Legal update

Madras High Court: Foundation appeal on the judgment of 12/08/2022

 

On 26 August 2022, an appeal bench of the Madras High Court gave an interim order that temporarily suspended the ruling that a single High Court judge sitting on 12 August had given. The 12 August Ruling:

  1. quashed (ie declared invalid) an Office Order by which the Governing Board (GB) unilaterally reconstituted Auroville’s Town Development Council (ATDC); and
  2. quashed a communication of 6 May 2022 by which the GB, through its “Officer on Special Duty,” sought to suspend RA activities like Decision Making Processes (RADs). The effect of the 6 May communication was that the RA’s choice of members for its Working Committee were replaced by the GB with its own handpicked members. These handpicked members had been comprehensively rejected by the RA.

 

The 26 August interim order was given because the Court found that the 12 August Ruling had gone beyond the narrow requests that the Aurovilian petitioners had made of the High Court in their writ petitions. This means that, for now, the GB’s handpicked members of the ATDC and the Working Committee can stay in office.

 

The 26 August interim order was applied for by the Auroville Foundation (AVFO) as part of an appeal it has lodged against the 12 August Ruling. 

The grounds of appeal that the AVF have lodged seek the Auroville Foundation Act 1988 (to be interpreted in a manner that defeats the accepted interpretation that gives the three statutory Authorities (the Governing Board, the International Advisory Council, and the Residents’ Assembly) an equal standing. Mr Justice Quddhose said on 12 August that “The nature of the enactment shows that there is no place for egoistic thinking as all the three authorities will have to jointly work for the achievement of ‘The Mother’s’ Charter. The relationship between the three authorities is of mutuality.”

 

The AVFO does not accept this principle of mutuality. It has argued that “the Governing Board is the supreme authority under the Auroville Foundation Act, 1988.” The consequence would be an adoption of top down decision-making where, amongst other matters:

  • The GB’s requirement to consult the RA is only “in a limited sphere”;
  • Aurovilians are to be regarded as merely “voluntary workers as part of a Sangha, not a democratic assembly of residents claiming rights to self-rule”; and
  • “The entire lands [of Auroville], properties, undertakings vest with the central government and the central government has delegated all its powers to the foundation, which in turn are managed by the Governing Board.”

 

National Green Tribunal: AVFO Appeal, Supreme Court

 

On 28 April 2022, the National Green Tribunal gave its ruling in a matter brought by Aurovilians regarding the AVFO cutting of a large number of trees and failing to take account of Auroville’s biological diversity when doing so. The NGT ordered, amongst other matters, that the AVF must “prepare a proper township plan”, apply for Environmental Clearance for development works to be undertaken, and act “strictly in accordance with the recommendations made by the Joint Committee” of environmental experts that the Tribunal would appoint. The NGT Ruling has been appealed to the Supreme Court by the AVFO.

 

On 29 August, the first Supreme Court hearing regarding the appeal from the NGT was heard. The AVFO Secretary’s son-in-law again appeared as one of the counsel acting for parties supporting the AVFO. Counsel for the AVFO itself, however, was “indisposed.” Therefore, the hearing was re-listed for 5 September. The listing of the NGT appeal with the Supreme Court does not immediately end the NGT’s involvement in the matter.

 

National Green Tribunal: Compliance with Tribunal Order

 

On 10 August, the NGT was asked to consider whether its direction to the AVFO to “carry out the Crown Road work, in the impugned area with tree cover, strictly in accordance with the recommendations made by the Joint Committee” was being complied with by the AVFO. This was as a result of widespread concern in Auroville that the pace of conspicuous infrastructure development had continued despite the NGT’s order of 28 April. The Tribunal therefore listed a hearing at which the Joint Committee’s report could be produced and submissions could be heard regarding whether the AVFO had complied with the orders of the NGT. The next hearing in relation to this matter is listed for 15 September.

 

Madras High Court: Challenge to recent Office Order reconstituting the ATDC

 

Separate to the appeal of the 12 August Ruling by the AVF, another writ petition has been lodged by an Aurovilian at the Madras High Court relating to a questionable Office Order dated 1 June 2022, signed by the AVF Secretary. The Office Order seeks to reconstitute the Auroville Town Development Council (ATDC) with hand-selected members, in contravention of existing mechanisms for appointing ATDC members. A copy of said Office Order was revealed for the first time only more than 6 weeks after it was allegedly created, and then only in the course of the court case that led to the 12 August Ruling.

 

The veracity and legitimacy of the 1 June Office Order are raised, in part, by the lateness with which it was published in the Gazette of India, that being on 15 July 2022. The matter has been reserved for the attention of Mr Justice Quddhose, the same judge who gave the Ruling of 12 August. The AVF have been ordered to file their response to the writ petition with the Madras High Court by 19 September 2022.