Monday, 4 January 2016

Auroville and Tamil Nadu: an enlarged cooperation

The following article was first written in French for the Auroville French magazine by Alain Bernard. We are thankful to Christine for translating and making this article available for us.

Auroville and Tamil Nadu: an enlarged cooperation

The Sustainable Livelihood Institute

A new adventure has started in Auroville: a cooperation on a large scale between the state of Tamil Nadu and Auroville for promoting a rural development based on the principles of sustainable development. Indeed this being a domain in which Auroville can contribute a lot as many researches and experimentations are taking place in many corners of Auroville.

Pitchandikulam Forest, for instance, has already realized several projects in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. And it is Joss, founder and manager of Pitchandikulam Forest who has been at the origin of this project. The new institute located close to Auroville will be created jointly by Auroville and by the government of Tamil Nadu. Many units of Auroville had led researches in the domain of sustainable development. That is why a solid base for a fruitful cooperation does exist already. 

What is quoted below is a description at once brief and complete of the ambition behind the creation of this organization. 

The SLI is being set up as an autonomously managed institute, jointly formed and emerging out of an ongoing dialogue between the Tamilnadu Rural Livelihood Mission and Auroville, in response to the urgent need for new approaches and thinking in rural development based on the principles of sustainability.

Tamilnadu’s advanced standards of technology in urban areas are in stark contrast to its rural poverty, malnutrition and increasing unemployment, shrinking natural resources, loss of agricultural land and a steady decline in farming, tendencies made worse by globalisation and climate change.

Sustainable livelihoods are able to provide, without further destroying the fragile environment, the means for a healthy way of life, a holistic development, and overall happiness for individuals and communities. SLI believes that to create such livelihoods is not a utopia, but a necessity and a realisable aim.

The SLI aspires to be a bridge between Auroville and rural South Asia, confronting the challenges of globalisation through dynamic localisation, evolving solutions for a humanity in a rapidly changing world by drawing from the wealth of traditional sustainable knowledge as well as the inspirations of the future.

With Auroville as its wider campus, SLI aims to provide a place of learning, growing, teaching, research, experimentation and exchange in all aspects of sustainable livelihood. It will offer regular training programmes for government servants and communities, and platforms where new and pioneering approaches can be conceived and shared between practitioners, policy makers, community resource persons, and all those interested in solutions for a sustainable tomorrow.

The background

As one can see, the ambition is huge. Needless to say that problems too are huge: India is going to have the dubious privilege of becoming the most populous country of the earth. Its population will overtake China’s around 2030 and would stabilize probably in the second half of this century at about one billion six hundred millions -- adding about four hundred millions to its present population in the next fifty years. The present government has a tendency to count a lot on industrial development and foreign investment. Of course the latter is probably indispensable in view of the huge needs for development. Nevertheless it might be illusory to bank mainly on big corporations to provide the millions of jobs that are necessary, for these enterprises depend a lot on developing automation. A recent report showed that during the same specific period the organized sector created only a few millions employments whereas the unorganized sector created more than hundred millions. This sector includes many precarious jobs in small towns and villages. There is a lot of scope there for studying, organizing, improving and inventing. It would be a catastrophe to let the exodus towards cities amplify. Many of these cities are already collapsing under the weight of uncontrolled growth. Therefore what is necessary is to revitalize the rural milieu and first of all give a new life to agricultural development. 

Actually India has a great agricultural potential. One remarkable fact is that India, although three times smaller, has as many arable lands as China (due to the latter’s mountains and deserts). The famous green revolution of the sixties made India self sufficient but at the cost of a considerable degradation of the soils impacted by chemical fertilizers. The time has come for a reorientation of the objectives. There have been already many experiments of organic agriculture which have given back life to the soil. But agriculture authorities, functionaries and teachers in agricultural universities are still promoting the chemical agriculture. So it is a difficult battle that has to be waged. SLI wants to be at the forefront of this battle and here, the experiments in Auroville are very important. Notably, one of the experimental farms of Auroville, Pebble Garden, has been a major source of inspiration for the ecological Indian movement for years.

If agriculture is central to the rural world, nevertheless for a harmonious and sustainable development it needs the addition of various activities and services in order to create a dynamic milieu in which personal and collective fulfillment can take place. In this context SLI wants to become a center where those who have already achieved significant realizations can meet and share their experience of holistic development in a rural area. Solutions exist but all too often they are ignored or unrecognized. They need a forum in order to trigger other initiatives and in return to receive support and a larger audience. Of course these contacts and relations are not limited by the borders of India. All contributions especially those from our close neighbours in South Asia will be sought for and welcome.


SLI has started to function from temporary premises rented from a local proprietor. It so happens that this building is not far from the site chosen for the campus at the periphery of Auroville. A team, recently recruited for the most part, prepares and executes the programmes, under the direction of Ram Subramaniam, a recognized expert, who is director of SLI during this transitional period.
Since March 2015, programmes have been organized with more than 400 women belonging to some Women Self Help groups (a type of women organizations in villages which has become quite popular, with various results) coming from 25 districts of Tamil Nadu. Some 80 civil servants from the department of Rural development have also attended the programmes. Another Indian state, Odisha, has shown interest and has already sent about a hundred officials here. The State of Puducherry have expressed their interest for the agricultural programmes. It is quite remarkable to note that after participating in seminars seven officials of different districts not only asked SLI to organize programmes for the groups entrusted to them, but also themselves financed these programmes. 

The list of the units of Auroville which participated in one way or the other in the activities of SLI (see box above) gives an idea of the variety of the domains to be studied but this is only the beginning and this list is going to get longer in future, as Auroville has much more to offer. Some individuals from Auroville have also contributed to these workshops and here too it is going to grow.

An example

The programmes are as little theoretical as possible and are largely based on direct contact with practitioners. Most of the women who come for these learning sessions want to add some income to their family budget. Too many of them have been the beneficiaries, or rather the victims, of various programmes proposed by local authorities : they push them to undertake this or that activity (growing of mushrooms, making of jewels, making of sanitary napkins, etc.)  and later abandon the whole scheme — either because the official whose pet idea it was has been transferred, or because it has been belatedly discovered that there is no market for these items. 

For a whole morning, I followed a group of about 20 women who had come from the region of Tiruvanamalai. They had come to Auroville for 2 days. We visited Solitude which is an organic farm of about eight acres close to the Visitors’ Center. The founder of the farm, a strong Englishman called Krishna, passionate about nature and about music, received the group and had them walk through the vegetable/fruit garden under a very hot sun. Even at noon, the interest did not falter, so convincing were the demonstrations and explanations of Krishna. He was taking in his hands several samples of soil to show the differences according to the treatmentgiven. The women were nodding their heads in approval. Krishna explained to them that here was the key: a patient elaboration and reconstruction of the soil. He taught them how they could associate several plants in a natural synergy. His passion was very contagious and those hours spent under a very hot sun were remarkably pedagogical. It ended with a meal in the Solitude restaurant where food consists only of what has just been harvested in the garden. And the local products are cooked in such an imaginative, original and tasty way that these dishes are indeed worthy of a great restaurant. The next day the women would work with Krishna in his farm. 

At the end of their stay an evaluation was conducted. In the particular case of this group, the results were very encouraging and some women even spoke of a “transforming experience”. Actually most of the evaluations made regularly after each workshop give very positive results.

The future campus

The setting up of such a big project in Auroville is not without its difficulties, although it can be said that up till now there has been a generous collaboration from many Aurovilians. Yet some people are against it as they don’t like the fact that some acres of the precious land of Auroville are given in lease to the Tamil Nadu government for the construction of the campus of the Institute. Other people are afraid that buildings without soul or beauty will be constructed, like too often in government superstructures. Actually this is a point upon which the Governing Board (which supports enthusiastically the project, believing that is in line with the deep vocation of Auroville in its relation with Tamil Nadu) has insisted strongly: “We don’t want the current type of administrative architecture,” said Dr Karan Singh. This is why the initiator of the project, Joss, asked several architects of Auroville to work together for imagining an ecological and novel type of campus. This process known in Auroville as “Dream weaving” has gone on for several months and the outcome of it is a plan which will be presented soon to the authorities of Tamil Nadu. Today 3 architects participate in this group: Fabian, Manu and Mona. At the end, after approval, one of them will take the responsibility of executing the plan.

The unknown factors

Of course an association with the government on such a project is fraught with risks and difficulties. Receiving the money on time is rare and trying to get it is like a race with obstacles. The support that one gets at the top is not necessarily reflected in zeal amongst lower level officials. Added to bureaucratic delays, there is also the frequent transfer of officials. Our interlocutors change and with them the level of interest and support. This is why we want to establish this institute on a basis of autonomy and with a guaranteed budget in order to ensure the duration of the activities. We recently entered a phase of discussions with the highest authorities in order to arrive at a point of final stabilization as soon as possible. Later, for the construction of the campus, which we want ecological and experimental, and which will probably not be compatible with the usual administrative norms, we will have to fight in order to obtain the necessary derogations.

In brief, this is an adventure into a kind of unknown. But the positive experience of these last months is promising and deserves our involvement and determination. It would be as much a contribution to a harmonious rural development as the offering to Auroville of a unique platform of interaction with India and beyond.  

Alain Bernard

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