An interview with Dr. Karan Singh, Chairman of the Auroville Foundation.
The new Governing Board and the International Advisory Council of the Auroville Foundation held their first meetings on the 20th and 22nd February respectively, when also the Youth Conference on Human Unity for the SAARC region started. In the midst of a packed schedule, Dr. Karan Singh found time for a short interview.
AVToday: You mentioned you never come back to any post twice, yet you agreed to once again be the Chairman of the Auroville Foundation.
Dr. Karan Singh: (laughing) That is true, I have held many posts in my life, and I have never done the same one twice. But Auroville is something one cannot refuse. I have perhaps a psychic or spiritual link with the Sri Aurobindo and with The Mother, whom I met on several occasions. So when the Auroville Foundation chairmanship came up, I said yes. An additional reason was that I was getting reports from several quarters that Auroville was beginning to, let's say, ‘implode'. So I felt it was the time for me to get once again involved. But when I learned about the tsunami work I realised that Auroville was rather ‘exploding'. The tsunami has really been a help for Auroville to make many contacts with the outside world.
And I am very happy about that, it is good for Auroville's image which is still dented due to its many past conflicts.
In your address to the community at the Solar Kitchen you mentioned your concerns about the land situation, the visa and the issuing of tax exempt receipts. Land purchases have come to a virtual halt since a new Secretary took office about 1.5 years ago, as he wants to go for acquisition instead of purchase by negotiation. What is the position taken by the Board?
It bothers me that land purchase has stopped. The Secretary has his explanations for it, and I would not like to comment on that, but personally I am not happy with the fact that it has stopped. The Governing Board is seized of this matter; we are studying it and we hope that the process will start again soon. For it is unfortunate that when people come with offers of land, we are not buying it. That has to be sorted out very soon. I will give top priority to land acquisition for without land we cannot complete the city.
The amount required today to acquire all lands in the city and greenbelt area is an estimated 80 crores, while we have raised so far only Rs 2.5 crores. Do you see any possibility to obtain additional funding?
I am aware that since about 1980, all funds for land acquisition have been raised by Aurovilians. Never has any land been bought with grants from the Government of India. During my first tenure as Chairman of the Auroville Foundation I wrote to the Government asking for a one time grant of 40 crores, but that was sadly not agreed to.
Once the process of land acquisition has restarted, we will need to prioritise our land requirements and then we will have to start raising money again from the public. Then I will also see if we cannot get some grant from the Government of India. As the amount of money that is required is huge, we will have to go incrementally.
One of the facts mentioned in the presentations to the Governing Board was the complete lack of any funds for infrastructure development.
If there is no budget for infrastructure, I do not understand how we can build the town. The city needs roads, electricity, water supply systems and so on. So far, Auroville does not look like a city, it has no city-shape as yet, it is a series of detached habitations with cashew plots in between, and there is no real feel of a township. First of all we have to complete the acquisition of the lands for the city area. That will already cost a great deal of money. I do not know where we are going to raise the money for the infrastructure. This is something we have to consider, both the Aurovilians as well as the Governing Board. We have to pool our minds and thoughts and see what we can do.
The second issue you mentioned is about the delay in extending residential permits.
This is another very sensitive topic. I was astonished when we were told that there are more than 200 applications for visa extensions pending. I cannot understand why this should be. I will look into this and will write to the Home Minister to request him to solve the problems as quickly as possible. Here too, the process seems to have come to a halt for some unclear reason. My first task is to get the entire thing moving again. I am hopeful that this will get solved soon.
Do you see a possibility for a long term solution such as a special visa for Aurovilians or a special status, such as the double citizenship which is now being offered to Indians who have left India after 1950 and who have accepted another nationality?
I do not know, we have to study that. Several suggestions have been made. Aurovilians already have a special dispensation to allow them to get a five-year visa, but whether we can move into something else is to be seen. Dual citizenship involves Indians who have settled in other countries, and who can now apply for Indian citizenship without losing their nationality. The logical extension of this would be that citizens of other countries who have settled in India could also qualify. But these are very complex issues.
The experience with the Governing Board has been that it has its meetings each half year, but there has been little interaction with the community. It seems that the time has come for a closer cooperation.
Yes, we need more interaction. I very much appreciated the informal interaction we had with the community on the roof of the Solar Kitchen. The community must feel that the Governing Board is not something that is being imposed on them, but is something which belongs to Auroville and that the Auroville Foundation gives Auroville the status and protection Auroville requires. The Governing Board must be looked upon as part of Auroville and that goes too for the individual members and the administrative set-up of the Foundation. The Act is flexible enough to allow, on the one hand, for an adequate direction by the Governing Board, and on the other hand, for autonomy for the community. Don't forget that the Act prescribes that the consolidated accounts and the annual report of the Auroville Foundation are placed before Parliament, and that the Board fulfils a certain constitutional responsibility. I would also like to repeat what I said to the community on the roof of the Solar Kitchen that I do not want to have Governing Board meetings outside Auroville. The Board will meet in Auroville twice a year, the International Advisory Council once every year.
We also realised that though we interact with many groups, the people we meet during these days hardly represent ten percent of the community. We want to know what the ideas and feelings of the silent majority are. We are interested in receiving feedback from the Aurovilians on what they really feel and expect. We haven't quite decided how this could take shape, perhaps by circulating some kind of questionnaire or asking a professional group to do a study.
You also spoke about the need for Aurovilians to find more time for introspection….
It is important that Aurovilians attempt to put into place the theory and philosophy of The Mother that whatever is being done in Auroville really belongs to the community. That's why I hinted yesterday in my talk to the community that perhaps the Aurovilians have become so engrossed and involved in their individual projects that they are not getting enough time to introspect.
But as I also said yesterday, I feel that Auroville is at a new beginning. There is a new Governing Board, there is a new International Advisory Council with many bright people, and there is a new Working Committee with young, dynamic Aurovilians. These are new beginnings and I feel there is a sense of buoyancy in the air. I am happy to be back, and my good wishes are with the community.
The Governing Board (GB) meeting was attended by Dr. Karan Singh, Chairman, and by its members Ms. Mallika Sarabhai, Ms. Malini Parthasarathy, Dr. Aster Patel, Dr. D.P. Chattopadhyaya, Shri Ajoy Bagchi, Mr. Roger Anger, and Shri C. Balakrishnan. Shri S.K. Ray could not be present. The meeting of the International Advisory Council (IAC) was attended by Dr. Doudou Diène ( Senegal ), Dr. Mark Luyckx ( Belgium ), Sir Mark Tully ( UK and India ) and Dr A.T. Ariyaratne ( Sri Lanka ). Dr. Diana L. Eck (USA) was unable to attend.
On the morning of the 20th, the Board members were apprised of various developments and concerns of the community. Presentations were made by representatives of SAIIER on education; by the Tsunami Relief Team on the past and ongoing relief efforts; by the Planning and Development Council on planning the township; by the Land Fund on the problems of acquiring the land; and the Bharat Nivas team on the development of Bharat Nivas, the Pavilion of India. Other issues raised were concerns about delays in the renewal of residential permits – more than 200 are pending – and about administrative delays in issuing tax exempt receipt to Indian donors. In the afternoon the Board held its own deliberations.
On February 21st, a few members of the Board and the IAC attended the opening session of the youth conference on Human Unity SAARC region. That evening Ms. Mallika Sarabhai talked about her experience of working with Peter Brook on the stage and the film productions of the Mahabharata. This was followed by a community dinner at the Solar Kitchen where Aurovilians could interact with GB and IAC members. The IAC met the following day and communicated with members of the community on February 23rd.
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