At a time when India’s standing forests are under threat – with 14% of the country’s tree cover being lost in 2019-’20 alone, according to Washington-based Global Forest Watch – a swath of forestland created by human effort over half a century ago faces desecration owing to contentious policies.

In the dead of night December 2021, bulldozers rolled into the forested idyll of Auroville, the global community in southern India that is fostered by the vision of Indian philosopher, nationalist, poet and seer Aurobindo. Indian and foreign residents, who rushed out of their homes to inquire, were overpowered by the excavators that razed over 900 trees across 67 acres. The tree clearance is for a proposed 75-metre-wide circular road through the township.

Aggrieved residents petitioned the National Green Tribunal of South Zone, based in Chennai, to halt “the proposed construction and development”, based on the Auroville Universal Township Master Plan (Perspective 2025) that they say has not been subjected to the mandated Environmental Impact Assessment notification. After imposing a series of short-term stays against further development, the National Green Tribunal has now reserved its final ruling.

The contested project is being executed by the Auroville Foundation and its Town Development Council, and newly-appointed government authorities.

Straddling the border of Tamil Nadu and the adjoining Union Territory of Puducherry, Auroville was developed as a unique experiment in human unity, with two-thirds of its 3,500 inhabitants hailing from 59 other nations, and from all age groups (from infancy to over 80, averaging 30), backgrounds and cultures.

Auroville’s Master Plan provides for a green belt three times the size of the city area, which will also have green corridors and parks. Ownership of the land is vested in the Auroville Foundation, which currently owns about 850 hectares. Photo credit: Piyush P Pujari/ Wikimedia Commons

Auroville evolved from the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, who was born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1872 and died in Puducherry (then Pondicherry) in 1950. It was his spiritual collaborator, the French woman Mirra Alfassa, who became known as “The Mother”, who in 1968 laid the foundations of this “universal town” where people of all countries would cohabit in peace and harmony.

At its foundation, some 5,000 people assembled near the banyan tree at the centre of the future township for a ceremony attended by representatives of 124 nations, as also of all the states of India. They brought with them some soil from their homelands, to be mixed in a white marble-clad lotus-shaped urn that became the centrepoint of Auroville.

Auroville was taken over by the Central government through the Auroville Emergency Act, 1980, and granted autonomy under the Auroville Foundation Act passed eight years later under the UNESCO division of the Ministry of Education (later, Ministry of Human Resource Development). The Foundation is supported by annual grants from the Central government.

Section 10 (3) of the Auroville Foundation Act divides the Foundation into the Governing Board, Residents’ Assembly, and Auroville International Advisory Council. The plaint before the National Green Tribuna cites only the Governing Board as being behind the development work.

Some Aurovillians see a political angle to the dispute, pointing out that the Crown project has been expedited after Tamil Nadu Governor Ravindra Narayana Ravi, Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan and Gujarat cadre IAS officer, Dr Jayanti Ravi, took over last year as the chairman, member and secretary of the Governing Board respectively.

Internal squabble?

Long-time resident, architect, designer and Town Development Council member Tejaswini Mistri-Kapoor, said she and two more of the seven members of the council, have stepped down because of the recent developments. She explained that the Master Plan took off from French architect Roger Anger’s “galaxy model” for Auroville that he had developed in the ‘60s in collaboration with the Mother. She, however, emphasises that the Master Plan is more a concept note as it lacks the required Detailed Development Plans necessary to “flesh out” its sketches prior to implementation.

The plaint before the National Green Tribunal also contends that the respondent (Auroville Foundation) is by its action contravening not only the Environmental Impact Assessment notification of 2006, but also the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the principles of sustainable development, the precautionary principle and the eco-centric principle.

Terming the dispute an “internal squabble” that does not require the National Green Tribunal scrutiny, the Auroville Foundation noted, “Based on the Mother’s vision, the Master Plan was made as per law, and approval was received from the Central government in 2010.” It added that while the plan was accepted by the Residents Assembly as early as 1999, a few residents were now resisting all development, due to which instead of 50,000 residents, there were only 3,500 today.

Auroville evolved from the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, but it was his spiritual collaborator, French woman Mirra Alfassa, or “The Mother”, who in 1968 laid the foundations of this “universal town” where people of all countries would cohabit in peace and harmony. Photo credit: Arunankapilan/ Wikimedia Commons

In its affidavit before the National Green Tribunal, the Foundation clarified, “Auroville has been conceived and has been developed as an international cultural township and not as a forest.” It noted that the Master Plan provides for a green belt three times the size of the city area, which will also have green corridors and parks. Ownership of the land is vested in the Foundation, which currently owns about 850 hectares. It has been progressively securing the lands required for the development.

Declaring that the land area of the Crown right of way is only 0.36% of the master plan land area, the foundation maintains that a major part of it has already been cleared, and infrastructure like electricity, water and optical fibre cable have been installed.

The petitioners argue that “the alleged fact” that the Crown road is but 0.36% “is irrelevant”. “Statistics often provide a misleading picture when taken out of context,” they explain. “By this logic, the Congo rainforests account for only 0.6% of the earth’s surface – that does not mean that the entire rainforest can be cleared.”

They charged the Foundation with violating the National Green Tribunal’s stays, with its contractors engaging in installing high tension cables and also preparing the cleared area for laying black kadappa limestone slabs. “It is abundantly clear that the 1st respondent [the foundation] is keen on presenting a fait accompli before this honourable tribunal,” they contended.

The petitioners note that the minutes of the 57th meeting of the Governing Board on November 2, 2021 contradicts the Foundation when they record the Board’s observations that: “There is scattered, sporadic and ad-hoc development resulting in high-cost infrastructure and lack of a cohesive social fabric. Master plan RoWs [rights of way] have not been cleared, resulting in haphazard infrastructure development and high installation and maintenance costs. There is lack of focus on the development of the township amongst the various working groups and Auroville residents.”

Collaborative planning

A forester who has been a resident since 2002 and goes only by her first name, Natasha, said Aurovillians are not opposed to development, but do look to participatory and collaborative planning to ensure that any development considers the environment and ground realities.

“Afforestation in Auroville has been a long-term endeavour where people are invested not as scientists, but as enthusiasts,” she maintained. “Auroville is to be a point of inspiration, its forests being the most advanced pioneering experiment in recreating a tropical forest.”

Tropical forests have an ability to fix much more carbon than was previously believed, and this incredible diversity was now regenerating within Auroville.

Auroville arose from a parched plateau that was rapidly eroding into gullies and furrows, says Kundhavi Devi, an Auroville resident for the past 15 years. Today, the forests, farms and water bodies flourishing in the greenbelt bear testimony to the self-healing power of Nature when it is assisted with concern and commitment.

The first settlers toiled in the sun-baked expanse to recharge the aquifer by preventing rainwater run-off and by nurturing a green cover to improve soil fertility. The greening of its landscape is a big success story of Auroville, for which it has received international acclaim.

Auroville Working Committee members claim that the planned right of way requires the felling of over 1,50,000 trees and shrubs of tropical dry evergreen forest species, some of which are endangered trees. Photo credit: Special Arrangement

“We are not simply planting trees, but creating an ecosystem comprising trees, shrubs, woody species, creepers, lianas, that host insects, birds, animals, microorganisms and fungi,” added Natasha. “We have introduced around a thousand different plant species, and raise between 5,000 and 10,000 seedlings a year.”

The Mother’s charter declares that Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole and that to live there, one must be a willing servitor of Divine Consciousness. She had envisaged an eventual population there of 50,000, by around 2025, with Matrimandir, the meditation centre, as its “centre and soul”. It was also expected back then that systematic development of infrastructure would attract a working population of 15,000 by 2010.

Asserting that the Foundation was under the “mistaken assumption” that it has a duty to build for a population of 50,000, the plaint stressed that the growth of Auroville has been organic and fuelled by the people who have chosen to be a part of it. “Constructing the infrastructure for 50,000 people when only 3,500 reside is putting the cart before the horse,” it noted. “The need for infrastructure and facilities should be driven by the population and necessity, and not the other way around.”

The petitioners were expected to appeal before the Supreme Court in the event the petition was dismissed because they anticipate that the National Green Tribunal will generally not question a central government project.

Auroville Working Committee member Hemant Lamba said the planned right of way requires the felling of over 1,50,000 trees and shrubs of tropical dry evergreen forest species, some of which are endangered trees. “Politics has the power to tear the delicate fabric of our path to human unity, and for this reason, most Aurovillians shun all political activity,” he remarked.

Lamba maintains that the Aurovillian equilibrium has been stricken by some fanatical interpretations of “development” that ignore ground realities. In recent years, a few community members have developed more extreme views about the Mother’s wish to build a “city of the future”, believing that the execution of the Crown as a “perfect circle” is essential to hasten Auroville’s spiritual development.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.