In India, a utopian city threatened by the state

Auroville (Tamil Nadu, India), report

For the traveler looking for alternatives, the charm works quickly. In the heart of a tropical forest, Auroville is home to ecological hamlets, green kindergartens, free and waste-free shops, a restaurant powered by a solar concentrator, organic farms, educational, research or meditation centers… A population coming from the four corners of India and the world evolves in this urban fabric halfway between Brasilia and a zad.

Auroville, the city the earth needs », is an impressive utopia in action. It’s hard to imagine that sixty years ago, there were arid lands here, on which millions of trees were planted by a few idealists. It is also difficult to imagine that this community, despite the work completed, is on the verge of implosion. Witness, however, the gutted roads and a certain silence among the Aurovilians. We are afraid to speak openly, she has her hands on our visas and our jobs », slips one of them.

cette communaute d auroville pratique la reforestation et vit en autonomie alimentaire et energetique come bastin
This hamlet lives in food and energy autonomy. © Côme Bastin / Reporterre

She is Jayanti Ravi, secretary of Auroville, whose appointment, in July 2021, caused an unprecedented crisis. Chosen by the Indian government, the secretary participates in the administration of the city through the Foundation, a kind of municipality imagined for Auroville in 1988. After a few days of meetings with the residents, Jayanti Ravi shows his dissatisfaction: Auroville has failed to its mission to accommodate 50,000 inhabitants. Freshly arrived, the secretary intends to make up for lost time.

Bulldozers in the middle of the night

The crisis came to light a year ago. In December 2021, bulldozers, accompanied by police and then local militias, entered Auroville in the middle of the night, razing buildings, a center of activities for young people, and felling a thousand trees. Many panicked Aurovilians tried to oppose the machines by forming human chains. Images of the clashes made the rounds on social networks and local media. On a decision of the National Environmental Tribunal, the works were frozen. But the conflict with the new administration and the residents has since escalated.

allain auroville inde
© Louise Allain / Reporterre

At stake, a complex memorial battle around the founders of Auroville, in particular Mirra Alfassa, “ the mother », a French mystic heiress of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. Integral yoga theorist, fighter for independence, Aurobindo founded an ashram (spiritual center) in Pondicherry in the 1920s. Inspired by his ideals, Mirra Alfassa imagined the city for which she issued a short charter in 1968: Auroville belongs to no one but to all humanity », it will be a place of perpetual education (…) of material and spiritual research “. A city without religion, but whose inhabitants will be the “ servants of the Divine Consciousness “. When he died in 1973, the city had only a handful of inhabitants, but Unesco had been supporting this singular adventure since 1966.

The Galaxy, a project by Frenchman Roger Anger

To this inspiring charter, but subject to a thousand interpretations, was added “ the Galaxy », imagined by the French architect Roger Anger. This project very seventies outlines a spiral city, with large curved blocks of buildings in a green setting. A concept clarified with the adoption of the “ master plan », in 2001, by the Indian government and the Auroville Foundation, which plans the growth of the city up to 50,000 inhabitants in 2025.

les origines d auroville dans les annees 60
The Auroville site, in the 1960s. © Anonymous

It is sometimes in the name of Aurobindo, that of the Mother or that of the Galaxy that the secretary Jayanti Ravi draws up the failure of Auroville. This aggressiveness quickly alienated a good part of the residents, hostile to the urban plan that she hammers. At the heart of the dissensus: the rapid construction of buildings and a perfectly circular ring road 17 meters wide, which encroaches on the forest and the projects in progress. Despite alternative proposals and environmental alerts, Jayanti Ravi stuck to his guns until the bulldozers were dispatched. Auroville then began its descent into hell.

Ecological laboratory to preserve

In April, the Working Committee, the residents’ representative body, imploded. Dismissed from their duties, some of its members have formed a new committee under the orders of the secretary. Qualified opponents of the Indian government », those who resisted this cut were expelled from the various governance bodies of Auroville. Spokesperson for the secretary, Joël Van Lierde assumes. The Aurovilians have been afraid to welcome new inhabitants for too long », judges the former Belgian psychologist. It is legitimate for the Indian government, under whose authority Auroville is placed, to rectify its trajectory. »

la deforestation provoquee par la route promue par la secretaire auroville
The road construction promoted by Jayanti Ravi encroaches on the forest. © Auroville

A large part of the Aurovilians are in favor of a growth “ organic “. Auroville will happen in 100 years or 1,000 years », had moreover declared the Mother, preferring real locals, has a lot of locals “. Since 1968, the failure of planned cities and the ecological crisis have been there. A spiritual city, Auroville has become an ecological laboratory, having received more than fifty international awards in insulating materials, water conservation, reforestation… I joined Auroville to change human nature with a social and spiritual experience, the only answer to the global crisis », explains Suhasini Ayer, architect. Forcing its growth goes against this philosophy. »

Political imbroglio

Residents voted in May for another Working Committee. A large majority of Aurovilians disagree with Jayanti Ravi’s project », explains Maël Vidal, one of its members, born in Auroville 28 years ago. In the last vote, more than 1,200 voted against his governance. » On August 12, the High Court of Tamil Nadu agreed with them in part. Residents have complete freedom to develop Auroville in accordance with its charter. Even the Foundation cannot override their voice. »

la fondation d auroville siege du nouveau pouvoir come bastin
The Auroville Foundation, seat of the new power. © Côme Bastin / Reporterre

In this political imbroglio, everyone claims legitimate authority. I joined Auroville to build a city, not an eco camp. The Master Plan was approved in 2001 », annoys Joseba Martinez, a 62-year-old Spaniard, exhausted by deliberations and deadlocks » and who supports the Foundation. This plan was approved by some sixty residents twenty three years ago but had to be reassessed every five years. Environmental impact studies never took place », retorts for his part Maël Vidal. We are not against growth, we just want to make the right choices. »

A necessary self-criticism

Government money will secure the land needed to build Auroville, now coveted by speculators », argues Joël Van Lierde, spokesperson for the secretary. A new method, most of the land having been acquired by individual donations. Among the Aurovilians, there are fears that these millions are used to strengthen the grip of the Foundation. 150 people are waiting for their visa, an unprecedented situation. Criminal complaints have been filed against critical residents, some have had their basic income removed without justification », denounces a resident. They call us communists, land thieves, drug addicts. It is terribly hurtful for those who have dedicated their lives to this place without compensation. »

The secretary willingly speaks of a fight between the faithful and outlaws. Many see it as a smokescreen. Jayanti Ravi was posted by the ruling Hindu nationalists. Its mission is to fracture Auroville, whose diversity stains the new India », fears one of the pioneers. For others, his arrival, however harmful it may be, should serve as a warning. Auroville has become bureaucratic. We began to take into account the financial resources of newcomers », sorry Katherine. Jayanti Ravi’s project solves nothing but does not exempt us from self-criticism. Auroville is for those who dream big, not the wealthy. »

How to rethink the ideals of the 1970s in the light of the urgencies of XXIecentury ? Invent citizen governance without falling into paralysis ? Growing in harmony with its environment and its principles ? In many ways, the dilemmas of the “ city ​​that the earth needs reflect those of the world. Many inhabitants want to believe that its painful crisis will be fruitful… Without for the moment knowing when nor how.

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In India, a utopian city threatened by the state

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