Reflections from a pioneer on Auroville’s governance

Claude Arpi is a French-born Aurovilian who has been living in Auroville for the past 49 years. He is well-known as an historian and Tibetologist and was instrumental in the creation of the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture in Auroville. Here he reflects, among other things, on the role and functioning of the current Governing Board of the Auroville Foundation, appointed in October 2021.

How would you assess the present Governing Board?

Claude: The Board members hold strong views about how Auroville should develop, which in itself is a good thing. At the same time, we know that many, if not all, Board members have negative views of the Aurovilians. The narrative in government circles in New Delhi is that Auroville is not developing as it should, that accounts are cooked, and that there is a lot of fighting going on between various Auroville factions. This narrative is mostly false.


Could you explain?

It really upsets me that Board members say that ‘Aurovilians have done nothing’ in the past 55 years. They ignore that in 1968 Auroville was a desert which has been greened by the Aurovilians; that the Aurovilians themselves built the Matrimandir; and that all the land has been bought with private funds, and nearly all the houses, all the commercial buildings and most of the service-oriented buildings have been built with private donations. All the people I know have worked hard, very hard, for Auroville.

What has the government contributed in all these years? The Government has helped manifest some infrastructure, such as part of the former Crown Road, which recently was dug up to make place for the new Crown Road, helped create several school buildings and CRIPA (performance art space, eds), and funded two apartment buildings. But other major public buildings have been funded privately or received funding from national or international organisations.

Then ‘cooking the books’. I believe that the Governing Board is mistaken in its views that huge mistakes have been made. In the last one and a half years, the Board has initiated forensic audits of the accounts of many commercial units, even re-auditing accounts that had already been audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). But nothing substantial has been found and, as far as I know, no commercial unit has been accused of any serious wrongdoing.

Lastly, the in-fighting. It is true that Aurovilians often disagree on things, and that this has hampered Auroville’s development. But this is not unique to Auroville residents. I would say that it is regrettable that the Secretary, who announced when she joined Auroville that she was good at harmonising people, hasn’t been able to do so, and instead has imposed her own preference by not taking into account a truly collective effort like the Dreamweaving process.

Auroville in the 1970s

How do you evaluate the functioning of the Board?

There are a number of problems. Firstly there is the question to what extent the Board members understand the spiritual background of Auroville. Many present members may have read some of the works of Sri Aurobindo, but have they read Mother’s Agenda and have they read all that the Mother said about Auroville? 

The present administration consists of people who seem to think as technocrats. In that thinking, there is a hierarchy where they give orders which are to be obeyed. This explains the stand of the Board that they are Auroville’s supreme authority. The appeal the Board filed in the Madras High Court against the judgement of Justice Abdul Quddhose shows this view. The Board disagrees that the three authorities mentioned in the Auroville Foundation Act, namely the Governing Board, the International Advisory Council, and the Residents’  Assembly,   jointly  manage  the Foundation. The Governing Board argues that it alone has the power, the superintendence and the management of the Foundation, and that Auroville cannot be administered by the people of Auroville. We have yet to see if the appeal bench of the High Court shares this view. But in my opinion, it goes against what the Mother wanted for Auroville.

Since then, several other cases have been filed, all with the same purpose: to show that the Spirit of the Auroville Foundation Act is disregarded by the new administration.

Secondly: it is a problem that the members of the Board are not approachable. Usually they receive information only from the Office of the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation and their appointees. Previously, the Board members would stay 3-4 days in Auroville and individual Aurovilians could approach them directly, and there would always be a joint dinner at the end to which many Aurovilians would be invited. That personal interaction is not happening at present. Moreover, the community is not informed when and where a Board meeting is scheduled to happen; many Board meetings are held outside Auroville or on Zoom; and the minutes are published months afterwards… So we can’t interact directly with them, tell them about our work, our problems, our concerns, our aspirations; neither do they have an opportunity to share their observations directly with the residents. Most of the Aurovilians are very much aware of their own limitations, and would always welcome constructive criticism, which is very different from defamation.

Shri R.N. Ravi, current Chairman of the Governing Board and Hon'ble Governor of Tamil Nadu, November 2022.

How do you see the role of the Governing Board and the Government of India?

Let’s make it abundantly clear that the Auroville Foundation is an independent statutory organisation, and not a part of the Indian Government.

Regarding the Government’s role: We can only be grateful to the successive Indian governments for their unmitigated support of Auroville, starting with Prime Minister Ms. Indira Gandhi who gave her full support in the 1970s and early 1980s, the more so as she was dedicated to the Mother. It was her government that submitted the first resolutions on Auroville at UNESCO.

Subsequent governments continued that support, such as in the form of creating a special visa policy for Auroville and through grants. Prime Minister Modi too has been very positive, as we learned from his speech on the occasion of Auroville’s 50th anniversary.

The Government’s role, in my opinion, should be to protect and support Auroville – which means protecting the lands of Auroville against speculators, helping to acquire lands to consolidate the city and greenbelt areas, helping to build accommodation for those who want to join Auroville, but do not have the funds to contribute to a house or apartment, and giving a protection for visas to the foreign-born Aurovilians who have chosen to live here.


And the role of the Governing Board?

To give the freedom to the residents of Auroville to grow and develop, including the freedom of making mistakes. And, of course, to support the full functioning of Auroville’s Residents’ Assembly and the working groups chosen by it, such as the Working Committee, the Town Development Council, the Entry Board, the Auroville Council and the Funds and Assets Management Committee with its subgroups the Budget Coordination Committee and the Housing Board. We have shown between 1988 and 2021 that we could harmoniously work with the Governing Board and the Government.

Claude Arpi greeting Shri Narendra Modi, Hon'ble Prime Minister of India, during his visit in Auroville in 2018.

The Secretary has spoken about bringing 1,000 volunteers to Auroville. What is your view on this?

Those who complain about the slow population growth of Auroville should realise that, to join Auroville, you have to find accommodation. People have to make a non-refundable donation to the Auroville Foundation to the value of the house or apartment, in order to become its ‘steward’. Nowadays, we are talking about amounts between 30-60 lakh rupees [US $ 35,000 – $ 70,000]. Most importantly, what would be the motivation and the quality of aspiration for these people to come to Auroville?


What are your thoughts about the future?

I am worried because who would want to join Auroville in the present circumstances, particularly from abroad?
Whatever the outcome of the court cases, we must find solutions for solving the disharmonious situations that have arisen.

Another issue is that Auroville must find new ways of functioning and introduce more freedom and less control. A former Secretary once said that Auroville had added its own bureaucracy on top of the horrendous Indian bureaucracy. That has to change.

In the larger perspective, I rely on what the Mother said when she started Auroville:

“The city will be built by what is invisible to you. The men who have to act as instruments will do so despite themselves. They are only puppets in the hands of larger Forces. Nothing depends on human beings – neither the planning, nor the execution – nothing! That is why one can laugh.” [September 1969]

That is our only support in these difficult times.

Extracted from Voice of Auroville, Issue 02, July 2023
and partly adapted from Auroville Today, April 2023, Issue 405

Claude Arpi welcoming His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Auroville, 2009.