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Auroville’s Crown of Thorns

Is the crises over going ahead with the Crown Right of Way project merely dissent among residents over how to expand the physical township further, or will this polarisation cast a long shadow over the future in this City of Dawn created by The Mother?

February 26, 2022 05:47 pm | Updated February 27, 2022 04:06 am IST

At the heart: The Master Plan evolved from French architect Roger Anger’s concept for a galaxy-shaped township that was approved by The Mother for the experimental city that would position the Matrimandir as the soul force.

At the heart: The Master Plan evolved from French architect Roger Anger’s concept for a galaxy-shaped township that was approved by The Mother for the experimental city that would position the Matrimandir as the soul force. | Photo Credit: S.S. Kumar

A sense of existential crisis pervades what should have been a celebratory time in Auroville. It is passing through a special phase of commemorating its founding by Mirra Alfassa, or The Mother, on February 28, 1968, in a year that also coincides with the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of her spiritual mentor Sri Aurobindo.

Nearly five decades since an acrimonious power-ideological feud plunged the township in turmoil in the days following the Mother’s passing in 1973, the community once again stands bitterly divided over the path to the future.

Back then, the crisis would culminate in a government takeover of Auroville in 1980 through the promulgation of the Auroville (Emergency Provisions) Ordinance — it later became the Auroville Foundation Act (1988) — and the subsequent failed challenge in the Supreme Court by Sri Aurobindo Society. And, perhaps the roots of the new crisis may also lie in that denouement which took away from Auroville a critical part of its self-governing autonomy and vested the Union with a larger oversight of the township and its guided growth.

As the Mother envisioned it, Auroville (City of Dawn) would be a place “on earth a place which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of goodwill who have a sincere aspiration could live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority, that of the supreme Truth; a place of peace, concord and harmony where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his sufferings and miseries...”

Those exalted ideals of harmony and human unity were to be upended by a series of rapidly turning events in December when the administration began work on the Crown project under a Master Plan (Perspective 2025) in December last year.

New impetus, fresh trouble

Since it took over in October, Auroville Foundation’s new governing board — which has Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi as chairman, Puducherry Lt. Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan among its members, while senior bureaucrat Jayanti Ravi was earlier appointed Secretary — has signalled a clear intent to expedite the Master Plan, which had been in cold storage for over two decades, with a fresh impetus to completing the Crown Project.

The Master Plan evolved from French architect Roger Anger’s concept for a galaxy-shaped township that was approved by The Mother for the experimental city that would position the Matrimandir as the soul force.

However, on December 4, when the Auroville Town Development Council moved in an earthmover and began clearing trees in the wooded Bliss area and razing the make-shift Youth Centre to clear the Crown right-of-way, a section of outraged residents blockaded the work.

The protests escalated when the Auroville administration tried to resume the work on the night of December 4 and 10, first with the police and then with the support of locals.

The protesters flagged concerns over the ecological damage from the work, if undertaken along its current route, and over the bypassing of the established community processes such as the Residents Assembly — with the Governing Board and the Auroville International Advisory Council being the other key decision-making pillars in the township — in pushing ahead with the plan in such a manner.

Soon, a pro-Crown faction sprang to life which, while wholeheartedly welcoming the revival of a long-pending plan, would also discredit the protests as attempts to “thwart the realisation of The Mother’s dream of a universal city by raising the bogey of environmental destruction”.

With the dispute now before the Chennai Bench of the National Green Tribunal in Chennai, the felling of trees remains suspended.

A township of paradoxes

Even for a place of coexisting paradoxes like Auroville, it is ironical that sustainability concerns should be fuelling a row over the future — this is a place where religion is a strict no-no, though the Charter demands that for one to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness; Auroville products compete at the global marketplace, but within the township currency is prohibited, and while Auroville sits on thousands of acres, no one can own an inch of land under its Utopian concept of the commons.

In fact, the spirituality-sustainability ethos has been ingrained in the Auroville experiment since the 1960s when the first group of free thinkers, inspired by The Mother’s call, came over from Europe and worked a near-miracle with support of local communities by turning a barren-brown plateau into the enriched green bio-region that it is today. The environmental legacy has been carried forward by dedicated forest stewards and social entrepreneurs in the township, and has won global acclaim.

So, why is the Crown so divisive?

The Crown corridor has been a contentious, often misinterpreted component of the larger galaxy plan, as it has put the spiritual dimension, the occult symbolism of the perfect circle, at odds with the sustainability mantra, and separated those who believe in design flexibility from those who hold the plan sacrosanct and non-negotiable.

The Auroville Master Plan, designed for a community of 50,000 by 2025, was prepared and ratified by the Residents Assembly on July 28, 1999, and after passing through the Governing Board, the Ministry of Human Resource Development in February 2001, was gazetted by the Auroville Foundation on August 16, 2010.

Auroville records quote Roger Anger as saying: “From the Crown, twelve roads radiate outwards as part of the infrastructure. Some of them are accompanied by a succession of high-rise buildings, which constitute the so-called ‘Lines of Force’, essential for the framework of the city and for the integration of all access to the city centre. But the plan is not finished. On the contrary, the city is still to be invented, everything has still to be done through the daily experience and rhythm of the Aurovilians. Apart from these lines of force, everything is flexible, nothing is fixed.”

The Crown is defined in the Master Plan as a key special use zone, which traverses all the four zones in a concentric fashion with a width of 75 m, consisting of a circular road with buildings facing it. It would provide most of the service facilities required to support the activities in the four zones — industrial, cultural, residential and international — ringing the Matrimandir. Also central to the master plan is a green belt consisting of forested areas, farms and sanctuaries with scattered settlements for those involved in agrarian pursuits.

Some time ago, architect David Nightingale, who studied the township’s urban planning and mobility issues, told the in-house publication Auroville Today, “If I were to take the original Galaxy Model and superimpose a grey circle to show what will happen to it conceptually if we build the Crown as a road — as Auroville has started to do — it shows how the whole connectivity and energy flow of buildings and spaces, and the movement of people, is completely cut. The heart and soul of the township becomes amputated from the rest.”

A group of Aurovilians, including architects and urban planners, have conveyed to the Auroville Foundation that they were neither against the galaxy plan nor the Crown proposals but only seeking a collaborative process to translate the Master Plan into detailed development plans that would integrate the vision with the new ground realities.

“To seek a revision of the Master Plan, which has not been updated in years, is to improve it and align it with changes and new challenges rather than invalidate it,” said Suhasini Ayer, Auroville architect and recipient of the Green Solutions Award at COP26 2021, Glasgow, for the Humanscapes Habitat project of creating an affordable and sustainable housing hub in the universal township.

The Master Plan cannot be implemented merely based off schematic diagrams as the Crown road alignment cuts through at least two “problematic zones”: forested tracts, water catchments and rural houses and at another point creates a shortcut between two villages that could lead to traffic and security issues for residents, she said.

The Mother’s vision was for Auroville to be the city that the earth needs. “In an era of climate change, geopolitical conflicts over resources and regional water-sharing disputes, it is all the more important for Auroville to set an example as a city that responds to what the earth needs in resolving environmental, social and economic challenges,” Ms. Ayer said.

“What is equally significant is that discussions on the future of Auroville completely ignore the fact that any decision that impacts the ecosystem around the hillock can have a knock-on effect along the regional footprint spanning Kazhuveli, Ousteri and the northern suburbs of Puducherry,” she said.

Alternative proposal shot down

A section of residents had suggested as an alternative a slight realignment of the design that would prevent substantial damage to tracts of the Bliss Forest and Darkali Forest, and local checkdams.

However, the proposal was declined by the Auroville Foundation which noted that “the suggestions to use an existing temporary mud road for mobility and infrastructure instead of the planned Crown RoW, or that the circular RoW can instead meander to avoid areas with plantations or structures are untenable as expert studies have shown that this major deviation from the planned circular Crown would entail an additional expenditure for all times to come, prove more unsustainable”.

“To change the circular layout and logic of this important Master Plan right-of-way is not beneficial in any way to the city development, and is lobbied for only for the benefit of a few interest groups within Auroville...,” the Foundation said.

A major part of the right of way has already been cleared and infrastructure installed alongside. The work that was commenced related to clearing the last parts of the Crown Right of Way with a width of 16.7 m. green work must take place on the designated green belt and green corridors inside the city and not on the land designated for roads, infrastructure or other urban development, it stated.

Jayanti Ravi, Secretary, Auroville Foundation, said there was no justification for blockading the work, suggesting that the real issue was not about a few hundred trees getting cut, as trees have given way to other buildings in the past, “but about power structures getting threatened”.

“If we allow the stonewalling of the development of the city every time any work is attempted by using the smokescreen of community processes having not happened or that the environment was getting affected, it will not be possible ever to realise The Mother’s dream of a universal city and The Charter, the only purpose for which so many people have converged here, and for which lands were acquired”, she said.

The Secretary said the Foundation was only acting on decisions taken long ago. “The Master Plan is something that evolved through several amendments, and ratified through due processes including the RA, vetted by experts and gazetted by the Auroville Foundation... we also had more than 50 meetings before starting work on the Crown RoW.”

A defining moment in Auroville

Many residents feel this is a crossroads moment for the experimental township. A section of Aurovilians oppose the manner of ramming through the Crown project in a top-down fashion which was antithetical to the core idea of Auroville, a trampling of their rights as residents and could deal a deathblow to collaborative decision-making and problem-solving process within the township.

They are up against an administration that views the protests as another sign of the “obstructionism by some groups that has thwarted any attempt in the past to initiate any work towards city-building and fulfilling The Mother’s Charter”. As one spokesman put it, while several Aurovilians have done incredible work individually, “as a collective, the community’s progress towards the founding goal has stalled over the years as a result of this stonewalling, and its growth over the years skewed towards an eco-village model instead of the universal city originally envisaged”.

So, does the polarisation over the path to the future suggest deeper fault-lines, more fundamental, schisms in the community, or, is the discord only a symptom of lesser mortals struggling to hold together the grand idea of a great mind?

Is this a clash of perspectives between conservatives and revisionists, a core disagreement between those who feel that the galaxy plan is sacrosanct, non-negotiable and reflects Auroville’s raison d’etre, and residents who argue that the Master Plan needs to be regarded more as a policy document that should give shape to detailed plans that factor in topography changes, land use patterns and forestry.

So, is the idea of a “place on earth” dreamt by The Mother a tangible destination at all, or is it about the journey, the “lived experience” that reflect her ideals — residents pointed out that for The Mother, the manner in which Auroville is built was as important as the township itself.

As opposing narratives, and the occasional ad hominem attack, flood social media sites, a petition initiated by residents on calling for peaceful, collective solutions to the conflict has generated over 50,000 signatures, and still counting.

Meanwhile, Auroville’s home page now runs this message: “Currently Auroville finds itself in a period of transition. We are — as is the world — at the cusp of a new era and cannot but trust that our friends, well-wishers and readers will take the signs of turmoil and re-adaptation in Auroville that may come to their knowledge through various media, in the wider context of renewal and growth.”

Search for middle ground

A group of Aurovillians, including architects and urban planners involving eminent experts within and outside, as part of what it terms the Dreamweavers method, has just concluded a collaborative exercise to come up with a three-dimensional scale that integrates the galaxy concept, Master Plan and the existing ground reality.

“The community involvement has been positive and inspiring and we are hopeful that without compromising on the Master Plan, we can come up with a set of possibilities of developing a beautiful, harmonious synthesis of an ecology-sensitive urban city, unlike any other in the world”, the Secretary said.

As much as the onus is on the Aurovillian community to find a way out of this crisis, the conflict also presents a test case for the governors in conflict resolution in an ideals-driven, globally diverse community, in balancing the much-needed impetus for development against Auroville’s non-hierarchical approach to doing things, and in integrating the physical form evolving out of this unique experiment in human unity with its spiritual dimension.

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