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Auroville Adventure

October 2004

Education through hard knocks

- by Alan

In February, the Auroville Village Action Group’s main source of funding stopped: a major dispute with some of their workers ensued. What can be learned from this crisis?

Since the beginning of Auroville, a number of individuals and groups have worked closely with the villagers. By far the largest of these organizations, and the one with the most extensive and ambitious outreach programme, is Village Action (otherwise known as Auroville Village Action Group, or AVAG).

Village development workers receiving training in the new Village Action building

AVAG began in 1983. In the early years its small staff attempted to support individual and community initiatives emanating from the villages. AVAG also took over the running of Isaiambalam School and set up the beginnings of a night school network. By 1988, however, the staff was beginning to re-evaluate its approach. There was a feeling that AVAG was too ‘charity-based', that their programmes were creating dependency in the local population because there was insufficient participation from the side of the beneficiaries. Also, the wish to support any initiatives coming from the villagers meant that the quality of those proposals was often not properly assessed, leading to quite a high failure rate.

Anbu with Women’s Federation members

By 1991, and not without a struggle, AVAG had established itself upon a new basis. While it expanded its programmes into areas like ecological farming and health and hygiene, it now required much more participation from the villagers in the implementation and maintenance of many of the projects. Also, it became more pro-active, identifying areas of concern – like the low status of women and the high drop-out rate from village schools – and creating projects to remedy this. The Life Education Centre, begun in 1992, was one such project. Perhaps the most successful of all the AVAG projects, however, grew out of the ‘Trickle-Up' programme. This Moris, Bhavana and Anbuprogramme, funded by a U.S. foundation, offered grants to women in the villages who already had, or wanted to start up, small businesses. At first the scheme was not a success: most of the recipients closed down their businesses after receiving the grant. At this point Anbu, who was supervising the scheme, decided to make the grant conditional upon the women saving regularly over six months. The success of this led to the extension of the savings and loan programme, resulting in a kind of ‘women's bank' and collective fund run by the women themselves. This financial empowerment was firmly based on the network of Women's Groups – groups of women who meet regularly and organize projects to improve their villages.
Village Action's programmes expanded almost exponentially during the 1990s as did their reach. By the end of the decade it was working in over 60 villages, covering a population of almost 70,000. It was engaged in various schemes for community development, infrastructure upgrading and supplementary education in almost 50 villages in the bioregion [see box on page 5]. While the philosophy of AVAG was that the villagers should take responsibility for and run the schemes themselves, help was needed in the initial stages. Consequently, AVAG took on and trained young men and women from the local villages as ‘Development Workers'. Their responsibilities included not only supporting and advising Women's Groups and Men's Groups, but also liaising with NGOs and Government departments to get funds for village projects, assisting as ‘animators' in local schools and helping set up parents-teachers associations and village councils. As a AVAG coordinator put it a few years ago, “The Development Workers are the backbone, the ears and eyes of Village Action in the villages.”

The crisis The Thuruvai Men’s group constructing a new road
Reflecting the success and professionalism of its programmes, over the years AVAG received increasingly generous funding (in 1999, it had an annual budget of $97,000). While the funding has come from a number of different donors, the main donor has been the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council (CHEC), liaising with the British Overseas Development Agency (later DFID). DFID had always made it clear that they would not provide funding beyond the end of the current project in March 2004. However, there was optimism among the AVAG coordinators that other sources would be found to make up the gap. In 2003 AVI-UK sponsored the professional preparation of a large village development project which was submitted to the European Commission and in the same year Madanlal from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram agreed to donate one lakh rupees a month to AVAG.
In November 2003, however, it became clear that the European Commission would not fund the development proposal. Still, optimism in some quarters remained high. After all, AVAG had already successfully weathered a funding crisis in 1998-9 and Bhavana had gone to the U.S. with the expectation of raising additional funds there. By early 2004, however, Bhavana had not raised substantial funds in the U.S. , nor was she able to convince Madanlal to continue his financial support beyond January. Given this, one of AVAG's trustees told Moris and Anbu, the main coordinators of AVAG, that they had to prepare the Development Workers for redundancies (the office staff were not immediately affected as their salaries were covered for one more year by a grant from a German organization).
“Actually,” says Anbu, “we had been warning the Development Workers since March 2003 that if we didn't find other sources of funding, Village Action might not be able to employ some of them after March, 2004. But nobody thought it would be them.” Now Moris and Anbu met with the Development Workers and told them that some of them could no longer be employed after March, 2004 and that if no further funding was forthcoming the rest might lose their jobs at the end of the year. They promised to try to find all of them jobs with other Auroville groups.
At first the Development Workers seemed to accept the situation, but then some turned against AVAG. They involved other individuals with antipathy towards AVAG and/or Auroville and they invoked the caste issue by accusing AVAG of being ‘pro-dalit' (the dalits are the former outcastes or ‘untouchables'). They accused Moris and Anbu of failing to give them sufficient notice of job termination, they complained to the Working Committee about mismanagement (the Working Committee appointed a sub-group to look into it and a full audit of AVAG accounts is being made) and tried to persuade the Women's Groups to switch allegiance and stop depositing funds at the AVAG office. As the situation escalated, two AVAG employees were beaten up and individual trustees threatened. It was only after a meeting of all parties with the tahsildar (a local government official) that things cooled down.
In the circumstances, AVAG decided to terminate the employment of all the Development Workers, with the possibility that some of them might be re-employed if funds are forthcoming. At present no major funding is on the horizon. Meanwhile most of the AVAG projects are, in Bhavana's words, “diminished but still running”, an indication that many of them have attained a degree of self-sufficiency.

The lessons learned
Moris and Anbu were the ones in the centre of the storm. Trained social workers, since joining Village Action in 1988 they have developed and supervised many of the most important programmes, including the training of the Development Workers, the creation of Women's and Men's Groups and the supervision of microcredit schemes. What are the main lessons they've learned from the biggest crisis AVAG has ever faced?
They agree now that it was a mistake not to have drawn up clear contracts with the Development Workers when they joined the organization or to have officially recorded that they had warned the workers one year before of possible redundancies.
They also note that their wish to uplift people from the local villages rather than employ professionals resulted in them not finding anybody of the necessary calibre to assist them in the overall management of the projects. The result was that they were severely overburdened with work and had no time to develop new initiatives or to continue the Development Workers' education. “We were trapped by our success,” says Anbu.
The work overload also meant that they had little opportunity to communicate with and develop relationships with other Aurovilians and groups working in the same field. This increased the gap that already existed between AVAG and the rest of Auroville. At first, Moris and Anbu did not necessarily perceive this to be a disadvantage – they had decided not to become Aurovilians themselves because they felt it would compromise their work with the villagers – but during the crisis Moris and Anbu realized that because many Aurovilians had no idea what AVAG was engaged in, they and the AVAG trustees were having to deal with the onslaught pretty much on their own. They also realized that lack of Aurovilian participation in AVAG was hampering development work in the villages (“if Aurovilians put as much effort into solving social issues in the villages as they have put into afforestation, it could transform the local situation” Anbu said in 1997) and allowing certain politicians to create divisions between Auroville and the people of the bioregion. “We realize now,” says Anbu, “that we have been concentrating on only one side of the equation – on the villages. Now we have to work with the Aurovilians, to convince them to help us in promoting, for example, sports activities and education in the villages, as a way of building bridges.” “We'd like to run village tours for interested Aurovilians,” adds Moris, “and invite villagers to visit Auroville communities.” Bhavana puts it like this: “AVAG realizes that it had become rather isolated in its own success and busy-ness in the villages, and now wants to offer its professional skills and years of experience in the local area to the process of Auroville's town planning, since the Master Plan includes ten village communities.”
The pooling of skills and learning between Auroville groups engaged in village work is long overdue. An attempt was made a few years ago to create a group which would do this, but it foundered upon egos and issues of territoriality. Now, spurred on by Sydo's murder, there is a new urgency in the community to understand and improve relations with our neighbours. This has led not only to new efforts to share expertise among Aurovilians (Moris and Anbu, for example, now will assist Aurofuture part-time in the Town Hall) but also to an interest in forming an Auro-Village Platform. This is an idea seeded by Raman from the Auroville Planning and Development Council which is supported by several village-related groups and backed by the Auroville Council. It would be a central reference point for responding in a coordinated way to developmental requests coming from the villages.

Deeper Learning
How far has the crisis led Moris and Anbu to question their training programme and, beyond this, their fundamental faith in the villagers having the capacity to transform themselves? Anbu admits that she felt “professionally-challenged” by some of the Development Workers turning against them. “I really thought that because of my training, my value-based training, things would not go wrong. I was naïve. The Development Workers told us, ‘The villagers trust us, not you'. But then we saw that, even at the height of the crisis when some Development Workers were trying to turn the villagers against us, some of the Women's Groups continued to come to the AVAG office to deposit savings. This, along with the fact that a third of the Development Workers and all our office staff remained loyal and that many of the local panchayat presidents offered their support, made us realize that we are still trusted, and that our training, which emphasises qualities like honesty and being united, had had its effect. So, no, our faith in the capacities of individual villagers has not been shaken.”
They note, however, that they should have acted more quickly when they observed that some of the Development Workers were unable to move beyond traditional attitudes to caste and gender and were beginning to approach their work as just another job. “Actually,” notes Bhavana, “we lost touch with our original intention regarding the Development Workers.
“The original idea was that they would only be with AVAG temporarily. We would train them and then, after a few years, help them find a job or set up their own business in the village as a socially-conscious citizen who would make a difference.
“But as the funding increased and the scope and number of our activities expanded, we found we couldn't do the work without them. Moreover, as they were well-paid and enjoyed a lot of prestige in the villages, we made them somehow dependent upon us: this was a mistake.”
What are the deeper personal lessons? “Bhavana calls me a mental person,” says Anbu, “because I always try to work things out with my mind. But at the height of the crisis I really understood for the first time that many things are beyond my comprehension. I felt like a puppet, pushed and pulled by different forces. Suddenly I had nothing to fall back on. Then a friend suggested that I go to the Samadhi every day. I was a bit reluctant at first – the strongest influence in my upbringing was my father who is an atheist: I grew up feeling that caste and religion don't matter, only people's issues were important – but when Moris and I went we both felt this deep peace. Then I started to see a particular image of Mother at night and even at the office. Somehow or other I felt her presence in the office and at the entrance. Then I thought that maybe things won't collapse after all.”
For Bhavana the theme of the whole thing is “how Mother educates us through hard knocks. I'm interested how this ‘catastrophe' spurs AVAG in particular, and Auroville in general, forward in the quest for the consciousness of human unity.” In this context she notes how an evolutionary spiral of social consciousness has helped her make sense of what happened. “Spiral dynamics, like the integral yoga, emphasises the need to move beyond mind into a more holistic, inclusive consciousness. In this sense, I see the deep reason for the present crisis is to ‘kick us over the line', to make us understand and act from a completely different perspective. For human unity is ultimately the result of a changed state of consciousness – a state which can encompass and embrace diversity, with a wide compassion and constant aspiration. For a long time I've wondered how dealing with the village people fits in the context of Auroville's aspiration for conscious evolution. Now I see that our next evolutionary step is into a consciousness which can embrace rather than disdain their level. It involves a deep acknowledgement that as we evolve we not only transcend but also include the previous stages in ourselves and in our society. AVAG's building of bridges between Auroville and the villages has been a part of the manifestation of that multifaceted transformation.”

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