the Dutch Foundation 'De Zaaier' has played a very active
role in Auroville. Auroville Today interviews Ms. Mia Berden,
who, apart from being Board member of De Zaaier, is also honorary
life member of Auroville International.
AVToday: What is the origin of De Zaaier's
interest in Auroville?
Mia: Yoka [an Aurovilian who passed away in 1991, eds.] and I
were board members from the day the Foundation became active in
1986. We shared a deep interest in the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo
and The Mother and in Auroville's development. Yoka moved to Auroville
in September 1986 and I got involved in the work of Auroville
International The Netherlands. That's how Auroville became a part
of our funding.
At the end of the eighties, Dr. Henk Thomas joined as chairman
of the board. He is Professor Emeritus of the Dutch Institute
of Social Studies and became professionally involved in Auroville
with the research project in the Auroville economy. The other
two board members, Ms. Martine Bush and Ms. Carmelita Zeyl joined
later. They have both visited Auroville, were impressed by the
manifold activities and have a positive position towards Auroville.
I am now holding the Auroville project portfolio on behalf of
How does the Foundation decide which projects to sponsor in Auroville?
Over the years a modus operandi has been worked out with the Auroville
Project Coordination Group. Each year they receive all the project
proposals from within Auroville, check them and then present us
with a shortlist for funding, indicating their priorities. From
this shortlist we select the projects. Apart from this shortlist,
we have given special grants to particular large Auroville projects
such as recently the Land Fund (Rs 1 crore /Euro 200,000) and
the Town Hall (Rs 52 lakhs / Euro 100,000). We also sponsor individual
projects, such as study and research proposals. The total of our
donations since 1986 is now about Rs 6 crores (Euro 1,2 million).
Clearly De Zaaier's goodwill for Auroville is enormous. Is
Auroville de Zaaier's main project?
Mia: No. Auroville features high on our list. Apart from The Netherlands
we have projects all over the world. In Pakistan, for example,
we are supporting the Institute for Labour Education and Research,
which is active in issues such as the status of women, child labour
and general labour conditions. This Institution has become a centre
for peace in the south-Asian region.
In January this year you visited Auroville to review the projects
submitted to De Zaaier with the project holders. Are you satisfied
with the projects you receive?
Mia: I can't really answer this question with a simple yes or
no. For example, this year's short list contained requests to
fund three buildings. But we have given substantial grants for
buildings in the past and we would now like to shift our focus
to sponsoring new initiatives, for example to promoting the development
of small industrial units and to giving fellowships for courses
in India and abroad.
We built up experience by sponsoring the organic food processing
industries, which have not taken off as we had anticipated. We
learned how difficult the situation is for Auroville's small industrial
units. The unit executives have to struggle all by themselves;
their units develop because the unit holders put in their own
money. There seems to be little possibility for them to get additional
capital at low interest rate. There is as yet no support for entrepreneurs
where they can receive expert advice on marketing, accounting,
legal affairs, taxation, building a factory etc. Now time and
energy is lost to acquire necessary information and help. A centre
for the promotion of industry would help to create the climate
whereby industry can develop.
De Zaaier is also supporting the farms.
Mia: Yes. In the beginning, we were approached by individual farmers.
Afterwards the Farm Group came into existence and we agreed to
support them with a yearly amount which they were free to distribute.
This Farm Fund was intended to grow and attract new money. But
this hasn't happened. Instead, it only served as an instrument
for the distribution of our donations.
This year we received additional requests for support from three
farms, submitted with the approval of the Farm Group and the Project
Co-ordination Group. These projects were not part of the shortlist.
It made me understand that the position of Auroville's farms is
very difficult and that, as the Farm Group had already budgeted,
a large sum is needed. After discussions with the concerned farms
a proposal was made for a farm-assessment research project. This
is now happening. [see AVToday June/July 2003]
It appears that De Zaaier prefers a passive attitude and is not
using its position as a donor to influence Auroville's development.
Mia: No, we would not like to be considered as exercising undue
interference on Auroville's affairs. The expression of our views
might come as a consequence of our analyses of the problems presented
to us, but not as an independent push.
For example, the position of women in society is one which is
very close to my heart. In this respect Auroville is not in the
forefront of progress. Women work very hard and also participate
in the affairs of the community and some women hold important
posts with great results but male domination still prevails. Personally
I would welcome a plan to change the situation, but that is all.
I can't take the initiative.
Another example that I feel that Auroville could consider starting
is a kind of public reward system for outstanding workers, as
one of the means to improve Auroville's relationship with the
employees and the villages. I have been told that years ago an
open day, a Good Work Fair, was organized for all the employees,
where they displayed the products they produced, but it appears
that the effort has not been repeated. That is a pity. But here
again, we can't take the initiative to promote this.
Nevertheless, De Zaaier got deeply involved in the study of the
development of Auroville's economy and also initiated a research
into the living conditions of the Auroville's employees.
Mia: Yes, but that was only because, in 1998, the Economy Group
had asked Henk Thomas if he could make recommendations for the
future development of the Auroville economy. Henk replied that
that was impossible without studying the key issues of the economic
history of Auroville from its beginning in 1968 till the present
and he took up the challenge to conduct the research. A spin-off
of the economic research is the Socio-Economic survey of Auroville
employees 2000, as a way to learn about the specific dynamics
between Auroville and the villages that surround it. That survey
was done in the period February to July 2000. It included all
Auroville employees. All this will be published as a research
monograph, The Economic and Social History of Auroville 1968-2002,
perhaps as early as winter this year. [see also AVToday June-July
2002 and May 2003] So here again, De Zaaier only got involved
because we were asked to do so.
Do you foresee any changes in the future relation between De Zaaier
I cannot predict. I only can say that our income has suffered
due to market circumstances, and this may influence the extent
to which De Zaaier can meet Auroville's request. It will very
much depend on the projects Auroville submits.