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May 2003

Auroville employees have their say

- from an interview by Carel


The report on the socio-economic survey of 3,762 Auroville employees made in the year 2000 is reaching completion. There are some surprises...


From February to July 2000, a team of postgraduates in social science from Pondicherry University surveyed all of Auroville's employees, meaning those working for Auroville's units as well as those working for individual Aurovilians. The objective of the survey was to obtain a socio-economic profile of the employees in Auroville and to learn about the dynamics between Auroville and the villages that surround it. The questions asked delved deeply into the personal lives of the workers: they dealt with their income, their education, their food, their expectations for their children in terms of education and career, their domestic water supply and waste treatment, whether they own a house or land, whether they own a car, a tractor or a motorbike, what they are short of, if there are debts, and what they think about Auroville and their relationship to Auroville. Also data on alcohol consumption, smoking, and the expenditure on occasions like weddings and festivals were collected.

The data is not only useful for present planning, but will also be compared with data to be collected in the future-there are plans to repeat the survey every seven years-as a means to gauge the overall impact of Auroville on the bioregion. The answers of the employees also provide an insight about the living conditions of their spouses and children and other relatives living in the household.

The idea for the survey came from Meenakshi more than eight years ago, but there was no money to do it then. In 1999 the Dutch Foundation, Stichting de Zanier, decided to sponsor it. Auroville's Social Research Centre took charge of the work and invited the co-operation of Professor S. Gunasekaran, a specialist in demography, family formation and research methodology, who had worked, among other positions, as a consultant for the World Health Organisation before becoming Head of the Department of Sociology of the Pondicherry University. Professor Gunasekaran selected and trained a number of social science postgraduates to do the survey. Then, for about five months, they went out and interviewed almost every person employed in Auroville. They were well received. Nearly all Auroville units and Aurovilians co-operated and the employees themselves were very open to answering the questions. From a total of 4,179 persons approached, only 58 refused to participate.

Professor S. Gunasekaran

The next phase was to process the enormous amount of data that resulted from the survey. This was done by Professor Gunasekaran and two of his postgraduates. Unfortunately, Professor Gunasekaran was then involved in a traffic accident which resulted in the death of his wife and serious injuries to himself, and the publication of the report has been delayed because of this.

"Our first job was to find out who, from among the respondents was truly an Auroville employee. Eventually we came to a number of 3,762 persons employed in the period February - July 2000. The other interviewees were only incidentally working for Auroville. From these 3,762 people, 33% said they were employed permanently, 50% replied that they were employed temporary but full-time, 14% did not know their status, 2% were contract workers and 1% was working part-time. We found that the average age of those working in Auroville is young: 29.7 years. When we looked at the wages paid, we were amazed that they were lower than we had expected. The average income was Rs 1,545 a month. The total amount spent by Auroville on wages was about Rs 57.6 lakhs a month and we found that the 10% of the employees in the highest income bracket took approximately 23% of the total wages, while the 25% in the lowest income bracket took only 10%. This points to a lopsided distribution. We had thought that Auroville employees are well off; they dress well and are obviously aware of different patterns of consumption. But the data collected did not support our impression."

Auroville greenworkers

Professor Gunasekaran is quick to point out, however, that the outcome of this particular part of the survey has to be taken with a pinch of salt. He explains: "We have not compared the level of the wages quoted by the employees with the figures of the employers. The survey is purely based on the replies of the employees. And you can never expect, when doing a social survey, that all the answers will be in accordance with the truth, especially when you ask sensitive questions such as how much one earns, how much alcohol one consumes and so on. Another important factor to consider is the nature of the relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer. In this case, the social status of the interviewee was lower than that of the post-graduate interviewer, and this more often than not leads to what we call 'social desirability responses' which are not truthful but are what the interviewee thinks the interviewer wants to hear.

A third factor may have been that the interviews took place during working hours. There was a 99% response to the survey. Did this indicate that the employees thought their bosses wanted them to answer the questions? In the West, a 30% response could be expected. It was also reported that in some cases the interviewee seemed a bit afraid to answer the questions, in particular when the employer was around, and that some respondents were rather secretive about their feelings regarding their work in Auroville.

'Approximately 28% of the interviewees answered that they were dissatisfied with their salary. Why should so many employees be dissatisfied with their salary? "I think," says Professor Gunasekaran, "that it is a consequence of the fact that those working for Auroville are confronted daily with the vastly different life styles of the Aurovilians. They have become aware of the difference in consumption patterns, which may breed some type of perceptions that, relative to the Aurovilians, they are not getting adequate compensation for their work. The same goes for the level of productivity. A mason in Pondicherry may put more bricks than his colleague in Auroville, but then the Pondicherry mason will not compare his working hours with those of the Aurovilians."

The survey does not show to what extent Auroville influences the lives of those living in the nearby villages. Says Professor Gunasekaran: "We could only answer such a question if we could compare our data with data collected elsewhere where conditions are more or less similar. But this data is simply not available. This survey is unique in India as it contains a lot of subjective, so-called 'soft' data - such as 'are you happy with your employer?' - which is extremely difficult to get. It is rare to have in India so much information available about so many families. This means that my report will be written in phases. The first report will give the bare data; further reports will deal with specific aspects of the survey. I can also foresee that many PhD. studies could result from this baseline study. This survey is a veritable gold mine for future researchers as areas of sociology, economics, demography, nutrition, to mention but a few, are all touched upon. The data will be made available to any researcher approved by a committee appointed by the Auroville Social Research Centre. My report will be made available in the next few months."


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