Beyond the Auroville blockades

Dec 29, 2021 | Planning & development

Recent events have shown that all is not well in India’s living laboratory for Life on planet Earth. Factions are clashing in Auroville and the government is taking sides, jeopardising decades of social innovation and many more to come.

Most people probably didn’t know such a place existed, and this is partly because Auroville, the world’s largest intentional community located near Pondicherry, has been notoriously inward looking. For all its weaknesses and wrongdoings the assumption was that Aurovilians should be able to solve their issues quietly amongst themselves. This suddenly changed a few weeks ago when authorities first brought in police and later hired muscle to forcefully bulldoze forests, homes of youth and community processes that are key to Auroville’s search for solutions to the world’s social, economic and ecological problems.

You can read more about what happened on the website curated by residents, but in this article we will explore some of these experiments and ask why they did not reach the rest of India and the world?

This is important because the argument for the bulldozing is that residents have betrayed the purpose of the Auroville project and blocked the building of a model city, where mankind can evolve beyond its current state of selfishness and complacency.

As a social entrepreneurship coach living in this town I have a few observations that show the opposite. Attempts at system change have indeed been thwarted, but not by tree hugging Luddites. Instead, internal bureaucracy and self-appointed authorities of the kind that are now partnering with the government are the blockers of progress. This matters because diagnosing the disease is key to finding a cure.

As mentioned, Auroville is an attempt to address all challenges facing our civilization at the same time. Otto Scharmer (MIT professor and author of the Theory U) listed what’s all not working based on a number of “disconnects”:
-Ecology
-Equality
-Finance
-Technology
-Leadership
-Consumerism
-Governance
-Ownership
Scharmer and his team at the Presencing Institute proposed key areas of intervention to address these disconnects and flip the script (https://www.presencing.org/aboutus/ego-to-eco/acupuncture-points).

System change initiatives have been launched in Auroville in most of these areas, some even with direct reference to Scharmer’s method of “leading from the future”. In fact, so much work has been done that we stopped keeping track of it because we started taking it for granted. I have been running a startup incubator for 7 years and received no official support because I was told there is more than enough creativity, and what we needed was large scale commerce – an Auroville unicorn.

I will hand pick a few examples and illustrate what blocked them from reaching their potential.

Transit Lounge – Flexible Housing
The proposal was to use empty plots of land to house newcomers in Auroville, unblocking the inflow of human resources and speeding up the growth of the city. Low cost sustainable construction techniques would be experimented with in collaboration with Indian architecture students, so that lessons would flow into the affordable housing sector to help resolve the trade-off between cheap and green.

It was blocked by the same people currently blaming foresters for being stubborn, arguing that temporary housing would not look beautiful and that the vacant land needs to be kept vacant pending a large-scale construction project that has been in discussion for 40 years. Housing in Auroville is still a crisis and newcomers need massive savings to find a home.

ASAP – Local Food Systems
This was a multi-faceted project to increase food self-sufficiency (currently stagnant at 15%), addressing one of the hardest nuts to crack in system change: personal habits. Diets don’t match local crops. A campaign with gamified consumer education and breaking down institutional barriers to allow for stakeholder governed value chains were part of the deal.

It was blocked because of lack of trust between farmers, retailers and restaurants and because it was believed that outsiders could never understand the uniqueness of the Auroville food system and hence should not be allowed to help. Trust is the core currency of a community and the basis for collective creativity. Unfortunately, top down authoritarianism erodes trust, increasing rather than bridging the divide.

Koodam – conflict resolution
This project aimed to meet the needs for facilitated difficult conversations. The term Koodam refers to a Tamil traditional space for social processes. After years of uphill struggle in getting recognition for the importance of facilitation (conflict prevention) and mediation (conflict resolution) Koodam closed its doors.

The founders of Koodam are hopeful that some of the work lives on amongst those touched by its success. But I see it as one of the biggest losses to Auroville, especially now that power hungry real estate developers are actively inciting racial hatred and using unresolved tensions to divide and rule. Multicultural co-living was never going to be easy, but without process support it can implode at any moment.

Resource Mobilization Service
This was a help desk for project holders seeking funds, talent and space. One of the aims was to collectivise fundraising, overcoming the zero sum game attitude of “more for you is less for me”. A shared menu of projects was developed to present to CSR donors, and a crowdfunding portal was set up.

However, it was seen as a threat to those who prefer keeping donor leads in their own control, often bypassing community consultation before raising funds on behalf of everyone. To sustain the service it would have needed either formal backing or permission to charge a success fee. Both were denied. Ironically, the current conflict centers around infrastructure for which funds were raised without people participation, pitting the donor against the beneficiary.

Lotus – alternative currency
This was a comprehensive overhaul of the economic system, bringing it towards a fraternal and cash-free state as envisioned by the founders of Auroville. Years were spent on simulating the transition from consumer capitalism towards collective Gift Economy, and in the end the Funds and Assets Management Committee (Auroville’s internal ministry of finance) rejected the proposal because it was too experimental. The argument was that it should be tried amongst a few households first, but the FAMC was not ready to get involved.

This is a typical example of Auroville being stuck in the ’80s when it was small and quaint and everyone could mind their own business. System change requires a level of coordination that goes beyond “you do you” – but those in positions of power often see the risk to themselves more clearly than the benefits to the whole.

So is it all doom and gloom and end of story? Not necessarily. After the recent trauma and violence a few initiatives have sprung up from the dark corners of oppression and rejection, most notably the Dreamweaving process combined with the Citizens Assembly.

Citizens assemblies have been tried and tested in Europe as alternative to representative democracy which suffers from a lack of legitimacy in most countries. It uses random selection of citizens to avoid bias and prejudice. Extinction Rebellion has long been promoting it as a way out of climate policy deadlock.

Dreamweaving involves architects collaborating on urban design, integrating insights from engineering and residents. If allowed to prove itself this might be the tipping point for Auroville to finally show the world that system change is possible and set us off on a path towards decentralised, bottom up innovation.

As stated by the Vikalp Sangam, India’s leading network of system change seeking civil society organisations, Auroville is of little value to India if authoritarianism takes over and rolls back its special status of hotspot for out-of-the-box thinking and doing. What it needs is help to outgrow old fashioned ways of dealing with power and money.

Gijs