Saturday, January 29, 2000

NGO effort: A model for Chandigarh
By Aradhika Sekhon

"Auroville wants to be a universal township where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, politics and nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity."

Mother of Pondicherry.

THE land that was chosen to host the Auroville experiment was largely eroded and left bare outside the planting season. In short it was large tract of red mud with the sea breeze blowing across it. The fact that the environmental as-pect was stressed during the development of this project is indicated by the fact that today Auroville is one of the greenest areas in the region, with trees and foliage fighting for space. After three decades, the Aurovillian effort has resulted in the planting of more than two million forest and fruit trees on the 2800 acres owned by Auroville at present. Using biological farming methods, the Aurovillians have re-generated the soil on a long-term basis through the control and conservation of rain water, irrigation and planting of indigenous plant species.

  A view of Matri Mandir from the sacred banyan treeAuroville is situated 10 km from Pondicherry. The project which began in 1968, is now seeing fruition and development. The brainchild of the Mother of Pondicherry who had been dreaming of a project like Auroville for quite a long time, "there should be somewhere upon earth, a place that no nation could claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings of goodwill, sincere in their aspirations could live freely as citizens of the world....A place where relations between human beings would be based on emulations for doing better, for collaboration, relations of real brotherhood."

Strongly practical, the Sri Aurobindo Society began acquiring land in 1964. Auroville was legally started as a project of the charitable trust of Sri Aurobindo Society. A French architect, Roger Anger, was given the responsibility of preparing the layout, and he worked on it with his colleagues in Paris and the plan of Auroville evolved, based on the model of the galaxy with the Matri Mandir — the soul of Auroville — as its centre. The official inauguration took place on February 28,1968, with a formal ceremony around an urn in which was the soil of 124 nations brought to Auroville by their representatives as a symbol of national and human unity.

As per plan, Auroville can accommodate a population of up to 5,000. By 1997, Auroville had about 1,300 inhabitants, representing 28 nations, scattered in nearly 90 settlements. The original plan which gave some guidelines for construction within a diameter of 2.5 km was not a rigid plan and evolved as it grew while holding onto its basic architectural principle — that of a galaxy. The overall concept of the town provides for a material focus — the Matri Mandir is surrounded by four zones: Cultural, International, Industrial and Residential.

The main building of the Matri Mandir is a flattened sphere, within which is an inner room, a huge hall supported by 12 pillars representing the months of the year. A massive crystal lies in the centre of the room. The sun enters the room as a ray which can be seen. On cloudy days lights are lit and these have the same effect as the sun. Under the globe (the crystal) a light is directed upwards which diffuses into the globe, whereby it is always in a clear half light, day and night. Everything within the hall is white. Around the building 12 meditation rooms are located inside 12 "petals" which extend to the edge of 12 gardens. Near by is an amphitheatre which houses the urn.

Though the Aurovillians have built houses and live in Auroville, they do not have ownership rights over their properties. The land and assets are part of Auroville. Thus those who have money and are allowed to build houses do not own them, but have a preferential right to occupation. The first Aurovillians lived in temporary structures with thatched roofs but later pucca were built. Over the years as many as 20 architects have been experimenting with different methods of housing, often with tradition-breaking ways which explains the great diversity in styles that range from the traditional thatched-roof structures to French villas to flat/row houses to ultra-modern residences.

Energy in many houses is provided by non-conventional sources. Out of about 400 houses, 85 are running entirely on electricity produced by photovoltaic panels and many others combine solar power with the state grid. There are about 30 windmills, two wind turbines and 100 solar photovoltaic pumps for generation of water and electricity. For domestic use there are approximately 70 solar cookers, 12 water heaters and about 15 biogen tanks. The new Auroville kitchen uses a solar cooker with a 15-metre diameter solar bowl, the biggest in India for cooking food. In 1997, Auroville received the award for being the "Best NGO in India in sectors of alternative energy".

The Aurovillians have attempted to create an economy based on exchange of services. However, in spite of several attempts over the years to develop a collective economy, money still circulates. Education, health care, culture, sports and a range of services related to roads, electricity, water and phones are freely available. Auroville also attempts to be self-supporting, which implies generating money. The production activities are ecological in nature and are oriented to the maintenance of the community through the sale of the surplus. There are six farms and orchards which adopt methods of organic agriculture to supply biological foods. The Industrial zone consists of a dozen units manufacturing readymade garments, flower cards and writing-paper, pottery and the Auroville Building Centre manufacturing ferro-cement bio-gas units etc. Other major units are Aeroelec which produces components for personal computers, a metalsmith workshop, production of incense sticks etc. In addition, there are approximately 60 other units manufacturing a wide variety of products with the help of local villagers trained and employed by the Aurovillians.

In 1988, following a legal dispute with the Sri Aurobindo Society, Auroville became legally independent from the Society. The Government of India transformed the status of Auroville into a legal body called the Auroville Foundation.