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September '03

The metamorphosis of the
Industrial Zone

- by Carel

The concept of Auroville's Industrial Zone is changing into an Economic Zone, one of three economic zones in Auroville


The Industrial Zone, though being the smallest of the four zones of Auroville, has the maximum amount of land features. It has the most canyons; it has low-lying waterlogged lands; it has excellent farm-lands. The rich soil in its environs has been under cultivation for generations, giving rise to the neighbouring villages of Bharatipuram and Alankuppam. Its density, in contrast to other areas of Auroville, is high. Agricultural farms and manufacturing industries intermingle with residential settlements, a pony riding school and the substantial pieces of land that Auroville has not yet been able to purchase. "This makes it so difficult in terms of logistics to introduce new industries," explains Sheril. Together with Alok, Bobby, Suhasini and Mona, she has run since March 2003 the Industrial Zone Group. "Whenever someone wants to start a business in the Industrial Zone, the request is discussed in the group and there follows a rather tedious process involving the entire neighbourhood. Where can the business be best located? What is its impact on the environment? Where does it get its water from? What are its electricity demands? Can we give access to existing infrastructure? Does the unit intend to build caretaker houses or staff quarters? Are the finances sufficient to pay for the buildings and the extensive infrastructure? For Auroville's Industrial Zone is not comparable to industrial zones elsewhere: there are no demarcated plots with water and electricity brought to the doorstep."

The Aurobhakti building in the Industrial Zone, home for 5 units
"So far, the development of the Zone has happened in a more or less haphazard way," adds Suhasini. "A few years ago Aurosarjan built a rather big factory building, which later became known as Aurobhakti. Aurosarjan's executives resigned when the building was finished, and their successors were not able to keep up the business. Ultimately the building was split-up to house several smaller units. This taught us some valuable lessons. One large building where many units can rent spaces is more needed than the one -unit one-plot development everybody had been thinking of before. The food producing units Naturellement, Aurosoya and New School Crafts have also realised this and are now building their units jointly. The infrastructure costs are high, and most units, when they are ready to build, are not capital rich. It is better to build multi-purpose spaces which units can rent."

The Master Plan interpretation

A problem is caused by the ideas that have been put forward for the Zone. Says Suhasini: "One of the major disagreements that has blocked development is the interpretation of the Auroville Master Plan, with its road plans and mega-structures called Lines of Force. The Master Plan envisages these Lines of Force in two of Auroville's zones, the Residential and the Industrial Zone. The Cultural Zone and the International Zone do not have them. In the Residential Zone, they will start low close to the Matrimandir and gradually rise to their highest point at the periphery of the city. In the Industrial Zone they go the other way: they are low at the periphery and rise upwards towards the Matrimandir. So far, the Development Group has made it a point to locate new industries within such lines of force. Lorenzo's workshop is supposed to be part of one of them. The incense manufacturing unit Mereville, which wants to build a factory, has been asked to study how it can become part of another Line of Force. Personally, I do not see how industries can be located in Lines of Force. But in our group we have decided to leave this discussion for the future. We superimposed the present land use on the Master Plan with its Lines of Force, its ring road and its radial roads, to see what is left. And then it appears that there is very little land where a new unit could come up. The other available lands are either not yet owned by Auroville, or are intended for roads or Lines of Force, or are canyons. In the end, we are always looking at the same three or four small plots: the area around Angiras' Garden, Kottakarai Farm, Ganesh Bakery and the Pony farm; the area of the former Red-Earth riding school; and the Auroshilpam area."
Is it possible to increase the area of available land by simply filling up the canyons, for example with sand to be excavated from the future Matrimandir Lake? "That is exactly the wrong attitude!" bristles Mona. "That would obstruct the natural flow of the land and water. What would happen to the villages? To their ponds and the traditional systems that they built around it? You can't act as if you live upstream and not be responsible for the damage this would cause downstream. What about this 'city of consciousness' story? Such a blunt move would irreparably damage our relationship with the villages! No, for the time being we can only concentrate on these three areas."

Waste, water and access

A few years ago the lack of effluent treatment plants in the Zone sparked a protest action from the residents of Kottakarai. Asked if this is still a problem, Amrit shakes his head. "In 1999, the then Industrial Zone Monitoring Group resigned as it found that the attitude of many unit executives in the Auroshilpam area was not supportive of the development of an environmentally-healthy Industrial Zone. This was a major issue as the Industrial Zone is located on top of a water recharge area. But the units have completely changed their attitudes and are now very responsible: they have either improved their waste water systems or are in the process of doing so. Several units have even taken out loans for the purpose. In a way, the past years with bad monsoons have helped to convince people that water is a precious resource and that waste water management is necessary. Ironically, the private residences are now the problem, and we are urging them to take action and build small-scale waste-water treatment plants."

Silk-screen printing at Lumière
Water is still a problem in the Zone. There are two bore wells that presently supply most of the area, but their output is not sufficient. Moreover, the water of one of the wells is not potable, and can only be used for flushing toilets and gardening. There is agreement that another well will have to be dug before the Zone can house more industries. Explains Amrit: "We want to develop an integrated system, where the three wells are hooked-up. Individual units will not be allowed to drill and operate their own bore-wells. Instead, we aim for a central distribution system with one or two large underground water tanks and generator back-up. The units will have their own underground and overhead tanks to monitor their water consumption. We rejected the idea of having one central overhead water tank, as the experience of the Residential Zone has taught us that an overhead tank only contributes to water wastage."
The other problem is that of access. At present, traffic for the Zone passes Bharat Nivas and Matrimandir. To divert the traffic from the centre, access to the Zone should be from the Kottakarai-Alankuppam tar road. Says Suhasini: "The main problem is that a crucial piece of land is still not owned by Auroville. We are talking with the Farm Group about how we can create a link to the tar road, either on the side of Windarra farm or through a piece of Auroville land close by Bharatipuram. In the latter case, a road could also be opened behind the pony farm, and a piece of land which is situated next to Bharatipuram could be opened for industrial development. The villages would welcome that, as there is dissatisfaction that they haven't got as much benefit from the presence of Auroville as the villages of Edayanchavadi and Kuilapalayam.

The change of vision

But what is the vision of the Industrial Zone? This was the central question of a two-day workshop held in the beginning of March this year, which was attended by most of those who live or work in the Zone. The Master Plan was analysed in the light of the ground realities and the immediate needs. Based on the feedback provided, the Group is now preparing a coherent 5-year development plan for the Zone.
The workshop brought a number of surprises. The major one came up when trying to find an answer to the question of who would work in the Industrial Zone. Right now about 1,500 Aurovilians employ about 4,000 people. If this trend continues, the ultimate population of 50,000 Aurovilians would employ about 140,000 people, many of whom would be working in the Industrial Zone. This seems to be unrealistic, particularly as the villagers that are presently employed by the units seek to educate their children for white collar jobs. This makes the prospect of depending on the nearby villages for the kind of labour we are used to not feasible.
"The unit executives provided us with some startling information," says Sheril. "They mentioned that having more than 30 to 60 employees was not beneficial either economically or in terms of management. Most units are now outsourcing their production. Instead of bringing labour and raw materials into Auroville, the work is brought where the people are. This has tremendous advantages. The unit reduces its infrastructural requirements and potential labour problems, as everything scales up just by bringing the people there. The zone has less environmental pressure. And the people don't have to travel long periods every day. For many employees come from beyond the surrounding villages. Auromode operates two vans to collect its employees, Mereville brings people from Pondicherry. But this is a costly operation."
Adds Alok: "The Industrial Zone is in fact a rather remote area, located as it is to the north of Auroville. Auroville's commercial units are not exactly lining up to move there. Those units that are at present established in the area around Kuilapalayam have no intention to move whatsoever. It is much more convenient to remain where they are, with close access to the East Coast Road. The workshop acknowledged the reality of those 'satellite economic zones', and recommended that the Aspiration-Fraternity-Aurelec area and the Kottakarai-Koot Road area be acknowledged in the Master Plan as additional nodes of industrial development.
Another problem of the remoteness of the Zone is that we can't easily find highly-educated people to work there. I run an Info Tech company. If I would run that company in Pondicherry, there would be 50 people lined up to work for me each day. As I don't want to be in Pondicherry, I started the unit in the Pondicherry Engineering College - about 10 kilometres outside Pondicherry on the East Coast Road. The programmers were quite happy, but I wanted to be back in Auroville. So, I moved to the Aurelec compound, but I lost some employees and find it difficult to recruit good programmers. I have begun outsourcing several projects to companies in Pondy. Auroville is still a village and doesn't have the technical infrastructure or the social atmosphere for IT industries."
"So the workshop came up with a different perspective," says Mona. "Instead of an 'industrial zone' with its rather negative connotations of dirt and pollution and the deserted feeling in the evenings, we are now speaking of the Auroshilpam Economic Zone. It is essentially a low-level manufacturing zone, where offices will be located for research and development, where samples and prototypes will be developed and where the management will be housed. The bulk of the manufacturing will be outsourced to areas where labour is immediately available. The Zone would rather provide employment to Aurovilians than to employees coming from outside, and hopefully, it would also have industries there that exclusively cater to the needs of Aurovilians. Apart from this, there will be a certain amount of social activities. The Vérité community is expanding with a new integral learning centre and many more buildings are expected to come up there. The Kottakarai guesthouse facilities have expanded. We hope that facilities like cafeterias with internet facilities, crèches and spaces for recreation will come up as well. It all should result in a zone with a different, a harmonious vibration of energy. And for the time being, there would be no need to relocate the pony farm or use the farmland of Kottakarai for industrial purposes."
"The Group's major task now is to prepare the first Development Plan for the Auroshilpam Economic Zone," says Sheril. When we have received all the necessary data, we'll try to visualize what Auroville needs and can manifest in the next 5 years. Once the Development Plan is ready, it will be offered to the community for its approval. We'll restrict the plan to a 5-year period as much can change."

See Russian translation

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