March 1, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss the protests surrounding Auroville’s master plan development project. We also look at the rising dowry harassment cases in Kerala, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Development Pangs of Auroville
Sustainable development has been a hot-button topic for a while now. While governments and industries want to urbanise and build, others push back, citing environmental concerns of the location. In such instances, things can get messy and legally complicated.
At Auroville in Tamil Nadu, one such episode in this saga is playing out. A planned development project could result in a swath of forest areas being destroyed. Now, battle lines have been drawn with residents on one side and the Auroville Foundation and Town Development Council on the other.
Auroville isn’t a city or village; it’s an ‘experimental township’. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, also known as “the mother” and designed by architect Roger Anger. The word Auroville has its roots in French, with Aurore meaning dawn and Ville meaning village/city.
Here’s how this township came to be. In 1964, the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry passed a resolution to establish a city dedicated to the vision of Sri Aurobindo. At the time, Alfassa was the society’s Executive President. The goal was to build this township for people from all countries to live in peace and harmony above all creed, politics, and nationalities.
In 1980, the Indian government passed the Auroville Emergency Provision Act 1980. It took over the city’s management. Before this, it was owned by the Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry. In the wake of Alfassa’s death in 1973, frictions arose between the residents and the Society. The residents appealed to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to intervene. Despite a legal challenge by the Society in the Supreme Court, a verdict upheld the constitutional validity of the government’s intervention.
In 1988, the Auroville Foundation Act was passed by the Indian Parliament. It stated the city’s movable and immovable assets will be vested with the Auroville Foundation. The foundation is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It also outlined a three-tier governing system – the Governing Board, the highest authority, the Residents’ Assembly, and the Auroville International Advisory Council.
As the foundation took shape, the Governing Board outlined the city’s development. One of them was the Master Plan. It involved several projects, including mobility. 2025 was earmarked for its completion, though that seems unlikely. The biggest issue is acquiring land. Part of the master plan is the Crown road project for increased mobility to support the township’s activities and residents.
Over the years, some residents have come out against the project, saying it ignores the environmental impact. Others support it as it’s seen as an important part of Auroville’s development and overall vision.
Project needs review and revisions
On December 5, 500 Auroville residents signed a petition requesting postponement of the development work on the Crown Road project. They say the project bypasses steps and rules laid out in the Auroville Masterplan policy framework. Among them is a Detailed Development Plan (DDP), which hasn’t been done yet.
In recent months, since the new government-appointed Secretary to the Auroville Foundation arrived, there has been increased pressure on the Auroville community to implement the Master Plan. Several residents of Auroville who have town planning expertise have conducted studies in recent years and offered their proposals to authorities. One was submitted by the Darkali and the Bliss Forest/Youth Centre. As Lakshmi Venugopal, Auroville resident and environmental sustainability professional, and Tejaswini Mistri-Kapoor, a former member of the Auroville’s Town Development Council (ATDC), wrote, the alternate proposal identified some modifications to preserve forest areas and water catchment systems.
In December, the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered an interim stay on tree felling inside Auroville, giving its residents some hope. Part of Auroville’s vision as a township is to make sure development is in keeping with the environment. The foundation didn’t consult residents or prepare a feasibility study. Another issue is governance. The foundation doesn’t have a single representative in the State or local government or an elected official.
Residents of Auroville have faced threats and intimidation in their opposition to the project. It’s clear the authorities don’t care for rules and regulations. On December 5, bulldozers crashed through the forest close to the Youth Centre. They halted only thanks to interventions from Working Committee members. Again, on December 9, bulldozers arrived accompanied by people who said they were paid to enforce the clearance. They razed buildings and instigated violence against peaceful protestors. The chain of events so far has been undertaken at the behest of the Foundation’s Governing Board, i.e., the government.
From an environmental standpoint, the proposal will block water passages for villagers, and thousands of trees in the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest ecosystems will be in danger. The Auroville Foundation Act is being wrongly interpreted in this case. Ashish Kothari from Kalpavriksh cited then-minister of human resources development Shiv Shankar, who said in 1988, “the day-to-day activities will be looked after by the residents through appropriate autonomous arrangements”.
Protests on false narratives
For Auroville to realise its vision put forward decades ago, the Master Plan’s development projects are necessary. The blocking of this is being done by those who claim to speak for all Auroville residents. It has resulted in a standstill. The Master Plan’s key elements were ratified by the Residents Assembly. This included the Crown Road project.
The opposition against the project is centred around two issues. The first is the environment. However, some who oppose this project didn’t speak up when a densely forested area was razed down for a horse-riding field. The second is the community process. This argument also doesn’t hold water. A group of 60 residents can stop any agreement previously made by the Residents Assembly, as Auroville resident Muriel Ghion stated.
While some residents said they have alternate proposals, none have been presented. With regards to forest areas, Auroville already has 3 million trees. For those that will be removed, re-plantation has been planned in the town’s green zones. Also, Auroville’s work on renewable energy is exemplary. Concerning the Youth Centre, its current location is temporary. There are also documented agreements that no buildings will be built, and no obstruction will be made when the road needs to be constructed.
One of the opposition’s demands is for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) even before changing the Master Plan. It should be noted that over 40% of the work on the Crown project is complete. As author and long-time Auroville resident Anu Majumdar wrote, those who oppose the plan are holding up new pedestrian-friendly mobility and increasing the city’s financial burden. She said the issue should’ve been an internal matter but instead was blown out of proportion due to a lack of collaboration and misinformation among some residents.
The Master Plan was given unanimous consent by the Residents Assembly in 1999. Since then, some residents began to plant trees and build structures directly on the project pathway without the Auroville Town Development Council’s approval. Auroville residents aren’t owners of the land, they’re only its stewards. Some residents, as Ghion put it, are expressing landlord-like behaviour. This goes against the entire ethos and mission of Auroville.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) The opposition to the Crown Project in Auroville is justified.
b) The opposition to the Crown Project in Auroville is not justified.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
India’s Abstention On Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Will Shift Perceptions In Washington
For the Left:
Is Trinamool’s Muslim Vote Bank In Bengal Now Shaky?
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Covid-hit industries (Himachal Pradesh) – Himachal industries minister Bikram Singh tabled data in the House of the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly that stated 43 industrial units closed down in the state due to the pandemic. Most of these were in the Sirmaur district’s Kala Amb area. Many of them manufactured auto parts, electronic equipment, home appliances, and processed food. More than 820 people have lost their jobs due to the closures.
Why it matters: In 2017, the government said more than 3,600 industrial units were set up in the state over the previous four years with an investment of ₹3,581.48 crores. It provided employment to more than 48,000 youngsters. In early February, the state allowed a one-time relaxation for industries to apply for various incentives under the Himachal Pradesh Industrial Investment Policy, 2019.
Dowry harassment cases rising (Kerala) – Over the past few years, dowry harassment cases in the state have been increasing. Data tabled in the Kerala assembly showed Kerala police registered 223 cases under the Dowry Prohibition Act from 2011 till February 2022. The conviction rate is low at around 4%. In 32 cases, out of the 176 charge-sheeted, the accused were acquitted. Kerala is among the leaders in the number of cases in family courts. Officials and activists say some women commit suicide due to constant dowry harassment while in other cases, the families come to a compromise.
Why it matters: While Kerala is seen as a progressive state in India, it does have some gender disparities. Kerala has among the highest female unemployment rates in the country. In such instances, the income of the man is considered during the marriage. Dowry is also not properly defined by law. Last August, state government data showed dowry-related persecution led to the deaths of 34 women over the past three years.
Women in the police force (Bihar) – Addressing the 10th meeting under his ‘Samaj Sudhar Abhiyan’, chief minister Nitish Kumar said Bihar has the highest number of women in the police with more than 25,000. He said the state provided 35% reservation for women in the police force and other services. He said other states that are bigger than Bihar didn’t have such a high percentage of women in their police forces.
Why it matters: According to data published by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), women accounted for 25.3% of the police strength in the state as of January 1, 2020. It’s double the national average of 10.3% and a big improvement for the state from 2015 when it was just 3.3%. The 35% reservation is also the highest in the police force among any state.
Power outage (Maharashtra) – Mumbai faced a power outage due to a grid failure that affected normal life, including local train services. This was the first major power outage since October 2020. Maharashtra energy minister Nitin Raut ordered an inquiry into the outage. The Maharashtra State Electricity Transmission Company (MahaTransco) said the outage took place due to a trip at the 220 kV Kalwa-Trombay transmission line.
Why it matters: In early February, services were affected in Pune and neighbouring Pimpri-Chinchwad due to a power outage. In October 2020, Mumbai suffered a similar power outage. A technical audit report showed that the outage was due to cascade tripping. The Talegaon Kalwa line was damaged by heavy rains that led to a load on three other lines. While there was some speculation at the time that the cause might have been a cyberattack, the report didn’t mention it.
Traditional pre-poll ceremony (Manipur) – As the state goes to the polls, there’s one tradition that candidates take part in – a flag hoisting ceremony called Athenpot Thinba. All candidates across parties and religions take part in it, which is unique to Manipur. It involves hoisting the party flag in the candidate’s courtyard. It’s then followed by seeking blessings from religious leaders and elders in the community. Then, the candidate can give a speech and interact with the locals.
Why it matters: The ceremony is seen as a mark of the auspicious beginning of any event. Athenpot refers to an offering that includes items like food and flowers, and Thinba means to present things. The ceremony is also attended by high-profile names. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh attended the ceremony for BJP’s Y Khemchand Singh. The ceremony’s date is decided based on astrological predictions in some areas.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
$2.4 billion – Satish Kumbhani, founder of the cryptocurrency investment platform BitConnect was indicted on charges of operating a global Ponzi scheme worth $2.4 billion. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 70 years in prison.