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September '03

How to govern Utopia,
chapter 301

-by David C

Over the years, many Aurovilians have worked hard on sensible proposals for collective decision-making. These tend to get shot down - often with maximum hostility - by this or that section of the community. The surprising thing is that anyone has the energy to try again…


Auroville's long march towards effective governance has taken us through some twisted paths and byways in the last few months. The destination may be as far off as ever, or it may be just around the next bend. But at any rate, the journey has recently been quite interesting.
Since March 2003, two widely differing proposals for collective decision-making in Auroville have been drafted. Much discussion has taken place in the Auroville Council, the Working Committee, the unofficial forum known as the Tibetan Pavilion Group, and doubtless around a hundred dinner-tables. And a final distinction was conferred in the form of a speech on Self-Governance by the Chairman of the Governing Board, Dr Kireet Joshi. What, if anything, will emerge in terms of a policy proposal is not yet clear.
The present stage of the journey began two years ago when Serge and Carel drafted "Towards a Divine Anarchy", a detailed proposal for making and implementing decisions in Auroville (see AVToday No. 152, Sept 2001). After much general discussion, and four revised drafts, it failed to gain community approval in March 2002. From the ashes of this proposal arose "The Experiment", which came into effect in September last year with the endorsement of the Governing Board (see AVToday No. 165, Oct 2002).
Perhaps it would have been wise to try out the new system on some harmless issue. This did not happen. The first trial of The Experiment was Matrimandir. A series of difficult meetings failed to resolve Auroville's longest-running dispute, since when no policy proposals have been through the process of The Experiment.
And there things might have rested for a while, but for a curious development elsewhere.
Last November, a new Auroville Council and Working Committee were elected. The previous Working Committee had enjoyed the services of an informal support group consisting of about fifteen fairly senior Aurovilians. When the new Working Committee decided it did not require this service, the group decided to keep on meeting anyway. They chose the Tibetan Pavilion [TP] as a venue for unofficial weekly discussions on subjects that the members found interesting, which included "Decision-making in Auroville".
The TP Group took a novel approach. Rather than defining how policy proposals might be created, they decided to focus only on how such proposals would be ratified by the community. Put simply, if any Aurovilian could make any suggestion about governance at any time, how would Auroville as a whole decide which ones to adopt?
A preliminary document emer-ged, which proposed a partially democratic method. Under certain circumstances - which were fully defined - an issue would be decided by votes cast at a meeting of the Residents' Assembly; depending on the type of proposal in question, a greater or lesser majority would be required for ratification. This is direct, or Athenian democracy, which is still quite rare in the world. A much more familiar system is representative democracy, in which voters elect governors (or "representatives") who then make all the decisions on their behalf.
The TP Group's suggestion was taken up for discussion by the Auroville Council, some of whose members are also in the Group. At the same time, the Council asked Serge to analyse The Experiment and produce a report on how its processes might be improved. The original intention was then to attempt a synthesis of the two methods. However, the elements of direct democracy contained in the TP Group document proved to be irreconcileable with the "intuitive intelligence" elements in The Experiment.
At this point, Kireet Joshi announced that he would be visiting Auroville and would like to address the residents on the subject of "Self-Governance in Auroville". The meeting took place on July 19th.

He opened his remarks by saying that, "There is present in Auroville a certain egoistic conception of self-governance. Our task is to see how we can arrive at a true conception, and how we can implement that idea." He regretted the community's apparent inability to co-operate in this venture.
Several times Dr Joshi stressed that the people of Auroville enjoy enormous - indeed unique - freedom to manage their own affairs. "As long as you develop Auroville according to the Charter, there is no limitation on what you can do. This freedom was deliberately not defined in the Act. You have a complete freedom even to shape how you will determine the governance of Auroville." In particular, he said, the framers of the Act "avoided putting down that this freedom would be exercised by election."
Developing this line of thought, he emphasised that Auroville should not be an attempt to make a State, democratic or otherwise. "This is an inadequate idea. It should be a living body. If you are going to create the kind of machinery that is used by every Parliament in the world, there is no experiment. We are not going forward. Sri Aurobindo wrote, 'The State is bound to act crudely […]. It is incapable of that free, harmonious […] varied action which is proper to organic groups. For the State is not an organism. It is a machinery. And it works like a machine. […] It tries to manufacture. But what humanity is here to do is to grow, and create.' This is what we are here to do in Auroville."
He concluded by commenting on the Residents' Assembly meetings. "At one time it was said that the Residents' Assembly's fundamental function is to arrive at an agreement. This statement is good, but not sufficient. It is not an instrument of agreement and disagreement. The starting-point is wrong. The Residents' Assembly should meet from time to time to generate harmony. Invite everyone. It is to mature, constantly, the sense of all of us as a collectivity, devoted to the Divine's will."
Since then, no progress has been made either on the revised Experiment or the Auroville Council's partially-democratic proposal for ratifying policy.
If "Self-Governance in Auroville" were a piece of classical music, we would hear two main themes always playing against one another. One represents a system in which Aurovilians directly participate - by whatever means - in shaping their government; the other represents rule by a responsible, enlightened elite. Each tune has its own beauty. But they are in different keys and different modes, so that they clash horribly with one another. This is Dissonance.
Perhaps a time will come when our aspiration to be a different (and better) community does not conflict with our practical, everyday needs as a society. On that day, there will be Harmony. Until then, we must struggle on as best we can.

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