In 2015, South Korean professor Jaeweon Cho hit upon a plan to revolutionise economics by commodifying human excreta. Powders derived from poop, he suggested, could act as fertilisers and biofuel, supplying food to microorganisms. This was the basis of his dream of fSM or Fecal Standard Money, which would create a modern society not based on traditional money.
Four years later, Cho’s seemingly esoteric idea inspired a virtual currency experiment 6,000 kilometers – in Auroville, the 3,000-person international township of communal, spiritual living in Tamil Nadu.
Since late 2019, every Aurovillian who downloaded a mobile application has received 12 auras. Three auras of this allotment must be utilised in a select network of other Aurovillians. To discourage hoarding and keep the currency in circulation, auras depreciate by 9% every day.
“It’s very much in the Auroville spirit,” said S Venkatakrishnan, who works as a Tamil translator and is one of the 400 users of the app. He uses the app to exchange his gardening and kitchen supplies. Others offer gardening lessons, a trip to the beach with friends or homemade food.
The new currency has been viewed with both enthusiasm and disappointment. In some way, residents say, the aura is emblematic of the rocky economics of Auroville itself, a work-in-progress marked by numerous attempts at renewal.
Feces money meets Auroville
Auroville was founded in 1968 when 200 people from 20 countries settled in an arid stretch of land in Tamil Nadu’s Viluppuram district, ten kilometers north of Pondicherry. Following the vision of Mirra Alfassa, a French associate of the spiritual teacher Aurobindo who they call The Mother, they aimed to create a community without private property or exchange of money.
Their philosophy emphasised collective ownership of resources and sustainable living. They planned to support the settlement through a range of small-scale enterprises. Traditional market and management theories were put to the test.
Money, Alfassa had said in 1938, “is not meant to make money”. She explained: “... Like all forces and all powers, it is by movement and circulation that it grows and increases its power, not by accumulation and stagnation ... What we may call the ‘reign of money’ is drawing to its close.”
Still, it was not going to be easy, she warned. “...the transitional period between the arrangement that has existed in the world till now and the one to come (in a hundred years, for instance), that period is going to be very difficult,” she wrote.
Since the inception of the settlement, Aurovillians have undertaken several experiments at achieving a money-less society. They piloted free distribution centres for necessities, a communal pot of money dispensed by a central administration and a basic income provided for those who work in the town. For many in the community, the schemes either enabled a weak economic foundation or shifted the town further away from its dream of a cashless society.
Eight decades after Auroville began, settlement member Hye Jeong Heo heard about Cho’s idea of Fecal Standard Money on a South Korean media programme. In 2018, Heo met with Cho and his team to explain the ideals of Auroville.
“Even though there are different characters, I thought there are commonalities between the Auroville [idea] of money and fSM,” said Cho, an environmental engineering professor and director of the Science Walden Center at South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology.
At the heart of Cho’s plan was a toilet that converts human waste into fertilisers and biofuel. By loading powders into reactors that supply food for microorganisms, people would receive Fecal Standard Money that could be used in a market system, perhaps in parallel to existing trading systems.
“Feces, like gold, is limited and precious,” he wrote in Edge, an avant-garde technology publication. “Nobody can make more than a certain limit, and it can be converted to energy.”
Cho thought of this as an echo of the increasingly popular idea of Universal Basic Income: a “periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement”, according to the Basic Income Earth Network
It was Heo’s daughter, 27-year-old Dan Be Kim who decided to push the idea of Fecal Standard Money in Auroville. She had left the settlement at 17 in 2011 because of a medical condition, but returned in early 2019 to begin a feasibility study on the new currency.
However, “a high tech toilet was where we lost a lot of people”, she said over a video call from Berlin, where she now lives. “There was interest and hesitation”, she said, but it was clear that Auroville wasn’t ready for “a copy paste of fSM”. Her team of four re-molded the idea of Fecal Standard Money into the digital aura.
“Aura takes its traits from fSM,” Cho told Scroll.in in an email. It is, he said, a distinct unit of account, a “rusting/disappearing money” that depreciates at 9% a day and involves sharing a portion of the allotment with peers in the system. The Aura team calls it “Circular Basic Income”.
“...Both are twins with different names and separate platforms, but with the same origin and philosophy,” he said.
Still, there were bumps along the way. During the research phase, questions were raised in the Auroville community. Why not just do a pure barter? Why do we need any exchange at all? Why have money at all?
“It took moving mountains,” said Kim.
In a presentation of the idea at Auroville’s Future School in 2019, the teachers, whose classes Kim had sat in long before, were among the most reluctant – they told her that the aura wasn’t going to work, that plenty of experiments had already been tried.
“There is this syndrome because of a repeating pattern of experiments in Auroville where each time they think they are reinventing the wheel,” said Kim. “Everyone has their niche projects going on, a lot of pioneer groups, they think that’s the way to move forward, and then they burn out from the burden of the past.”
Kim began to reframe the premise of her project using the language of Auroville. Instead of using the words “buy” and “sell”, participants would “offer” and “receive”. Instead of products, they focused on the “untapped, human collective potential” of Auroville – space, skills, time.
“It’s not a tangible value that you can touch,” said Kim. “It’s a spiritual, collective value. We finally got to a point where we could explain that.”
With a major launch at the end of 2019, the aura app, created by a team of Aurovillians and nearby volunteers, was available for any registered resident of Auroville, regardless of what work they did – or didn’t do.
Because the pricing of items, tasks and actions are determined by the users themselves, there is not consistent value. “It has to be something ethereal,” said 80-year-old Bill Sullivan, who was one of the first Aurovillians five decades ago and worked closely with Kim on the aura. “You could give your motor bike for 1 aura or a mango for 100 aura. We have to break those fixed values. Things don’t have a value in and of itself – it’s all in the mind. We don’t want to reduplicate old economic models.”
Kim added: “Aura is an alternative currency that does not strictly depend on market-determined prices … It is a thought/social experiment to see how people will go about valuing their offerings on the platform when given the freedom with unconditional endowments.”
This, she said, is one of the most interesting aspects of research that can be done on user-generated data: “Do people value specific goods and services in a specific range when there is the absence of price comparisons or references?”
A brochure for the app reads: “The aura creates a space for a circular economy where things considered waste, or things that are not being purposed, can first be identified and then upcycled and repurposed.”
It states: “For money to flow, money must be a means and not an end ... Money as a tool is not intended for accumulation, but rather circulation,” it states, echoing Alfassa’s ideas.
But just as congratulatory comments began flowing in, the application began crashing.
“It’s been a tremendous problem,” said Sullivan, who is known in Auroville as B. At first, it was just for a day or two at a time, but in February this year, the application went down for two weeks.
“We’ve had a challenge with our developers so we have to focus on getting the app to work well,” said Sullivan. “We are hoping for more funding from Korea and then we can convince the market and stores in Auroville to use it.”
Funded by Cho’s centre in South Korea, the grant has not been adequate to cover a full-blown technology overhaul so the team is looking for external funding for maintenance costs, Kim said.
When Kim was conducting her research on Auroville, many people told her that Auroville’s economy was “unequal, overly bureaucratic” with “too much talking and not acting, tending towards capitalism, and unsustainable”. While this sparked the idea to create an alternative system, the fragile foundations of the community’s economy may be the idea’s very undoing.
“The issue with Auroville’s economy is it’s not self-sufficient,” said Kim. “It’s reliant on external sources.” It’s a problem that has plagued the settlement from its inception.
In its quest to create a settlement free from money, Auroville is a human laboratory. Whether it is nearer or farther from its ideals depends on who you speak to.
“Auroville has always been trying to get rid of money,” said Manuel Thomas, a chartered accountant from Chennai who co-wrote an economic history of Auroville titled Economics of Earth and People: The Auroville Case 1968 to 2008 and continues to be a consultant for the community. “They keep experimenting, but in all these years, there has not been a no-cash economy.”
At its inception, Auroville received a periodic “Prosperity” bundle of clothing, toiletries and other basic needs from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. After the Mother died in 1973, Aurovillians developed differences with the Sri Aurobindo Society. The Central government got involved, leading to a Parliamentary Act that handed over ownership rights to the Auroville Foundation.
The Auroville Foundation owns most of the land, buildings and assets, as Thomas’ book notes. The community has an international advisory council (similar to a board of directors), a governing board (a top management team appointed by the Indian government) and a residents’ assembly.
The introduction of the “Maintenance” system in 1983, which is still in place today, proved to be one of the most controversial moments in the community’s history, said Suryamayi Aswini who did her PhD thesis at Sussex University about the township.
Aurovillians who work in specific jobs receive a monthly stipend in their individual account. One third of Maintenances are received as cash credits that can be exchanged for rupees, while the rest acts as a local currency only usable for goods and services in Auroville. Some Aurovillians receive up to Rs 20,000 per month as a Maintenance, while half of Aurovillians don’t receive any money because they determine themselves to be “self-supporting”.
The settlement’s major earnings come from micro and small enterprises (known as “units”) that are mainly involved in handicrafts, textiles, clothing and food. One of its largest employers and economic contributors is Maroma, a fragrance and body care products brand. Other major units include Sunlit Future, a solar grid system, and boutiques such as Kalki and Mira Boutique.
A “Central fund” (now called the City Services Budget) collects government grants and individual donations as well as earnings from Auroville units. Residents pay a standard monthly contribution, which started at Rs 200 in 1989 and grew to Rs 3,150 in 2018. Volunteers in Auroville have to contribute Rs 900 a month. An additional 20% of visitors’ accommodation fees is collected in the common budget.
Most of it is allocated to city expenses, the bulk of which goes to Maintenances and education. Auroville’s turnover in 2016-’17 was Rs 337 crore. City services receipts for 2016 to 2017 amounted to Rs 19.5 crore, said Thomas, while Rs 51 crore was from grants and donations,.
The monthly City Services Budget, published in Auroville’s News and Notes Letter, stated that the town had a monthly loss of Rs 53 lakh in June 2021. Its internal contributions amounted to Rs 1.3 crore (the majority of which came from its commercial units and services) and its payments amounted to Rs 1.8 crore (of which Rs 34 lakh went to education).
In the early 1990s, those disappointed with the Maintenance system created Seed, a common account in which a small group of residents compiled their Maintenance and private funds to be disbursed back out by an administrator. This grew to other groups and became known as the Circles experiment. It “started out ‘full of people, idealism, enthusiasm,’ but failed to successfully take root”, Aswini wrote.
In 2006, another experiment was attempted with “Prosperity”, a fund that acted more like insurance for times in need. But that fell apart as well.
In 1999, Thomas and a team set out to gather income and expenditure statements and balance sheets to be consolidated into a database, a task that was not only more arduous than assumed but also illuminated the dire state of Auroville’s affairs.
In 2002, the team released a White Paper showing that the contributions of Auroville’s commercial units per capita had dipped significantly in the previous decades. The paper encouraged the settlement to invest more into its commercial sectors to bolster income generation.
Manuel, who is currently updating his account of the settlement’s economic history, said that Auroville’s dependence on grants and donations seems to have reduced. Even though every experiment runs up against reality, he sees progress.
“Basically, the aura is another experiment coming out of the Circles experiments – a no cash philosophy,” Maneul said. “In the end, it’s still a medium of exchange and a form of informal money. But you are likely not to become an aura millionaire. It’s the negative aspects of money that they are trying to avoid.”
Henk Thomas, who lived in Auroville three decades ago and Manuel’s co-author, had a more sceptical take: “It’s high ideological content without solid thinking. In my view, it’s not very important or interesting because it covers such a small part of the economy.” Henk said the aura is yet further evidence that the township never took heed of the advice contained in his book with Manuel.
“There are endless experiments in Auroville and they all fail because in the end, there is a deficit,” he said. “The same questions come back again and again without new answers. I find it a tragedy that there is so much talent there, all kinds of people thinking from scratch and it dies out because there is no economic authority.”
In 2017, Sullivan, who had helped Kim with the virtual currency programme, attempted an economic innovation of his own. He created physical notes out of waste paper with one note valued at Rs 100, exchangeable at Auroville’s Financial Service (which holds the individual financial accounts of Aurovillians and manages the Maintenances). He called one note “an aura”.
It was his attempt to “revise the whole economy, but no one took it seriously”, he said. “ ... Still, maybe [the first aura] broke through something that was a little bit stuck. Maybe those events helped prepare people for this aura.”
Sullivan firmly believes that the critics will be proven wrong. “In Auroville, you can find someone against everything,” he said. “This is a quantum leap to something totally different. We’ve crossed a threshold and we’re committed. We’ve tried all these other big things. The common pots, the circles. I was a part of them and they didn’t really take off.”
But the smartphone, he said, is the “revolutionary leap” that Auroville economics needed.
Manuel is among those keenly watching the aura experiment. He said: “The thing with Auroville is it doesn’t give up.”
Karishma Mehrotra is an independent journalist. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Technology Writings for 2021.