The economic impact of
When the task of building Auroville was given by Mother to a group of seekers around 35 years ago, it envisaged the recovery of the ecosystem, the building of the first settlements and the starting of Matrimandir. The intention and objectives were shared with the neighbours living in the villages around the newly obtained pieces of land where the township was to be built. Moreover, there was a meeting point, work. Gradually, the labour force to build the city was assembled, comprising men and women from the local villages together with men and women from all over the world.
In the early days the population of the neighbouring villages was not so great, maybe 25-30,000. Presently, in the year 2000, it has increases increased to nearer 40,000, thanks to immigration and the normal increase in population. (The entire bioregion of Auroville covers some 50 villages, though not all are in the immediate vicinity of the future township.)
Without specifically aiming for this, Auroville has become a central point for most of these villages. It is in daily contact with them through labour relations and various educational and other programmes. While no one planned this from the beginning, it has slowly evolved this way.
We will depict here some of the features that we have been collecting during the last fifteen years from the villages around Auroville. Since this type of research has not been done from the very beginning in a planned and organised way, we are not able to present a statistical analysis of the economic impact Auroville has on the villages. Current attempts to do this have however started from different perspectives and will definitely throw enormous light on this symbiosis in the near future.
Without any doubt, the presence of our Tamil neighbours in Auroville itself has been increasing day by day, and not only from the 50 villages around but also from farther away villages and middle-sized towns. We work with more or less 5,000 people a day in Auroville. That means that in each of these families at least one permanent monthly income is available from the wages of either the father, the mother or a youth working in Auroville. This job security represents an economic security for many households, a fact which allows them to improve aspects of their lives according to their priorities. We can definitely affirm that there is more circulation of cash throughout the local communities, and this is very noticeable as well. As a general rule, the wages paid in Auroville to the workers are higher than those around the area or in Pondicherry town due to our policy of dignified salaries.
Thanks to the presence Auroville, there has been a gradual improvement in living conditions in the villages. The transfer of various techniques of appropriate technology which have been adopted by or developed in Auroville has been applied in two ways: either through development schemes worked out by Auroville and the local government and implemented in the villages concerned, or instigated by the villagers' own initiative. The construction materials frequently used in the villages today are far more durable (reinforced cement/concrete, ferrocement channels, tiles, etc) than the traditional ones. Style and design often reflect the models of housing found in Auroville.
Change in agriculture
Presently a considerable number of villagers are in the economic position of acquiring new land for commercialising agriculture. This brings to light that in the nearby villages a great change in the increase of land prices has taken place, to the point of creating inflationary trends due to speculation. The picture of agriculture has veered away from cultivation of paddy, groundnuts, and cereals to growing casuarinas, sugarcane, cashew nuts, etc. This change is largely due to the scarcity of the labour force, since the feminine and youth labour forces, who both used to work in the agrarian sector, have now been absorbed by Auroville or nearby towns through schooling, the service sector, construction, handicrafts or export units.
Auroville is a place where 'training' of the labour force is taking place either intentionally or unintentionally through the work activity performed. This learning in the work place has been an important input for men and women, resulting in new awareness, self-esteem and personal gain. The result is that many local people can now compete in the qualified labour market within or outside Auroville, or become managers of their own enterprise, providing the local population with yet more opportunities for employment.
Many educational programmes have been implemented in the area, either through formal education or through programmes of adult education in areas such as social awareness, health, agriculture, recovery of traditional medicines, local infrastructural development, savings opportunities and reforestation. While these continue to function as a strong stimulus for the villagers, the latter have now the opportunity to either take their own initiative and develop their own enterprises, or choose to participate in the already existing programmes worked out by Auroville. Both are encouraged.
Through the services provided by Auroville for the improvement of health, control over epidemics, conditions of sanitation, water sources, ante- and post-natal care, and efforts towards reduction in birth rate and female infanticide, there gradually emerges a new outlook on life, where life and health are related and better understood by the majority of people.
There is, however, a drawback in the "increased family income" situation where men, women and youth are all working, and it is one widely recognised in developing countries today. This problem is the increase in consumption of alcohol in the region. As of today, approximately 80% of the older male population and 5% of the youth drink alcohol on a regular basis. This practice, according to the women in the villages, pushes them - the women - to become the breadwinners in absence of the full support of the income of the male head. They express that the husbands spend more or less 50% of their income in alcohol, and contribute to the family only 20 or 30%. Moreover, the new fashion of the younger generation of boys is to treat the household AS if they were paying guests: they pay towards the running of the household only the equivalent of what they eat, whereas in the case of the younger working daughter it is demanded that she entirely hands over whatever she earns in order to help the mother run the family. Another facet of the same practice is that the selling of liquor has been so profitable in the last years that shop owners work out an agreement with the village panchayats (local authorities) whereby a considerable donation per year is given to be invested in programmes of community development i.e. temple improvement, land purchase, etc.
One successful attempt towards solving the economic problems of village women running households has been a programme of savings. Here, with the support of Auroville, they initiate their own women's clubs with one of their objectives being the development of a savings scheme. Presently some of these clubs own up to Rs. 4 lakhs which can be used as a loan scheme in times of need. These projects have made the women independent OF the pressure of money lenders, and enabled them to be their own organisers of the loan scheme. At present, over 1,000 women from 43 villages are saving and taking loans from group savings. This capacity for saving helps them when confronted with economic crises, and also substantially enhances their self-esteem and recognition by their family and the community.
The women are now very much aware of the developmental problems, and it happens more and more that they are part of committees that deal with labour contribution towards construction of infrastructure needed in their villages. In some communities they also take part in local politics, albeit often 'for namesake' representation only.
Generally speaking, it is easy to perceive that new trends of consumption are now consolidating: most of the households in villages falling within 5 kms radius from Auroville have 2-wheeler motor vehicles, television with cable connection, cassette players, music tapes, radios and electro-domestic devices like fans and mixer/grinders. Most families have also adopted new dress styles for their young girls and boys, and commonly wear gold chains and watches. Some 80% of the children go to school, some of them to private schools. One can also observe the increase in expenditure for social functions like ear-piercing ceremonies, puberty ceremonies, and especially for weddings, where a minimum of Rs 1 lakh ($ ) is spent. Before, all these expenditures were modest, and simply not possible for the average population, while today the majority can afford them.
New social perspectives
One of Auroville's concerns today is to help the younger generation to acquire new social perspectives and personal responsibilities. For this, the youth have to be guided to work for their community, developing healthy personal, emotional and social habits, helping them to also organise savings schemes, exposing them to new findings in education, sports, culture, technology and social issues.
The villages appear like satellites of Auroville, where both sides have been gaining from each other, not only economically, but also in values, practices and material wealth. The villagers have been not only earning a salary, but have also been enabled to set a course in life without much imposition from Auroville. We are in a constant dynamic state of exchange, and this is a form of wealth from which both sides benefit.
Much more still needs to be done, but real long term change can only be achieved when it is allowed to emerge from within, naturally, gradually, organically. Auroville can only plant the seeds.
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