Challenges to the Auroville Foundation Act of 1988

Feb 11, 2022 | Organisation & governance

Rod Hemsell

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Actions and events that have transpired in Auroville since December 2021 and are ongoing as of mid-February 2022, which have been instigated by the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, have disrupted the lives of Aurovilians and appear to be in violation of the Charter of Auroville. This situation also calls into question many aspects of the Auroville Act. I will briefly review some of the actions and events here in order to point out specific aspects of the Auroville Act which, in my view, need to be challenged, clarified, and possibly amended. For this purpose, I have included below a central portion of the Act – Articles 10, 11, 15-19 from its total of 34 articles, which occur on pages 6-7-8 of the Act and include definitions of the Governing Board, the Secretary, and the Residents’ Assembly. These are the provisions that may lead to the greatest confusion and are therefore in need of the closest scrutiny. Other provisions may need to be considered but for the purposes of our immediate concerns these are the ones that will almost inevitably need to be challenged in court to prevenfurther conflict and address the violations that have already occurred.

For example, to begin with the most recent violations, this event was reported recently by Outreach Media:

On January 20th 2022 OutreachMedia received an email from the Undersecretary asking for the hand over of all movable and immovable, tangible and untangible assets.

In response, Outreach Media wrote:

I would like to know: 1. On what grounds was this decision made? 2. Have the 3 bodies that together constitute the Auroville Foundation been consulted and agreed to this decision? 3. Has the FAMC, as the mandated body responsible for managing assets of Auroville, been consulted and agreed to this decision? I would like to put on record my objection to your request and will continue to fulfil the OutreachMedia mandate with all means allocated to this purpose until the above points have been satisfactorily clarified.

On Feb. 7, an action by the Secretary’s office might be considered its direct counter response – a sign was placed by several of its personnel on the door of the Outreach Media’s office stating in large letters: NOTICE This Property Belongs To Auroville Foundation Unauthorized Entry Is Prohibited. And a padlock was placed on the door. The office has since been occupied by some of the Secretary’s collaborators in Auroville.

A similar intrusion into the management structure of Auroville was received in the form of an email from the Secretary’s office stating:

As per the definitions in the Auroville Foundation Rules 1997, FAMC is of the Governing Board. Secretary, Auroville Foundation is the Principal Executive Officer of the Auroville Foundation and also the convener of the FAMC vide the same Rules. The meetings of the FAMC will be convened henceforth by the Secretary or her nominee.

To this, the FAMC (Funds and Assets Management Committee) responded on Feb. 8:

Please find attached the views of the FAMC on the FAMC, vis-a-vis the Auroville Foundation Rules 1997. Extracted from the document is our conclusion: “From the above it follows that the definition of the FAMC in sections 2 and 5.1.b. of the Rules of the Auroville Foundation is mistaken. The FAMC is to be seen as a committee constituted by the Residents’ Assembly under section 19.3 of the Auroville Foundation Act and section 5.3 of the Auroville Foundation Rules.”  It is also to be noted that all of our members have been accordingly selected by the Residents’ Assembly and are serving according to a mandate received and approved by the Residents’ Assembly. As such, we will continue our way of working as before and you are welcome to attend our meetings as usual. As this inconsistency is a serious matter and not solely the problem of the FAMC to solve, we will be informing the Residents’ Assembly and the Working Committee of this matter for further follow-up.

Without going into lengthy details, it should be apparent that institutions which have functioned successfully for decades in Auroville, in accordance with the functions assigned to the Residents’ Assembly by the Act, are being put under increasing pressure to give up their autonomy, and perhaps their existence, as the Secretary of the Foundation imposes her authority in ways that this office has never before done, ways which are a direct contradiction of her role and that of the Governing Board as they have been interpreted since the Act was passed 34 years ago. And it is plain to see that this new interpretation is already putting in question specific articles of the Act as well as threatening the integrity of Auroville. Moreover, to claim proprietorship over Auroville and its assets is exactly what the SAS was doing in the 70s which led to the promulgation of the Act. Its purpose was to protect Auroville from a repeat of precisely this type of institutional behavior.

We have received a notice today in Auroville indicating a reversion to another form of pressure used at that time by the SAS – the entry visas which have to be approved by the Foundation so that Aurovilians of foreign nationalities, the large majority of us, can live productively in Auroville as many have done for most of our lives:

NO MORE 5 YEAR VISAS BEING ISSUED…The Residents Service received news from the Foundation that since yesterday, 8th February, only one-year visa applications will be signed by the Secretary

It has been a little over two months since the first dramatic intervention by this new administration into the life of Auroville, which resulted in the destruction of a swath of forest and a few temporary buildings, thereby not only violating and traumatizing life but signaling the urgent need for a unified defensive response. A case was filed on behalf of Auroville before the National Green Tribunal which issued an interim stay order to protect the forest and prevent further destruction while the case is being heard. Numerous affidavits have been presented to that court during the past two months and the judgment is still pending. Meanwhile the community has conducted a month-long decision making process concluding with an almost unanimous vote to suspend all development under the Master Plan until appropriate studies can be made and agreements reached. A positive collaborative process of consultations among architects and interested parties has gotten underway.

As is generally well-known by now, this dispute is centered around the Master Plan for Auroville’s township development approved by the Residents’ Assembly in 1999 and formally accepted by the Government of India in 2010. As I have argued, along with many others, this Master Plan follows a methodology which requires five-year development plans with annual updating based on actual progress, a methodology that has never been implemented, and which was originally executed primarily to have the township area protected from encroachments at the time. The new Governing Board is fraudulently claiming that the Auroville residents have deliberately blocked and stalled its implementation during the intervening years, and that it must now be implemented by force – the force of government authority, money, and bulldozers, regardless of community opinion and the relevancy of the twenty-year old plan.

The crucial point to be made here is that the current limited court action to halt development temporarily and avoid further destruction is likely to be the first phase of a protracted legal battle for the Soul of Auroville between the Auroville residents and the Governing Board/Secretary of the Auroville Foundation – a government-appointed body which clearly has an agenda that is contrary to the interpretation of the Auroville Act, and the ideals of Auroville as stated by the Mother, with which we are all familiar, and to which most Auroville residents and supporters are committed. At this point, however, one might contend, as some surely do, that the conflicts of interpretation of the Act and the values represented by the opposing forces in Auroville today are not a matter of the Soul or Spirit but only of the “Letter” of the law. An outstanding example would be the difference, pointed out above in the statement of the FAMC regarding its interpretation of the “Rules and Regulations of the Auroville Foundation” promulgated in 1997. The FAMC sees itself as a committee of the Residents’ Assembly in accordance with its habitual function, as authorized in section 19. (3) of the original Act of 1988. The new Governing Board/Secretary bases its interpretation on the rules of 1997 which establish the FAMC as a committee of the Governing Board with the Secretary as its convener. But this interpretation has not been commonly applied by previous Governing Boards, and especially not in a draconian manner. The differing interpretations are more importantly differences in values: one is more attuned to the Soul and Life of Auroville and the other to its own authoritarian agenda. These two opposing approaches to the day-to-day management of Auroville and the realization of its long-term goals will need to be brought into alignment by a common recognition of the Soul which these outer structures are meant to serve. This will necessarily entail a reinterpretation of the Auroville Foundation Act based on its original intention.

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Before looking more carefully at the articles of the Auroville Act selected below, I would like to mention the substance of a few other articles that provide necessary background for understanding the status of the Governing Board. The Auroville Foundation Act of 1988 was preceded by the “Auroville Emergency Provisions Act, 1980” which was necessary because of “serious difficulties which had arisen with regard to the management of Auroville” such as attempts by the SAS to have residents of Auroville deported for trespassing on its land. The purpose of the AFA of 1988 was therefore to “provide for the acquisition and transfer of the undertakings of Auroville and to vest such undertakings in a foundation established for the purpose” while recognizing that “Auroville had been able to develop during the last eight years along several important lines and the residents of Auroville have also carried on activities for the development of Auroville which need further encouragement and consolidation.” Add to those years the next 34 years and we cover the complete story of Auroville’s development under government administration, which has enabled and assisted the complex and varied progress of Auroville in all domains of life, as anyone can see and appreciate today. Contrary to the claims of the new Governing Board/Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, this has not been the story of a community with “a lack of focus, lack of social fabric, absence of work plans, governance, and organization” with “a need to promote a culture of engagement, transparency, commitment, accountability and integrity.”

As I have tried to explain in other articles, this is a kind of negative rhetoric that is being used to undermine and demean the Auroville community. It first defines the kinds of defects that its interventions are supposed to correct. Then it imposes its falsely derived solutions to its falsely proposed problems. For example, it says the Auroville residents have failed to build the Crown Road infrastructure or have blocked its development by planting trees, and now the new administration will correct those defects by cutting down trees and building roads through the forests. This proposed action is further falsely proposed to be necessary in order to construct a township for 50,000 people. Never mind that those people don’t exist, or that planting trees is an appropriate and necessary interim phase of development, or that a governance system has been evolved by this very diverse, idealistic and committed community that is effective and fair even if it is cumbersome and slow. This process has in fact produced the Master Plan itself, and it is capable of properly implementing it if it has the necessary support. The test of its resilience, and the solidarity it has endeavored to foster over many years with extraordinary perseverance is now being forced upon us. The destructive interventions, false pretexts, and abuses of power perpetrated by this new administration must be resisted, exposed, and reversed.

Turning then to the Act, we can see from the first words that the GB/Secretary are violating the principles which they exist to protect. For example, as stated in section 17. (a), their function is:“to promote the ideals of Auroville and to coordinate activities and services of Auroville in consultation with the Residents’ Assembly for the purposes of cohesion and integration of Auroville.” It has been pointed out repeatedly in meetings and reports of witnesses that there was no such consultation before sending bulldozers in the night to cut down trees, much less to clarify that such actions would be in accordance with the Master Plan and the agreement of the community “for the purposes of cohesion and integration.” It goes without saying that this is also true of the recent attempts to silence the official information media of Auroville, to assume control of its financial organization, and to reduce the terms of visas, creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, all in violation of the law as set forth in the Act and of the integrity of Auroville.

It is doubtful that the members of the new Governing Board meet any of the qualifications outlined insection 11. (a), (b), (c) of the Act. It is reasonable to speculate that the new Secretary (a she and not a he as specified), by asserting her authority in such a violent and divisive manner shows that she has no intention of recognizing any limits stated or implied by the Act. There we can read in section 10. (3) that it is a threefold structure of authority with appropriate functions assigned to each branch. She is the secretary to the Governing Board and, as such, she is only authorized by section 17. (c) “to accord approval to the programmes of Auroville drawn up by the Residents’ Assembly.” By overstepping this authority and attempting to take charge of Auroville she is violating the Auroville Foundation Act. If she continues to insist that her mission is that of a plumber who unblocks the pipes of progress, while at the same time conflating the Master Plan with the Charter of Auroville and the Mother’s “Dream,” she is violating both the meaning and purpose of Auroville, as well as the meaning and purpose of the Act. It will therefore be necessary not only to resist such authoritarian violence and falsehood but to restore and uphold, by whatever means necessary, the original meaning and purpose of the Auroville Act. It is in fact not uncommon in a democratic society governed by law that a process of judicial review may be necessary from time to time to ensure that laws are correctly interpreted and applied, in order to protect citizens from the possible abuses of power.

As it states in section 19. (2) (c) the Residents’ Assembly must make necessary recommendations to the Governing Board/Secretary regarding recognition of organizations  such as the FAMC, Outreach Media, ATDC, RAS, etc. – which are actually its representative bodies established over time in order to carry out its functions. And it must formulate the Master Plan, as it has done, in accordance with the real conditions and goals of Auroville. It is also the only authority that can successfully implement the plan. This is its responsibility and its authorized function under the Act as commonly interpreted, and it is the function of the Governing Board/Secretary to act in “accord” with its advice. If these essential functions and responsibilities are not carried out in a harmonious and unified manner it will be impossible to create the structures – physical, vital, mental, and spiritual – necessary for the realization of the ideals formulated by the Mother in the Charter of Auroville. If the Auroville Foundation Act has not made these essential functions and responsibilities clear enough, then it must be revised and restated in accordance with its original intention. The sooner this process gets formally and legally under way the better the chances for Auroville’s survival and continuous progress. But there can be little doubt that these things are now in jeopardy. It is important to be clear about the meaning of the Act, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of its present formulation, the purposes of its authors, the significance of its enactment, and to take a strong and determined stand for its right implementation. The most relevant sections of the document are presented here.

Chapter III – The Auroville Foundation….

  1. Establishment and incorporation of the Foundation.—(1) With effect from such date as the Central Government may, by notification, appoint in this behalf, there shall be established for the purpose of this Act, a Foundation, to be called the Auroville Foundation.

(2) The Foundation shall be a body corporate by the name aforesaid, having perpetual succession and a common seal with power to acquire, hold and dispose of property, both movable and immovable, and to contract and shall by the said name sue and be sued.

(3) The Foundation shall consist of the following authorities, namely:— (a) the Governing Board; (b) the Residents’ Assembly; (c) the Auroville International Advisory Council

  1. Governing Board.—(1) The Governing Board shall consist of the following members, namely:—

(i) not more than seven members to be nominated by the Central Government from amongst persons, who have

(a) rendered valuable service to Auroville;

(b) dedicated themselves to the ideals of life-long education, synthesis of material and spiritual researches or human unity;

(c) contributed significantly in activities that are being pursued or are envisaged to be promoted in Auroville, including activities relating to environment, afforestation, arts and crafts, industry, agriculture, humanities, sciences and integral yoga;

(ii) two representatives of the Central Government to be nominated by it.

  1. Secretary and other officers of the Foundation.—(1) The Central Government shall appoint a Secretary to the Foundation to exercise such powers and perform such duties under the Chairman of the Governing Board as may be prescribed or as may be delegated to him by the Chairman. (2) The Secretary shall be entitled to such salary and allowances and such conditions of service in respect of leave, pension, provident fund and other matters as may, from time to time, be fixed by the Central Government.

(3) The term of office of a member nominated to fill a casual vacancy in the Governing Board shall continue for the remainder of the term of the member in whose place he is nominated.

(4) A member may resign his office by writing under his hand addressed to the Central Government but he shall continue in office until his resignation is accepted by that Government.

  1. Committees of the Governing Board.—(1) The Governing Board may appoint such committees as may be necessary for the efficient discharge of its duties and performance of its functions under this Act. (2) The Governing Board shall have the power to co-opt as members of any committee appointed under sub-section (1), such number of persons who are not members of the Governing Board as it may think fit, and the persons so co-opted shall have the right to attend the meetings of the committee, and take part in the proceedings of the committee, but shall not have the right to vote.
  2. Powers and functions of the Governing Board.—The powers and functions of the Governing Board shall be—(a) to promote the ideals of Auroville and to coordinate activities and services of Auroville in consultation with the Residents’ Assembly for the purposes of cohesion and integration of Auroville;

(b) to review the basic policies and the programmes of Auroville and give necessary directions for the future development of Auroville;

(c) to accord approval to the programmes of Auroville drawn up by the Residents’ Assembly;

(d) to monitor and review the activities of Auroville and to secure proper management of the properties vested in the Foundation under section 6 and other properties relatable to Auroville;

(e) to prepare a master-plan of Auroville in consultation with the Residents‟ Assembly and to ensure development of Auroville as so planned;

(f) to authorise and coordinate fund-raising for Auroville and to secure proper arrangements for receipts and disbursement of funds for Auroville.

  1. Residents’ Assembly.—(1) The Residents’ Assembly shall consist of all the residents of Auroville who are for the time being entered in the register of residents maintained under this section.

(2) The Secretary to the Governing Board shall maintain the register of residents in such manner asmay be prescribed and all the persons who are residents of Auroville and who are of the age of eighteen years and above are entitled to have their names entered in the register on an application made to the Secretary in such form as may be prescribed.

(3) All the names of residents, which have been included in the register maintained by theAdministrator appointed under section 5 of the Auroville (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1980 (59 of 1980) immediately before the appointed day, shall be deemed to have been included in the register maintainedunder this section.

  1. Functions of Residents’ Assembly.—(1) The Residents’ Assembly shall perform such functions as are required by this Act and shall advise the Governing Board in respect of all activities relating to the residents of Auroville.

(2) In particular, and without prejudice to the foregoing powers, the Residents’ Assembly may—

(a) allow the admission or cause the termination of persons in the register of residents in accordance with the regulations made under section 32;

(b) organise various activities relating to Auroville;

(c) formulate the master plan of Auroville and make necessary recommendations for the recognition of organisations engaged in activities relatable to Auroville for the approval of the Governing Board;

(d) recommend proposals for raising funds for Auroville for the approval of the Governing Board.

(3) For the purpose of carrying of its functions, the Residents’ Assembly may establish such committees as it may consider necessary which shall represent it in relation to the functions to be performed by the Governing Board.

  1. Working Committee of Residents’ Assembly.—(1) There shall be a Working Committee of the Residents‟ Assembly which shall assist the Residents’Assembly or, as the case may be, the Governing Board, in discharging its duties under this Act.

(2) The Working Committee shall consist of not more than seven members to be chosen by the Residents’ Assembly from among themselves.

(3) The manner of choosing the members of the Working Committee and their term of office shall be such as may be decided by the Residents’ Assembly.

(4) The Working Committee may, with the approval of the Governing Board, create or constitute other organisations, trusts, societies or associations relatable to Auroville if the Working Committee is satisfied that such organisations, trusts, societies or associations have—

(a) their headquarters at Auroville;

(b) declared that in all matters relating to Auroville they shall act in conformity with the decisions of the Governing Board and that their main object is to promote the ideals laid down in the Charter of Auroville proclaimed by “the Mother‟ on the 28th day of February, 1968.