Summary – February to May 2024

The aggressive takeover of Auroville – which started nearly three years ago after the appointment of a new Governing Board and its Secretary, Dr Jayanti Ravi – continues unabated. Previous issues of Voice of Auroville have covered events through January 2024, a summary of which can be found here.

 

Recent happenings in Auroville continue to be alarming and distressing, and stand as testimonies to the deliberate attempt to supplant Auroville’s founding principles – led by the systematic takeover of the Auroville Foundation by its Governing Board, its Secretary (also called ‘Auroville Foundation Office’ or AVFO) and their appointees. However, despite the AVFO’s efforts at financial, institutional and ideological appropriation of Auroville, there are glimmers of hope. Here is an overview of events from February to May 2024, including some encouraging developments.

Encouraging news from the courts

In recent months, the Madras High Court has recognised the right of the Residents’ Assembly and its committees in three different court cases. One of these concerns the residents’ right to appoint their own representatives in the Working Committee; another upholds the Residents’ Assembly’s role in the admission and removal of residents; and yet a third relates to the constitution of Auroville’s Town Development Council. Regrettably, the AVFO has repeatedly appealed fair judgements from the Courts which offered the opportunity for mutuality and collaboration in the true spirit of Auroville.

Judgements recognising the Residents’ Assembly’s right to appoint its own representatives

Due to the Secretary’s persistent efforts to halt the proceedings of the Residents’ Assembly and disregard its authority, several cases were filed in the Madras High Court.

A first court case sought the recognition of the Working Committee selected by the Residents’ Assembly, and more generally the legitimacy of the Residents’ Assembly. In August 2022, a judgement on this case was issued by the Madras High Court, recognising the legitimacy of the Residents’ Assembly, and further emphasising that all three authorities of the Auroville Foundation should work in mutuality, in the true spirit of Auroville. This judgement was immediately appealed by the AVFO and an interim stay on this judgement was ordered by the appeal bench of the Madras High Court in the same month. Since then, the matter has gone through a number of hearings. In September 2023, the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court issued a modification of the interim stay, affirming that the Residents’ Assembly is a statutory body and therefore cannot be interfered with by any external officer, authority or other entity. Although the case hasn’t been fully settled, and the Secretary and her appointees consistently ignore the orders of the court, this interim verdict brought some much needed relief to the residents of Auroville.

In January 2024 the AVFO and Governing Board published in the Gazette of India two new regulations. One of these was aimed at controlling who would be in the Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly, effectively denying once more the residents’ statutory right to appoint their own representatives. The other regulation attempted to grant the Governing Board the powers to appoint members in a “scrutinising committee” which would deal with the admission of new Auroville residents, and the removal of existing Auroville residents. This would give the AVFO full control over who is permitted to reside in Auroville, and thus over the composition of the Residents’ Assembly – a clear overreach. [See detailed report here]

New cases were filed by residents and their Working Committee to invalidate these new regulations. The Madras High Court ordered an interim stay on 23rd February, pointing out that the new regulations contradicted the Auroville Foundation Act and should therefore be put on hold for the time being. Further hearings are pending. In the meantime, the residents’ rights to appoint their own representatives in the Working Committee, in the Admissions Committee (aka Entry Board) and in the Termination Committee (aka Exit Review Committee) is protected, which gave some hope and relief to the Residents’ Assembly. Nonetheless, in spite of the court orders, the AVFO still refuses to recognize these committees of the Residents’ Assembly, ignoring all efforts at communication and dialogue. The AVFO also continues to undermine these groups’ ability to function, by withholding all financial resources and budgets – generated through community funding.

Judgements on the Town Development Council

On 15th March, the Madras High Court struck down as illegal the Standing Order issued in 2021 by the AVFO, which had reconstituted the Town Development Council (TDC) without any Residents’ Assembly consultation. Previously, 11 of the 13 TDC members were selected directly by the Residents’ Assembly. The High Court judged that the AVFO’s recent Standing Order was not in line with the Auroville Foundation Act of 1988, nor with the Auroville Master Plan (Perspective 2025). The verdict stated that the Governing Board had appropriated the entire powers of the Residents’ Assembly for itself in the Standing Order, and had virtually nullified the Residents’ Assembly’s existence and role vis-à-vis the Master Plan. The Court stated that it will be open for the Governing Board to frame fresh regulations in tune with the provision of the Act – and, for the time being, that the 2021 Standing Order is invalid. Again, this judgement emphasised the need for mutuality and collaboration.

In accordance with this judgement, the Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly and the Town Development Council of the Residents’ Assembly drafted new regulations, which were presented to the Auroville community for feedback prior to future submission to the Governing Board for approval. These draft regulations emphasise the complementary role to be played both by the Residents’ Assembly and Governing Board in matters related to the Town Development Council.

Unfortunately, the AVFO chose to challenge the Madras High Court verdict by appealing to the Supreme Court. On 29th April 2024, the Supreme Court handed down an interim judgement which put a stay on the earlier verdict from the Madras High Court. While the earlier Madras High Court verdict is not nullified, it is paused until further orders, which is viewed by many as a real setback. Further hearings on this matter are planned for the month of July.

The Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly has stated that the ‘TDC’ reconstituted by the AVFO acts in total defiance of earlier Residents’ Assembly decisions, and the residents’ advice or well-being; fully ignores environmental and sustainability concerns and accomplishments, even though they are one of Auroville’s biggest strengths in an increasing planetary crisis; does not respect national and international standards in terms of planning and development; misuses funds generated by the residents of Auroville without their consent; and violates the values and ideals of Auroville. These appointees of the AVFO have indeed spearheaded most of the ecological and material destruction in Auroville since December 2021.

Meeting of the Residents’ Assembly, 16th March 2024
Meeting of the Residents’ Assembly, 16th March 2024
Tree cutting under AVFO directive, April 2024

Ecological crisis intensifies

Matrimandir lake stirs deep concerns

In April 2024, concerned residents of Auroville circulated a petition requesting a halt of the excavation of the Matrimandir Lake and proposing an integrated development process. The petition highlighted a deep concern about the possible negative environmental impact of a lake of such depth and the effect this will have on the surrounding villages. It stated, “We believe that it is possible to fulfil Mother’s guidelines for the lake in an environmentally sensitive, humanely inclusive, beautiful, and timely manner.” It concludes, “By pausing the ongoing work and considering all options, we can ensure a solution that reflects the values of Auroville and the wishes of the wider community.”

When the petition, supported by over 450 residents, was handed over to the Matrimandir executives, they refused to engage in any dialogue with the delegates. The next day, the Matrimandir executives publicly responded to the petition, stating it contained fundamental errors regarding the impact of the lake, and they were determined to continue the excavation work as planned. Despite residents sending another letter in response to this declaration, the Matrimandir executives refused to engage in further dialogue.

The present lake plan is based on a very simple lake drawing signed by Roger Anger, the chief architect of Auroville, in 2005. This drawing states the lake depth as “at least 2m” and shows a few peninsulas and an island – all absent in the ongoing plan. The concern of many community experts is that this original drawing obviously lacks sufficient research data and design details to be considered a final drawing to be executed.

Because of the concerns about the design and implementation of this project, a dedicated Matrimandir Lake Task Force had been formed by expert residents and endorsed by the Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly in December 2023, in order to prepare an alternative lake design that addresses relevant concerns expressed by the community, while integrating elements of the current plan and ongoing work. The aim was to create an integral lake development plan appropriate to long-term, sustainable water resource management for Auroville and the surrounding bio-region. The Task Force briefed the acclaimed Indian landscape architect Mohan Rao and his team, who then drafted a first design proposal. On 29th April the proposal video was shared with the Matrimandir executives and the lake team, who replied to residents that they welcome the initiative and proposal of collaboration with the condition that the existing plan must remain as it is – de facto denying any form of true collaboration.

The Working Committee has also recently written to the Matrimandir Executives to suggest that a third party technical panel be invited to assess the ongoing lake project as a means to move forward in an inclusive and more professional manner. This proposal was rejected.

In the meantime, work continues at Matrimandir. A tall hill of excavated earth has been piled within the premises. Some of this soil has been used to level the sides of the Crown road, and other large amounts have been transported to private lands owned by the Pvt. Ltd. company of Michael Bonke, a major donor behind the Matrimandir lake’s funding and execution. The Matrimandir team has stated that this will be used to form a large artificial hill approximately 2 km to the northeast of the city. As the site for that hill has not yet been secured, the Matrimandir team states that the “waste of time, energy and money” involved in moving the earth twice is “unavoidable”. Again the community has not been consulted in the process and its concerns are ignored.

Tree cutting continues despite questionable legality

Widespread and excessive tree cutting and clearing has continued along parts of the Crown, Outer Ring and Radials that go through Auroville settlements and carefully reforested lands. As reported in our last edition, in December 2023 the Supreme Court placed an ‘interim stay’ on the National Green Tribunal (NGT)’s 2022 verdict, following an appeal by the AVFO. This ‘stay’ has been interpreted by the AVFO as a licence to indiscriminately destroy whole sections of Auroville. [See here for more information]

For instance, in the Darkali Forest Park, contractors engaged by the AVFO have widened the Crown road beyond the 9.1 metre width that was recommended in the Joint Committee report ordered by the NGT. In the process, workers have piled large amounts of soil around some of the remaining trees, up to a height of 1.5 metres, which will likely suffocate and kill the trees. In several areas, no information has been formally shared with Aurovilians about the purpose of the tree cutting and land clearing.

The legality of the AVFO’s actions are still in question. While the ‘stay’ in principle allows the AVFO to cut the trees until a further court judgement, the law – and Auroville’s Master Plan – requires environmental clearance for such actions.

Devastation in Darkali Park

Large sections of the environmentally-sensitive Darkali area have been devastated in the AVFO’s efforts to pave the Crown road through the 50-acre park.

The extensive earth works and soil piling has not only destroyed rare, regenerating TDEF trees and formed a physical barrier for fauna and water, it has also destroyed the park’s sophisticated rain water conservation system. With water from more than 60% of the area inside Auroville’s ‘Crown’ draining through Darkali during the monsoons, the park’s water system would typically harvest an estimated four million litres of water per year. This is a vital contribution to aquifer recharge and the future ecological sustainability of Auroville and its neighbouring villages. However, in recent months, some of Darkali’s most important water harvesting structures have been partially filled with earth, and the topography of the Crown has been dramatically altered for roads and the lake. The negative impact on aquifer recharge will no doubt be felt soon.

Other dams and water harvesting ponds in Auroville will most likely be destroyed in the AVFO’s indiscriminate actions to build the Crown Road, Radials and Outer Ring Road. The negligent filling in and paving over of vital water ways does not take into account Auroville’s topographical particularities, nor the water drainage system across the Auroville plateau, nor the need to fortify the region’s water security for the future.

Road developments

The AVFO continues to invite many tenders for various works within Auroville. Among them are tenders to execute the balance portion of the Crown Road, including LED street lighting, as well as tenders to construct an Outer Ring Road. The latter would be a huge circular road separating Auroville’s city centre from its Greenbelt, which may also encourage heavy motorised traffic within Auroville. There are many unanswered questions about the likely impact on mobility and local ecology. Moreover, auctioning off Auroville’s infrastructure development to external parties who are merely doing a job for financial benefit and are not aligned with the ideals of the project is not likely to result in the Auroville envisioned by the Mother, or architecturally conceptualised by Chief Architect Roger Anger.

Ongoing digging for the Matrimandir lake, May 2024
Ongoing digging for the Matrimandir lake, June 2024
Ongoing works on the Crown road in the Darkali area, May 2024

Financial mismanagement continues

Preying on Auroville land

As reported here, the AVFO has been exchanging prime Auroville properties – including highly valuable large plots near the highway – for small parcels of land in Auroville’s city centre under the guise of ‘consolidation’ for development. The unequal exchanges are destroying Auroville’s essential land base, and the reported undervaluation of Auroville lands has resulted in significant financial losses (more than ₹150 Crores or US $18 million). It is reported that more such land exchanges are in the pipeline.

These exchanges have taken place in an opaque manner and without the required consultation with key Auroville committees and stakeholders. Grave concerns have been raised about the secrecy and conflicts of interest among involved parties. Established procedures, such as government approvals, have been ignored. A number of the lands acquired are also in the Green Belt, so the AVFO’s explanation of ‘City area consolidation’ is not credible.

The Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly has repeatedly requested government intervention to freeze ongoing land exchange deals and to conduct independent investigations. It has sent legal notices to authorities regarding violations of finance rules and lack of consultation. An Auroville resident filed a petition in the Madras High Court on 28th March requesting the Auroville Foundation to refrain from land exchanges and to cancel registrations of land exchanges that have taken place since 2021. Also, on 28th March, four of the five International Advisory Council (IAC) members circulated a letter to Auroville Residents that expressed their alarm at reports of land exchanges. The letter outlined their concern regarding “the unequal value of land being exchanged by the Auroville Foundation” and the losses that have been incurred. They said that they had sent a “strongly worded statement” to the Governing Board to express their concerns and to request that exchanges be paused “until the community is reassured that effective steps to ensure transparency and fairness to all stakeholders have been taken.” No response has been forthcoming.

All Auroville lands have been bought with funds donated in good faith by Aurovilians and well-wishers around the world. These indiscriminate exchanges betray the trust of these donors as well as the local former landowners who were willing to part with their land for the benefit of the Auroville project. The situation calls for immediate intervention to halt all land exchanges and address malpractices in order to ensure transparency and adherence to proper processes and Auroville’s principles.

Farms once again under attack

In March, the AVFO tendered and auctioned the harvest of the fruit trees on Auroville farms without any consultation. This means that Auroville farms lose yet another source of income, in addition to recent maintenance cuts and loss of productive farmland due to land exchanges. The Auroville Farm Group publicly decried the actions as “yet another blow to farming in Auroville”. It seems perverse that the AVFO is actively making Auroville farms untenable when the Governing Board itself had previously emphasised the need for Auroville to sustainably produce its own food. It is possible that such transactions concerning the lease of Auroville’s fruit trees by the AVFO might be subject to future legal challenges.

Community funds continue to vanish

An additional number of Aurovilians were notified by the AVFO’s appointees in February that their monthly stipend would be cut, starting 1st March. This followed earlier emails to some residents that their work would be “realigned”. Over the last two years, 160 residents have had their stipends cancelled, leaving a number of these individuals with no alternative viable livelihood. Further cuts are expected and will deeply affect Aurovilians who depend on the modest sum to cover basic living expenses – including their monthly community contribution – for themselves and their families. At the same time, a number of residents who had been granted a waiver on contributions due to their limited resources have been ordered to start paying contributions, including ‘arrears’ on supposed amounts due, going back up to three years. This is financially impossible for many. Moreover, it is highly questionable to change an existing policy and practice, and then demand that residents pay ‘back dues’ calculated according to these changes while ignoring the fact that they were complying with the policy at the time.

Meanwhile, on 9th April, the Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly sent an email to AVFO appointees demanding that they restore access to the accounts and funds of the various groups selected by the Residents’ Assembly, which were cut two years ago, along with the individual stipends of group members. These funds were allocated from community-generated funds, which make up over 90% of Auroville’s total annual income.

Cuts to cultural centres

Two of Auroville’s largest cultural and performing arts centres were informed by AVFO appointees that their funding would be reduced to partial or zero support from April 2024. Auroville’s CRIPA (Centre for Research in Performing Arts) and Pitanga Cultural Centre were directed to become self-sufficient in less than two months and may be forced to begin charging for access. Auroville has been a strong example of free and accessible community arts and cultural spaces, but this is now progressively being curtailed.

AVFO defunds and blocks essential online services

Ever since the AVFO’s forceful takeover of the community’s auroville.org.in domain in 2022, it has appeared that @auroville.org.in email addresses were no longer secure. This, together with a systematic use of censorship to shut down dissenting voices, has greatly affected the community’s use of certain online services such as the Auronet – an online forum for the residents of Auroville. However, other online services were still functional and in use – until recently.

Talam, the Auroville unit that had developed and managed key software support for many of Auroville’s online services, announced that it would have to cease support for 22 software services from April 2024. Talam had already been explicitly instructed by the AVFO in July 2023 to hand over its work to AVFO appointees, yet these appointees never stepped forward to take on the required work. Affected services include the Auroville Directory, the Guest Registration Service and the Matrimandir booking portal. In May 2024, as an emergency response, the Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly took the initiative to release a new beta software that ensures access for all to the Auroville Directory.

A number of Auroville services and units have been affected by similar AVFO directives over the last two years. In each case, the AVFO has summarily withdrawn funding and replaced an existing service provider with their own appointees who are often unable to do the work. It would appear the AVFO is more concerned with community control, and the appearance of power, rather than effective community support systems.

Burning vegetation after clear cutting Cashew tope in AuroOrchard following a land exchange, April 2024
New fence through vegetable cultivation in AuroOrchard organic farm, May 2024
The Auroville Choir performs at CRIPA hall

Perseverance and resilience amidst crisis

New representatives for the Residents’ Assembly

The Selection Process to appoint new representatives of the Residents’ Assembly took place on 27th-28th April 2024. The Working Committee invited residents to take part in the selection process despite the ongoing crisis, emphasising that “The Residents’ Assembly is alive and continues to function… Building a strong, united and dedicated community, and manifesting the ‘City the Earth Needs’ is the call of the hour. This is not only our collective responsibility but also our aim for being here, our promise to ourselves and to the … true spirit of Auroville.” The response to this call was heartening and, as a result of this Selection Process, new representatives were selected for three of the Residents’ Assembly’s working groups, including two new members for the seven-member Working Committee.

Local Aurovilians gather to denounce the takeover

A community meeting took place on 16th March to update participants in Tamil and English about various aspects of Auroville’s takeover. The actions of the AVFO were criticised by Tamil community members, who emphasised Auroville’s responsibility to care for the welfare of the neighbouring villages. The speakers stated they had approached local authorities for support. The meeting was followed up one week later with a related meditation event called ‘Dream about the Future’.

“Aquifers and watersheds don’t understand administrative boundaries. These are common resources for the people. All along, Auroville has planned for the entire Kaluveli watershed.

Do we want to live on an island which excludes the local people? Or do we want to live in a demonstrative manner in the highest ideals of Sri Aurobindo and tenets of human unity and inclusion that we inspire people to live in those ways?”

– Major Arun Ambathy, Newcomer, in a speech given at the 16th March meeting organised by local Aurovilians against the takeover, here denouncing AVFO water mismanagement.

Auroville farmers strive to survive

AuroOrchard, one of Auroville’s oldest and most productive organic farms, has been the target of several highly questionable land exchanges by the AVFO (see here). Over 16 acres of its farmland have been handed to speculators involved in real-estate development, with devastating impact on farm production. Despite the losses, AuroOrchard team members communicated on 26th May that they are reorganising themselves to advance their vision of growing food for Auroville. Thanks to national and international support, they have been able to start cultivating new crops in non-exchanged land plots.

Council Room still held in 24/7 vigil

Auroville Council members received a letter in March 2024 from AVFO appointees which stated that the “unauthorised users” of the Council meeting room located in the Town Hall must vacate by 15th March and that strict action would be taken against those that violated this order. The room is currently used by essential groups of the Residents’ Assembly, such as the Entry Board and the Council, and has been ‘held’ by residents for more than 20 months in a continuous 24-hour a day vigil. The Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly described the notice as an overreach of power and an intimidation tactic that disregards once more the essential role of the Residents’ Assembly and its duly selected working groups in the day-to-day management of Auroville. Despite the notice, the vigil still continues thanks to courageous residents.

Award recognises Aurovilian Bernard Declercq’s ecological work

In April 2024, on the occasion of the birth anniversary of the late agricultural scientist and ecological farming expert Dr. G. Nammalvar, Aurovilian Bernard Declercq was presented with the Vanagam Award For Lifetime Achievement in honour of his consistent efforts, along with those of his wife Deepika, to reforest the barren land of Auroville’s Pebble Garden. The Nammalvar Ecological Foundation for Global Food Security and Farm Research created this special award to acknowledge and recognise Bernard’s quiet and decades-long contribution towards re-greening the planet. Ironically, the current Auroville administration does not seem to value this work at all, as can be seen in its intentions to give away important sections of Pebble Garden as part of a land exchange deal (see here).

Representatives of the Residents’ Assembly addressing Auroville residents at a General Meeting, 30th April 2024
Major Arun Ambathy speaking to fellow residents at a General Meeting, 16th March 2024

National and international voices raised on Auroville’s behalf

Statement on Auroville’s current situation

Two members of Auroville’s International Advisory Council (IAC) published a strong statement on misgovernance under Auroville’s current administration. They called upon the Governing Board and Secretary to “change course, reverse recent decisions, engage in genuine consultations with the Residents’ Assembly, and make a sincere attempt to understand Auroville (…) to boost the successes further and work out solutions to resolve the failures or limitations in a collaborative atmosphere.”​​ Their letter decried: the breakdown in the spirit of mutuality and “strong arm tactics” to “coerce residents into obedience”; the AVFO’s lack of a detailed plan or an environmental audit and its ongoing destruction and degradation of the environment; the Governing Board’s failure to rein in the administration and its Secretary; and a misreading of the Auroville Charter and the Auroville Foundation Act. This letter was further endorsed by eight eminent international personalities, including five former IAC members. 

Creation of an Auroville Global Fellowship

On 28th February 2024, Auroville’s birthday, the Auroville Global Fellowship was launched by a group of residents. It is an email forum on which national and international Auroville supporters who have significantly contributed to the world in fields related to the evolutionary ideals of Auroville can be informed about and discuss current developments in Auroville, and can serve as a valuable sounding board. This email forum is taking shape, and will hopefully become an enduring resource to support Auroville in this moment of crisis and beyond. More or less at the same time, the AVFO created its own Fellowship program, with a different purpose: recruiting new interns, who would work and receive stipends and housing to support their activities in Auroville. These initiatives, despite their similar names, should not be confused.

State politicians express concern

In a speech given while visiting Puducherry, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Mr. M. K. Stalin suggested that Auroville is currently under the wrongful influence of an external interest group and pledged his support to an implementation of Auroville that would be “according to the dream of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother”.

Meanwhile, Shri M. Chakrapani, a Member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly for a nearby constituency, handed over a letter to the AVFO Secretary in April 2024 alleging Auroville mismanagement over the last two years; this letter has been widely circulated. He stated that Auroville’s continued development and sustainability is a matter of great pride for the 100 villages he represents. He criticised Auroville’s current governance, in particular the replacement of local Tamil Aurovilians in working groups with other Tamil appointees as “a tokenistic” move, and expressed his disapproval at the dismissal of local Tamil workers without sufficient compensation. He objected to the harassment of Aurovilian Tamils who have taken issue with recent decisions, and expressed concern about delayed visa renewal of foreigners who are dedicated to Auroville and have exposed “corruption and illegal activities”. Mr. Chakrapani raised the issue of bribes and corruption in cases involving land purchases, and questioned the Secretary about measures to ensure transparency and financial probity. Mr. Chakrapani concluded his letter stating that if the current malpractices, such as the abuse of power, corruption, and harassment of Tamil Auroville residents and foreigners, are not remedied soon, the Secretary may lose the goodwill and support of the neighbouring villages and the population of Auroville, resulting in increased public protest against the current administration.

Last remnants of the previous roads, March 2024

Hope remains

Despite the deplorable state in which Auroville finds itself, shaken to the core by the steady stream of violations, hope remains. The recent Madras High Court judgements uphold the residents’ rights to participate in the co-creation of their environment. This, and the show of support from within India and around the world, gives residents some hope. You, as a reader of this issue, can also play a crucial role in bolstering Auroville and its residents through the crisis: your presence and active support make a difference. To learn more about how to help, please refer to the last page of this issue.

Extracted from Voice of Auroville, Issue 06, June 2024

Budding tree at the Town Hall - Matrimandir crossing, April 2023