Building a new city or new humans? A utopia in India fights for the future.

AUROVILLE, India — The bulldozer arrived one night in December, waking up Ganga Park in her treehouse and sending her tumbling down the ...


AUROVILLE, India — The bulldozer arrived one night in December, waking up Ganga Park in her treehouse and sending her tumbling down the trunk.

When its operator stopped the menacing machine, which was there to carve its way through the surrounding forest, Mrs. Park clung to it. Their confrontation continued until the driver gave up and turned around.

When the bulldozer returned a few days later, Ms. Park confronted it again, but this time she was joined by dozens of her neighbors in the southern Indian arcadia of Auroville.

They tied their arms around the bulldozer, chanting “Om Namo Bhagavate,” a popular Hindu mantra that roughly translates to “Obedience to the Almighty.” They stayed until they won at least one temporary victory: a stay order from an environmental tribunal, forcing the demolition work to stop.

“It was super instinctive,” Ms Park, 20, said of her leap into action. “If there is an intruder, you protect and defend immediately.”

The odd one out, in this case, was the government of Auroville, an idealistic community founded in 1968 with the goal of achieving human unity by putting the divine at the center of all things.

This unit, however, has recently unraveled.

A bitter dispute has arisen between the government of Auroville, which has revived a long-delayed plan to dramatically expand the community, and residents who want to protect the thriving forest they have cultivated from the barren strip of land where their social experiment has started over 50 years ago. years ago.

The community was founded by a French writer, Mirra Alfassa, better known to her followers simply as Mother, who believed that a shift in consciousness and yearning for the divine in Auroville would reverberate throughout the rest of the world.

Before her death in 1973, the Mother had commissioned the French architect Roger Anger to develop a project for a city of 50,000 inhabitants, approximately 15 times the current population. Mr. Anger designed a galactic shape: concentric circles spiraling around the Matrimandir – a golden circular meditation chamber – with 12 radial routes.

But without the money or the manpower over the decades to carry out the plan, the people of the community, or Aurovilians, built something different.

They dug wells and built thatched huts. And they planted trees. Many of them. Beneath the cool forest canopy, civets, jackals, peacocks and other creatures roam, and the muriel bushes release a sweet, heady scent.

The divide between Aurovilians who want to follow the Mother’s urban plans—known as constructivists—and those who want to let the community continue to develop on its own—organicists—has existed for a long time.

But the struggle escalated last July, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office appointed a new secretary, Jayanti Ravi, to head the township’s board.

Ms Ravi had served as health secretary in Gujarat, Mr Modi’s home state. Previously, she was a district magistrate under Mr Modi, then a senior state official, when he faced near-universal condemnation for failing to police two months of religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 which left more than 1,000 people dead, mostly Muslims.

The government’s new interest in adopting Mr Anger’s design reflects Mr Modi’s will penchant for ambitious construction projects promote tourism around Hindu Where nationalist sites. His Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a social organization dedicated to making India an explicitly Hindu state.

Although Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman, she was a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual master and freedom fighter for Indian independence. Planned Auroville revamp is underway ahead of Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birthday in August – for which Mr Modi plans a big party.

“Part of Narendra Modi’s agenda is to appropriate all religious and spiritual figures into the BJP’s fold,” said Navroz Mody, the resident who filed the petition to halt the development project.

Ms. Ravi promised to infuse the project with millions of dollars in federal funding. The development would begin by paving a perfectly circular road, forming part of a wider pedestrian ring road that would connect the four distinct areas of Auroville. But on the way stand the youth center of Auroville, a watershed and hundreds of trees.

Sindhuja Jagadeesh, spokesman for the local government, said it was a kind of “decadence” for Auroville’s roughly 3,300 residents – around half Indians and half foreigners – to live out of 3,000 acres of land in a country as densely populated as India.

“A lot of people have become attached to their comfort in the greenery, but we are meant to experiment and evolve,” said Ms Jagadeesh, who is also an architect and an Aurovilian.

The position of those opposed to development, Ms. Jagadeesh added, clashes strongly with the Mother’s vision of a model city of the future that would be replicated around the world.

“We are here for human unity, but also to build a city,” she said.

Proponents of the development plan, which ultimately envisions a high-density, self-sufficient city with a thriving economy and experimental architecture, deride today’s Auroville as an eco-village where a visitor can get a good cappuccino but not the change of consciousness that its founder hoped for.

“It’s not just a city plan, it’s meant to stage an experience,” said Shrimoyi Rosegger, a resident who approves of the development and has deep faith in the transformative power of the mother plan. “We believe it is an intelligence beyond us,” she added, “that if we follow its directions, something will be revealed to us.”

Leaning against a motorbike outside the free clothing store and community food co-op, Auroson Bystrom, 51, among the first children born in Auroville, said he opposed Ms Ravi’s plans but believes the intense debate energized the community.

“Aurobindo is about evolution,” Mr. Bystrom said, referring to Sri Aurobindo. “And for 35 years, Auroville hasn’t felt so scalable.”

Some opponents of the plan say that the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother was not so much to build a new city as to build a new human. And that takes time.

“How we urbanize is more important than how fast we urbanize,” said Suhasini Ayer, an architect whose mixed-use development in Auroville recently won a design award at the UN climate conference in Glasgow.

The community’s small population, say opponents of the development, owes more to the unusual living conditions than the absence of the ring road the government wants to carve through the trees.

Those wishing to live here must undergo a year of verification – and must invest their own money in homes that will remain city property.

Auroville receives funding from the government, but draws most of its budget internally, from private enterprise and donations.

Residents purify their own water, grow their own grain and make their own paper. Those who work for the public services of Auroville receive a meager salary called “maintenance”.

“These people want to be pragmatic,” Renu Neogy, a lifelong Aurovilian, said of Ms Ravi and her supporters. “But it’s not a pragmatic place, it’s a utopia.”

Some foreign residents have said they fear Ms Ravi will deprive them of the sponsorship they need to continue living in India if they fail to agree to her plans.

While the two sides seem distant, some residents believe that a solution could lie in the approach to community decision-making that was a founding principle of Auroville: the search for consensus.

Allan Bennett, an urban planner from Auroville, said a group of community architects were considering how to merge the place the Mother envisioned with the place that exists today through a process known as weaving name of dreams.

“Architects are trying to capture the poetry of the galaxy view and also the reality of the ground,” he said. “Those are the concepts that they have to weave together.”

Back in her tree house, filled with birdsong and sunlight, Ms Park reflected on what she had faced a bulldozer to save.

Growing up in Auroville, Ms. Park picked lemons and swayed on the branches of banyan trees. When she briefly went to live in Seoul, she wore a school uniform and followed a strict routine.

“Outside it is inevitable to buy garbage, to get carried away by consumerism. It really depresses you,” she said. “It’s easy to be a good human being here.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Building a new city or new humans? A utopia in India fights for the future.
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