Following the appointment of a new Secretary to the Governing Board in 2021, Auroville has faced a series of takeovers that endanger its unique achievements and experimental nature. Previous issues of Voice of Auroville have covered these events up through August 2023, a summary of which can be found here.
Despite some encouraging news in September from the Madras High Court, which upheld the status and function of Auroville’s Residents’ Assembly, the Office of the Secretary to the Governing Board (also called ‘Auroville Foundation Office’ or AVFO) and their appointees continued to roll-out new policies that threaten and undermine the Auroville community. Here is a short overview of events during the months of September and October 2023.
News from the Courts
The Madras High Court, in a significant move, upheld the status and functioning of the Residents’ Assembly in Auroville. On 4th September 2023, the appeal bench, including the Hon’ble Madras High Court Chief Justice, noted in an interim order that the Residents’ Assembly, as a statutory body, cannot be restricted from performing its duties as per the Auroville Foundation Act. This decision effectively nullifies the AVFO’s justification for curtailing residents’ rights to make decisions for Auroville. Subsequently, the Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly emphasised that while the legal journey is ongoing, this development serves as a pivotal milestone and they remain committed to ensuring that the Residents’ Assembly’s role is fully recognised and respected. A final verdict from the Court is still awaited on the matter.
Other hearings and legal developments are ongoing. One of these concerns actions by the AVFO which are in contempt of the National Green Tribunal’s ruling of April 2022, according to the lawyer for the Auroville petitioners.
Targeted actions against Earth Institute executives
Satprem Maïni, an executive and founder of the internationally renowned Auroville Earth Institute (AVEI), faced a series of actions initiated by the AVFO and its appointees. After he presented a number of detailed technical reports criticising the Crown Road works and other related actions, Satprem’s visa recommendation was revoked by the AVFO in June 2023 and he was subsequently issued an Exit Permit by the immigration authorities. At the end of September, the AVFO and its appointees used the visa situation to justify removing Satprem from the Register of Residents and blocked his access to his Auroville financial accounts and Auroville’s internal communication channels. Satprem was also summarily removed from his executive position at the AVEI. The other AVEI executive, Ayyappan, was also removed as an executive based on contested records of the Register of Residents. Furthermore, AVEI’s bank accounts were frozen on the orders of an AVFO-appointed trustee, rendering the functioning of the Institute nearly impossible.
In October 2023, Satprem was instructed by the Indian immigration authorities to leave India at the earliest and he finally left on 31st October. This may result in the Auroville Earth Institute shutting down completely, an abrupt end to one of the finest training centres responsible for the largest growing network of earthen construction in the country and the world.
Residents rally against controversial expulsions
On 23rd October 2023, the Working Committee of the Residents’ Assembly initiated an emergency Residents’ Assembly decision-making process, inviting all residents to vote on a resolution pertaining to the Register of Residents. This was prompted by the unauthorised removal and omission of at least three Aurovilians (Maël, Satprem and Ayyappan) from the Register by the AVFO and its appointees. The Residents’ Assembly resolution, available in seven languages, challenges these removals, particularly in light of the Madras High Court’s recent order that confirmed the Residents’ Assembly’s sole prerogative in deciding admission and removal of individuals in the Register of Residents.
This emergency Residents’ Assembly decision-making process concluded with impressive participation. Out of the 741 voters, there was an impressive 98% approval of the resolution, asserting that the actions taken against Ayyappan, Mael, Satprem, and any others were invalid because there was no due process, as is required by the approved regulations and according to principles of natural justice. Again, the Residents’ Assembly showed solidarity and a spirit of community despite the ongoing challenges.
Matrimandir Lake developments continue to cause concern
A large part of the Residents’ Assembly has repeatedly voiced concerns that the recent expansion of the lake construction is in violation of the National Green Tribunal’s ruling and is insufficiently planned and researched. Representatives of the Residents’ Assembly have sent several letters to the Matrimandir Executives which have yet to be adequately addressed. In a feedback process following a General Meeting on 2nd October, over 80% of 273 respondents shared their main concerns: the lack of planning related to water management and the commencement of the next phase before the test phase has been completed and reviewed, as previously agreed.
On 30th September, the lawyers for the National Green Tribunal petitioners sent a legal notice to the Matrimandir Executives regarding their “wilful and wanton violation of the judgement of the Hon’ble National Green Tribunal”. Two meetings were held on 19th September and 10th October with the community and Michael Bonke, a non-Aurovilian long-term Matrimandir donor and the main driver behind the lake construction. While his presentation was intended to address some existing concerns (such as fixing future leaks), a number of major questions remain unanswered (such as how the lake will be filled). These answers are crucial to understanding potential environmental impacts, not only for Auroville but for the bioregion as well. Concerns of a potential conflict of interest regarding Michael Bonke’s role as the main donor of the project, the deciding party, and the main executor, have yet to be addressed. Recently, new efforts have been initiated to collaboratively work out solutions and harmonise different approaches.
Visa recommendations linked to financial contributions
The AVFO has made the extension of residents’ visa recommendations contingent upon whether or not the applicant is up to date with their monthly financial contributions to the community. In the past, the Budget Coordination Committee, responsible for Auroville’s communal budget, had granted contribution waivers in particular instances. Residents working full-time for the community without a monthly stipend, or those who had invested a large amount of their own funds to buy land or develop projects for Auroville usually qualified for a waiver if requested. The new policy of the AVFO is not based on any legal requirement or approved process and appears to target only Aurovilians who require a visa to stay in Auroville. This is deeply concerning as it effectively imposes a residence tax without consideration for an individual’s financial situation, which is antithetical to the community’s ethos.
Auroville’s oldest lands under threat
The situation surrounding the controversial land exchanges led by the AVFO and its ‘Land Board’ has grown more urgent. Not only have these transactions demonstrated a disregard for established internal procedures and legal norms, but they also lack the essential transparency and ethical considerations that the Auroville community aims to uphold.
Among the areas under threat are the settlements of Forecomers, a cornerstone of Auroville named by the Mother herself, as well as Hermitage and Aranya. Both these lands, bought with the Mother’s blessings prior to the inauguration of Auroville, are an essential part of Auroville’s legacy. AuroOrchard, one of Auroville’s oldest, biggest and most productive farms, and blessed by the Mother, is threatened with land exchange as well. Other valuable lands such as Pebble Garden, a pioneering project in wasteland regeneration and research that is well known throughout India, are also under threat. These lands, located on the outskirts of Auroville, have undergone careful re-afforestation over the years, and are now playing a crucial role in sustaining the region’s ecological balance.
Incidents around Housing
Since the AVFO took control of the Housing Service in August 2022 and disbanded the Housing Board as an oversight body, there have been heightened concerns over Housing Service operations. Historically, the Housing Board served as a regulatory mechanism, ensuring accountability and fair practices. Lately, there have been alarming instances where appointees of the AVFO forcibly entered or sealed off a home following a death without consulting the other family members residing in the space. In another instance, the renewal of a family’s housing agreement was unexpectedly annulled. In addition, despite a large number of residents being told there is no housing available, employees of the AVFO are being given housing in Auroville that has long been designated for residents. The ongoing situation illuminates potential oversight gaps and shows a disregard for ethical guidelines in the AVFO’s management of housing matters.
Tree cutting still ongoing
In recent months, Auroville has witnessed significant tree felling, with the Town Development Council of the Residents’ Assembly documenting multiple instances across the community. Their reports show that between June and August 2023, over 50 trees were removed along the proposed Crown trajectory alone. More alarmingly, by 7th September 2023, at least 378 trees had been felled on the proposed Crown and Outer Ring Road paths, flagrantly violating the National Green Tribunal’s ruling from April 2022. Another 150 trees have been removed for development of the Matrimandir Lake. (Some of these have been transplanted but may not survive). An additional 1,000 trees are at risk to make way for the lake, while the Crown road project jeopardises thousands more.
It’s important to note that tree cutting often occurs discreetly, early in the morning or on weekends, hindering the intervention efforts of vigilant residents. The green cover of Auroville is tremendously important for both the immediate community and surrounding areas. The clearing activities authorised by AVFO appointees seriously threaten Auroville’s commitment to conscious, environmentally smart urban development for which Auroville is globally recognised.
Update from Auroville farms & forests
In the wake of financial cuts to Auroville’s farms and forests, the situation remains dire. The Forest Group has approached the AVFO regarding pending gratuity payments for about fifty forest workers, which total over 46.5 lakh rupees. Some of these workers, dismissed from one day to the next by the AVFO, have dedicated over four decades of their lives to the growth and conservation of Auroville’s forested areas. In addition, the Farm Group’s September report notes that, after the AVFO cut their budgets and stipends, many farmers and foresters are now relying on personal savings or pursuing non-farming activities just to make ends meet. It has also become increasingly difficult for the Forest and Farm Groups to guard against encroachment, tree cutting and other damage.
Attempts to reach all residents continue
In response to the takeover of most internal communication platforms by the AVFO in 2022 and ongoing censorship, residents have been creative in setting up alternative information channels. As such, an alternative community intranet forum, a community News and Notes, an Auroville News Podcast and community email service were put in place, as previously reported in this journal. Recently, this has extended to a new WhatsApp broadcasting channel, and in the case of the latest Residents’ Assembly decision-making process, to multilingual videos addressed to fellow Aurovilians. Efforts continue to try to ensure that communication channels are inclusive of all Aurovilians.
Call for support
While standing for the experimental, international and pioneering aspects of Auroville, its residents and their representatives continue to call for the support of all – whether in India or abroad. Auroville is a collective adventure that can only unfold through joint efforts and consolidated actions, united by the same aspiration.