurism was both pragmatic and poetic.Her 1965 hand sketch of Auroville demarcated cultural, industrial, residential and international zones: a conception with no precedent in town planning at the time. The iterated version she approved was French architect Roger Anger’s dynamic, modernist-but-Sudarshana chakra-like spiralling model: Auroville’s iconic “Galaxy plan”. In this, the “Crown” was the arterial passage interlinking all four zones of the original city conception.

In all dimensions of Aurovillian life, beauty was to be made accessible; an aspiration to perfection was paramount even if individual limitations were many. At the same time were established mechanisms to provide for basic individual needs, plans for what would constitute the city’s four zones, large agricultural lands in the surrounding “green belt” to create local food supply, anticipated requirements for “transformed sea water” or desalination for when Auroville would tend towards the projected 50,000 residents. Aurovillians were meant to lead simple lives, without money, private property or hired help.

Mirra Alfassa’s 1965 hand-drawn sketch of Auroville.
Mirra Alfassa’s 1965 hand-drawn sketch of Auroville. (Auroville.org)

Auroville was thus an almost impossible idea—one the earth was no more ready to realise than mankind was ready to understand, accept and execute, said the Mother. Yet she placed her finger on a map and identified a lone banyan tree as the centre of Auroville, and so began the project “on a small scale, in proportion to our limited means”, to create a “city at the service of truth”. Tamil Aurovillians have pointed out the significance of this centring: The tree was once known as thaneer pandhal aalamaram, the water-giving banyan, an all-important oasis for pilgrims congregating in Puducherry for the annualmasi magam festival. As such bridging past and future was Auroville established in 1968 with a call to “all men of goodwill”, the participation of Indians and foreigners from several countries, and pledges of support from governments and agencies from around the world.

AN ACCIDENTAL ENVIRONMENTALISM: For reasons that were at least practical if not also poetic, ecological concerns drove much of Auroville’s emergence from those early days. Early photographs of the Auroville plateau show a land barren and dry as a moonscape, with the odd group of palmyras standing sentinel. Tales are told of dust storms, local villagers having to walk miles for firewood daily, and torrential monsoon rains that would bleed Auroville’s red laterite topsoil into the sea. The land needed restoration and the first communities gathering there needed shade, shelter, water and food. It was their quests to meet immediate needs that jump-started the phenomenal return of green cover to this region. Early bunds and windmills to later check dams, the drought-resistant non-native pioneer Acacia auriculiformis to the native trees of tropical dry evergreen forests, from diffuse efforts to directed methodologies—Auroville’s afforestation, waterwork and land regeneration efforts are among its more compelling and exemplary success stories.

Writer Akash Kapur calls Auroville’s early green workers “accidental ecologists, in many ways forerunners of the global environmental movement”. Better to Have Gone, his memoir of growing up through Auroville’s early years, also records an early tension between the “constructionalists” and the “organicists”: those who planned and administered from afar and those who tended the land around them and grew a forest. This is an old conflict, now centred on ecology but really encompassing so much more: valuations of formal education versus experiential learning, an embrace of urbanism in new hybrid forms versus a back-to-the-land ruralism, staid convention against counter-cultural spirit, a deference to governance (and government) against a scepticism of it.

The early momentum of Auroville belonged substantially, though not wholly, to the organicists. Over the years, they wrote the textbooks on afforestation they never had. The planned city, the Mother’s ideal city, “the city the earth needs”—all these things continued to be important, discussed and endlessly debated, but almost as counterpoints to the fact of the forests. The city was, after all, a thing of the future, taking planning, process, land and money that wasn’t always there. Trees could grow now “without permission”, as one Aurovillian wryly remarked to Kapur. Cities could not.

OLD CONFLICTS, NEW FORMS: The imprint of these old divergences is evident in Auroville’s present quarrels, which also centre on ecology but encompass so much more. It is as though the constructionalists and organicists are facing off, at long last, though the issue is not so much that the Crown project has to proceed, but how it is proceeding. Environmental differences thus morph and meld into a problem of Auroville’s governance.

Disagreements over the demolition of the Youth Center and the felling of Darkali forest trees went swiftly to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) as “the only route”, some would say, to cut through the impasse so that the Crown didn’t cut through the forest. The move was oddly reminiscent of the Auroville “revolution” of the 1970s, when residents sought “independence” from the control of the Sri Aurobindo Society-body to which the Mother had entrusted the administration of Auroville. Following a Supreme Court verdict in their favour, the 1988 Auroville Foundation Act secured Auroville’s autonomy and legally affirmed the vital importance of the Mother’s vision by incorporating the Auroville Charter into Indian law. It also secured Auroville land by vesting it in the Union government and put a structure of participatory governance in place. It was this governance structure that was implicated in the confrontation over the Youth Center, and would continue to be so in the months after as Aurovillians continued to wrangle over the mechanisms by which their own autonomy ought to be constituted.

Also read: Travel: In Kudremukh, a homestay in the heart of the forest

Meanwhile, the NGT’s decision came in late April. While some part of the Crown work could continue unimpeded, no future development work in Auroville could proceed without obtaining the requisite environmental clearances. Auroville was to be overseen by a new, external regime: that of environmental governance.

BASELINES AND FAULT-LINES: Those who see this as a victory for the forests still cannot disagree that ecological sensitivity is a baseline for most Aurovillians, including its staunchest urbanists. It is, in fact, a “root essential” point of agreement here, as in Ecotopia. Not only Auroville’s regenerative and organic farming practices, but, equally, its famed architecture and several of its technical and creative commercial units are shaped by ecological concerns. Indeed, when a six-lane highway separating the community from the Auroville bakery and cluster of eateries at Kuyilapalayam was proposed in 2019, Aurovillians rallied strongly around the need for ecological protections, highlighting the enormous work done to restore native forests and safeguard the fragile Auroville biome.

When the same ecological arguments are directed internally, however, they mark out clear fault-lines. All the usual suspects are invoked: power, control, ego, personalities, even theories of a conspiratorial government takeover. Beneath all the disgruntlements, however, are variances over what governance style is best suited in Auroville and what a collaborative, community-driven decision-making process truly entails, all framed by the old ideological tension between urbanism and ecology. These imbricated, sticky issues are deeply complicated by their experimental, evolving nature, and now also by a host of external pressures, including sky-rocketing land prices and the incursions of property developers and others capitalising rapaciously on Auroville’s value. Such pressures have put Auroville somewhat on the defensive, with the forests becoming a virtual last refuge.

Internal challenges are no less significant. For instance, the property ownership that Auroville was meant to eschew becomes a de facto reality when resident stewards of an area become its natural heirs and when the wide, empty acreages of Auroville start to represent entitlements. In the meantime, government and private funds have been flowing in for years and there is a heightened urgency to build more expressly towards the Mother’s vision. Auroville’s completion was once aimed (ambitiously) at five years for 50,000. Fifty-odd years later, the population still stands at a mere 3,300.

Certainly, Aurovillians have tried over the years to identify and address recurrent issues. But the endless meetings, workshops, and sharing sessions have had proportionately insufficient outcomes, and the extolled notions of self-governance, particularly in the unfolding conflict, have borne more than a passing resemblance to anarchism. Such realities point to an even deeper and more unsettling discord over what the Mother’s vision of a “place” in which human unity can manifest should look like, on the ground.

THE FOREST AND THE CITY: To those quarrelling as early as 1966 about what the political situation of a then-nascent Auroville would be, the Mother was categorical: “It would be better to build the city first!” she said, with a reminder that “Auroville must be at the service of the Truth, beyond all social, political and religious convictions” (Agenda, Vol.7, 13 August 1966). Even to architects and engineers, she was explicit: “You are not here to discuss the project. You are here to build the city.”

Aurovillians who continue to insist that “we are not here to build a city” or celebrate the trees as defiant retorts to the planners’ best efforts might therefore be missing the forest for the trees: Auroville was never imagined as a forest, important though the forest is to Auroville. The township’s greenwork has become something of an end in itself, its popular “ecovillage” designation a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this, Auroville’s very ecological successes and certitudes have become impediments on the community’s path  towards its own ultimate goals.

The point here is not just that fidelity to the Mother’s vision is central to the building of Auroville but that the city is central to that vision. The transformation of life itself, in the thick of life itself, is both the essence of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga and the purpose of Auroville—for “[t]o be spiritual only is not enough”, he had said in the Arya in 1917: “that prepares a number of souls for heaven, but leaves the earth very much where it was.”

The earth, as it is, is increasingly comprised of cities, which pose questions of “how to coexist” in the extreme and far more obviously than areas buffered by acres of isolation. Chances are, the ideals of human unity to which Auroville aspires need the critical mass of the city and the in-your-face proximities of teeming, difficult urban life to emerge. The earth as we know it, too, is poised to become even more overwhelmingly urban: The United Nations assesses that 68% of people globally will live in urban or urbanised environments by 2050, by which year India will have added 416 million to its cities, doubling its urban population in just 30 years. If cities will per force be our primary habitat, say the experts, their long-term viability depends on their regenerative capacities and on their ability to become rich ecological systems unto themselves—in other words, letting nature into their cores and transcending the clash of principles that ecology and urbanism currently represent. The preservation of forests and other wild ecosystems would remain paramount, but as models for the cities of the future, not as bastions against them.

Auroville can and should have answers to such scenarios of the future but even ecological regeneration is hardly the ultimate horizon here, as it is for Ecotopia. As much as Auroville needs the forest, Auroville cannot become the forest. The explicitly ordained spiritual purpose of Auroville cannot be sidelined amidst all the cries of foul and wolf over environment and governance—politics by any other name, whereby the Mother is flattened to someone who “never intended to destroy the green cover for the purpose of making the construction”, as in the NGT ruling. Remove the Mother’s vision or Sri Aurobindo’s yoga from the picture, or reduce them to platitudes and lip service, and Auroville can only be another ecovillage commune.

Especially at this time, the 150th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo’s birth, the spiritual mantle given to Auroville in the Mother’s call for a “radical change of nature” as the key to changing human life needs lifting, well beyond city and forest. Perhaps then, to borrow Sri Aurobindo’s words from The Life Divine, in such a “life of ascent towards the future” as Auroville ideally intends, “the feeling that there is no other solution than the spiritual cannot but grow and become more imperative under the urgency of critical circumstance”.

Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist and researcher with the University of Houston-Clear Lake, USA. She has lived and worked from Puducherry and Auroville since 2008.

Also read: Songs for the earth: Music and environmental protests in India 

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