Friday, December 5, 2008

Modern India is like Auroville in a way — still-developing and fragile

India, Terror, and Human Unity Walrus Magazine - Toronto, Ontario, Canada December 4th, 2008 by Holly Jean Buck in Shades of Green AUROVILLE, INDIA — In a comparison which is perhaps a stretch, but perhaps not, modern India is like Auroville in a way — still-developing and fragile. Robust and resilient, to be sure, but it feels not fully formed yet. This isn’t my outsider’s opinion, but something I’ve gleaned from talking to various people within India and reading Indian columnists.

One of the chief tensions in Auroville is caused by boundaries. Why boundaries, in a community devoted to human unity? Well, any experiment in sustainable community is both resilient and fragile. Resilient, because the people who are drawn to such an endeavor generally have adaptable, creative minds and innovative ways of doing things. Fragile, because to dream for sustainability, or human unity, or spiritual community, is still somewhat against the status quo. But because of this fragility, there is an impulse to draw boundaries, to protect, in order that the creation may be nurtured and grow.

I talked to one frustrated afforestation worker: she has spent hours, years of her life, planting saplings which the villagers often steal to sell or burn. This is a new forest, and in a way, it is under threat: it needs time and care for the greenery to really take hold. So, one reaction is to draw boundaries, to build walls: an understandable reaction.

The boundaries in this township are both physical and social. Physically, Aurovilians would like to purchase the remaining tracts of land around their town, but land prices have shot up in India, and so they lack the funds to do so. So for the visitor, there is a sense of blurring, of not knowing where Auroville begins and ends, of being almost-but-not-really a part of the local villages.

Socially, there is quite a process to become an Aurovilian: one cannot simply move there. There are interviews, assemblies, a trial period of a year. Hence there is a social boundary between who is and is not an Aurovilian, and there are also about 4,000 workers from the local villages who work in Auroville but are not an official part of it. And of course some local Indians want to join Auroville: a few suspect that this is because Aurovilians earn a “maintenance” of several thousand rupees per month from the central fund. Some residents seem to fear that the social cohesion of their community will fall apart, if too many people join who are not motivated by immediate financial gain rather than the greater dream.

Beneath these tensions is the spectre of colonialism, for Auroville is in some sense a colony. Clearly, Auroville is not a colony in the same sense that the British colonised India: Auroville’s aim is to create a place for everyone, a microcosm of the world. The Aurovilian pioneers took the villagers into account and continue to work to improve their quality of life. The town operates several initiatives for local welfare: women’s clubs, educational programmes, etc. It also provides employment for villagers, and has arguably raised the standard of life in this area...

It’s heartening to know that at least one small settlement around the globe, people are putting their ideals into action. On a greater scale, India itself is heartening: 1.1 billion people of all different ethnicities, religions, languages, and castes manage to live together, for the most part. All over, you can see icons of Ganesha, Breaker of Obstacles: evidence of the indomitable human spirit that impresses most travelers to India, including this one. If Auroville can meet its challenges in its microcosm; if India can refuse to give into the forces of divisiveness and maintain peace; then perhaps the whole planet can manage to get along. Finally, the global mood seems ripe for this.

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