Trouble brewing in tranquil town of Auroville & it’s not just over felling trees

The appointment of Gujarat cadre IAS officer Jayanti Rai as secretary of the Foundation and her decision to override suggestions by Aurovillians has made them apprehensive that they will use Auroville to commercialise spirituality as part of 'Swadesh Darshan's Spiritual Tourism Circuit'

The court has observed that felling trees without obtaining necessary planning and permission will have great impact on the environment and stayed the Crown Road project. Pics: By Special Arrangement

The ongoing protests at Auroville, an experimental township bordering Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, against the felling of trees to build a ring road seems like the dawn of a long struggle for its residents. As Aurovillians believe that this road project is the beginning of the attempts by the BJP and RSS to take over their internationally famous tranquil town, which is meant to be an example of ‘human unity in diversity’.

On Friday (December 10), the residents of this township meanwhile got temporary relief when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) granted an interim stay on building the road called the Crown Road project till December 17. The implementation of the 4.4 km long Crown Road project will involve the cutting of trees in areas earmarked as “Deemed Forest” and demolishing Auroville’s Youth Centre which is near the iconic Matrimandir.

Meetings to discuss the Crown Road project have been underway for a few months between the Residents Assembly, which includes all Aurovillians about 3,500 of them, and Auroville Foundation, an autonomous body established in 1988 under the administrative control of the ministry of human resource development.

But, the trouble began, according to Auroville residents, when they were caught by surprise in the wee hours of the morning of December 4, when 30 trees were uprooted to start work on the Crown Road project. Moreover, the Aurovillians were not given enough time to move the Youth Centre, which was forcibly brought down.

The project has been expedited after Tamil Nadu Governor R N Ravi and Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan took over as the chairman and board member of the Governing Board of Auroville Foundation respectively, in October this year.

Also read: Chaos in Auroville amidst row over road project

The Auroville Dream

The Auroville international township in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu was born with the purpose of creating a world where people can live peacefully and harmoniously, without any differences such as caste, creed, gender, politics, religion and nationality. It was founded in 1968 by a Frenchwoman Mirra Alfassa, who is fondly referred to as ‘The Mother’, and was the spiritual partner of philosopher and yoga guru Sri Aurobindo.

Auroville is also concerned with – and practically researching into – sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental and spiritual needs of mankind.

Since the residents of the township are expected to practise minimalism, be self-sufficient, and live in tune with nature, the region lacks basic amenities such as well-laid tar roads, electrical posts or any big industries.

Project without consent

Once the Auroville Foundation decided to implement the Crown Road project, the process has been entrusted to the Foundation’s Town Development Council. The project envisages establishment of four zones –  industrial, cultural, residential and recreational. These zones will be interconnected through this Crown Road, and a second circular road will be laid around the Matrimandir, the meditation centre which is considered as the ‘soul of Auroville’.

The members of the Foundation claimed that establishing such zones was a part of the Mother’s original plan and it was accepted by the Residents Assembly way back in 1999. Named as ‘The Auroville Universal Township Master Plan – Perspective 2025’, the project was approved by the ministry of human resource development in 2001 and notified in the gazette in 2010.

The residents alleged that the Auroville Foundation has not taken the consent of the Residents Assembly, one of the three authorities which has to approve matters related to the Foundation’s administration, according to the Auroville Foundation Act 1988. The other two authorities are the Governing Board and the Auroville International Advisory Council.

An Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) has also been done regarding the project and the residents have given suggestions so as to avoid any damage to the existing ecosystem and to execute the project with the minimum budget.

But the Foundation, which is now headed by a Gujarat cadre IAS officer Jayanti Ravi, has gone ahead with the project disregarding the residents’ suggestions. In an unusual move, the Centre had appointed an IAS officer from Gujarat as the Foundation’s secretary in July this year. Many residents are apprehensive about these road projects viewing it as the first steps towards commercialising spirituality as part of ‘Swadesh Darshan’s Spiritual Tourism Circuit’.

Also read: Four of a family found dead in Auroville, suicide suspected

Protecting a Deemed Forest

The festering problems in Auroville became public when videos surfaced on social media showing the alleged right-wing leaning goondas manhandling the protestors. The residents alleged that the police force was also used to attack the protestors. Following the attacks, a resident Navroz Kersasp Mody, filed a case in the southern bench of the NGT.

Hearing the case on December 10, Judge K Ramakrishnan and the expert member Dr Satyagopal Korlapati, held that the Foundation was developing a township on the basis of a master plan prepared by them which has not been approved by any authority.

“Earlier they have done some construction work alone but now in the guise of expending the project by providing a ring road by name ‘Crown Road’ they have now proposed to cut large number of trees from the area which will come under the definition of ‘Deemed Forest’, as envisaged by the Hon’ble Apex Court in Godavarman Case. If this is allowed to be cut without obtaining necessary planning and permission, then it will have great impact on the environment,” the bench observed and stayed the project. The matter is listed for the next hearing on December 17.

It should be noted that the term ‘Deemed Forest’ was born out of the Supreme Court’s December 12, 1996 order in the case of TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union of India and Others.

“The word ‘forest’ must be understood according to its dictionary meaning. This description covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of Section 2 (1) of the Forest Conservation Act. The term ‘forest land’ occurring in Section 2 will not only include ‘forest’ as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any areas recorded as forest in the government record irrespective of the ownership. The provisions enacted in the Forest Conservation Act 1980 for the conservation of forest and the matters connected therewith must apply clearly to all forest so understood irrespective of the ownership or classification thereof,” the SC had observed.

Even after 25 years there is no exact definition for ‘deemed forest’. However, an expert committee formed by the Karnataka government soon after the SC order classifies ‘deemed forest’ as “a land having the characteristic of forests irrespective of the ownership”.

Villupuram MP D Ravikumar has written to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin stating that such kind of ‘deemed forests’ developed by the Aurovilleans are the ones which protect and benefit the district which otherwise lacks a green belt.

Call for CM’s attention

Though the Tamil Nadu government has stated that it has no interest in this matter, some of the activists and members from the civil society groups such as musician TM Krishna, Madras High Court’s former judge D Hariparanthaman, writer Perumal Murugan and activist Nityanand Jayaraman have sent a letter to the TN CM seeking his intervention.

“The Auroville Foundation which controls 2,500 acres of land in Tamil Nadu has not one representative of the state or local government. The Foundation’s governing council is filled with hand-picked members belonging with right-wing Hindutva leanings. The masterplan of Auroville has to be in line with the overall development plans for the region and state, and cannot be seen in isolation,” they said in the letter.

Meanwhile, the Foundation has sent out a statement to media houses not to cover the ongoing incidents inside the Auroville.

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