Auroville on the path to sustainable development

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Among the villages of India

As you leave Pondicherry, the city begins to dissipate and the old colonial residences give way to more heterogeneous suburbs. A signpost on the main road gives directions to the beach, where the damage caused by the tsunami of December 26th, 2004 can still be seen along the shore. Further on, dense tropical vegetation lies between cashew plantations and the grasslands. Away from the coast and towards the plateau, billboards gradually become less numerous and finally disappear in the cen-tre of Auroville. New houses are visible, but because the 90 communities are spread out, it is difficult to determine the Auroville’s exact city limits. This picture of calm comes as a surprise, yet stalls sell-ing the world’s best-known soft drink can still be found. The sound of vehicles occasionally interrupts the sense peace. These modern urban noises are a reminder that the city of Pondicherry is not far away.

While Auroville is an international area, it is still part of the network of rural Indian communities, many of whose inhabitants work in Auroville. For several decades, this project has been providing opportu-nities for employment and new encounters.

One international territory, myriad destinies

Auroville, established more than thirty years ago, is a place where various geographical horizons and different cultures come together. The city includes over 700 Indians, 283 French, 235 Germans, ap-proximately 100 Dutch and Italians, about 60 North Americans, 40 Russians and the occasional Is-raeli, Argentinean, Tibetan, Japanese, Ethiopian, Algerian, Colombian, and Mexican. Together, these 1,800 or so citizens have helped this unique example of human unity to take shape. Visitors from around the world also pour into the city to stay for a week or even several months – especially when the weather is good.

A pioneer in renewable and appropriate technology

The wind pump, one of Auroville’s most symbolic technical achievements, was installed back in 1972. This example of renewable energy was subsequently exported to the rest of India, along with the community solar oven, the largest of its kind on the Indian sub-continent. Later, the Center for Scien-tific Research developed photovoltaic solar-powered equipment that would allow certain communities and farms to generate their own energy. This move also implied that they would have to manage and regulate their energy use.

Dynamised water, produced by the Aqua Dyn community and several neighbouring Tamil villages, is distributed without charge in Auroville’s eateries. The communities practise organic agriculture; most of their produce is vegetarian. The project aims to be as autonomous as possible, not for the principle of self-sufficiency but rather in an effort not to waste resources, as a part of their sense of environ-mental responsibility. In fact, the city is not capable of supporting the amount of livestock required for providing daily portions of meat for each inhabitant. For environmental and/or spiritual reasons, a con-siderable number of people are thus vegetarians. Yet, Auroville sits next to farms where DDT is being sprayed (1) and groundwater is over-extracted, and therefore jeopardised.

Most of the buildings are constructed using compressed non-fired earth bricks. These examples go far beyond the limited steps such as green building (2) projects in our countries, and testify to this city’s collective vision. However, certain areas of discord raise questions.

Questions of mobility, money and participative democracy

French architect Roger Anger was commissioned to draw up plans for the city on 25km² of land. Forty years later, Auroville is still in a work in progress as it works towards its goal of housing 50,000 citi-zens. Property rights have been acquired for 80% of the 10km² that have been developed to date, but the other 20% are subject to land issues which jeopardise the project’s completion and integrity.

There is still controversy over how to reconcile respect for the project’s original goals – which include a greenbelt and four city zones (industrial in the north, international in the west, residential in the south and cultural in the east – with the practical needs of daily life. Because the residential areas are scat-tered, maintaining these initial “zones” (which are based on the concept of a galaxy) entails the need for motor vehicles. As a result of our modern societies’ emphasis on individual mobility, there does not seem to be any particular desire to organise another method of transport. Although renewable energy has been greatly developed, motor vehicles – and by extension, petrol – as a means of transport is almost as widespread as in the rest of India. The few electric cars that do exist there are not in a posi-tion to make a significant difference. The original plan for the city does not allow for organic growth, which is based more on day-to-day needs and may better control the flow of people and goods. It seems nearly impossible to manage without a motor vehicle when the city planning makes it almost a necessity. It is not easy to visit cultural sites or evening concerts, films, meetings and lectures on dark earth roads, which are often in an appalling state.

Increasing recognition

Nevertheless, international bodies’ recognition and support, and the prizes awarded to certain Aurovil-ians and Aurovilian communities, show the value and potential of the efforts that of been undertaken. UNESCO has lent Auroville its support on several occasions, in particular in 1966, 1970 and 1983. The European Union held a seminar on networks of sustainable towns there in 2003 as part of its co-operation programme with the Asian continent. The Indian government has a more ambiguous rela-tionship with the city, caught between it’s agreement in 1988 to accord Auroville special status, which created the “Auroville Foundation” and its desire to maintain control over all activity in the country, through the Board of Trustees, for example.

These gestures of international encouragement show that people are both recognising and observing the new ways in which we can organise where we live. One of the first lessons we learn is that al-though Auroville might be a model in terms of technical adaptation, the unresolved questions continue to be of a societal and democratic nature – which are the most difficult questions our Western socie-ties are still struggling to answer.

The Auroville Charter – 28th February 1968

1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.

2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.

3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discover-ies from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.

4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual hu-man unity.

(1) Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, known as DDT, is a synthetic pesticide. (Note GoodPlanet.Info)

(2) Haute Qualité Environnementale, a reference for green building in France. (Note GoodPlanet.Info)

Auroville, sur les voies du développement soutenable

Eric Vidalenc

Nature et Progrès magazine

N° 57, pp. 36-37

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