On June 23rd, concerned villagers blockaded a highway road and circulated misleading pamphlets about Auroville to the public in protest against compulsory land acquisition proceedings.
In August 2003, the newly appointed Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, Mr. S.R. Sharma, a retired I.A.S. officer, took office. One of his first decisions was to immediately stop all land purchase, to the consternation of many Aurovilians, and in particular of the executives of Auroville's Land and Estate Management (LEM). For at that moment two major negotiations had just been concluded and awaited the Secretary's signature. One was the purchase of a large 50-acre plot in the Green Belt, for which Auroville had initiated an international fundraising campaign. Negotiations to obtain this plot had been painfully long but finally had met with success, and the Governing Board of the Foundation had given its conditional approval. The other one was a key plot in Auroville's Industrial Zone which finally had become available. But the Secretary refused to sanction the purchases, as he considered the time had come for a new strategy for consolidating Auroville's land holdings instead of the present piecemeal approach.
He argued moreover that the advance to be taken from Auroville's Central Fund to finance the not yet fundraised amount required for the purchase of the 50 acres would be an unacceptable risk to the Auroville Foundation. Arguments of the Working Committee and LEM that the risk of the advance was defensible in view of projected income, and that prices were reasonable in view of the prices paid for land in the vicinity, were not heeded.
The Secretary was concerned about the slow pace of land purchases and increasing prices. Over the past 10 years, Auroville has only been able to buy 200 acres in the city area and over this period prices have increased by 550%. At the request of the Auroville Planning and Development Council (APDC) the Secretary presented in December 2003 his views on land acquisition to a joint meeting of members of the main Auroville working groups. He stated that it was necessary to have a fresh look at land acquisition for Auroville. More than 2,500 acres are still to be bought. He questioned if Auroville could afford to go through a process lasting 40 or 70 years before it could acquire all the land and stressed his belief that The Mother would not have wanted such a slow pace. He concluded that land acquisition through purchase is an unsuitable future strategy and that, instead, the Auroville Foundation should request the Tamil Nadu government to compulsory acquire all the land required by Auroville under the Land Acquisition Act. The Tamil Nadu Government should be asked to notify all these lands, after which they could be acquired in phases depending on Auroville's priorities and availability of funds.
Land acquisition under the Land Acquisition Act had become possible as in January 2003 the Tamil Nadu Government had issued a Government Order that recognizes Auroville as a project of public purpose, a prerequisite for acquisition under the Act. The Government Order also stipulates certain protective measures for those lands in the planned Auroville Township area that need to be acquired. The Secretary stated that land notification would not only ensure that all land required would ultimately be owned by Auroville, but would also put a stop to the present situation where land prices are determined by the seller. “This should be a buyer's market,' said the Secretary. The meeting concluded with the Secretary's invitation to each of the working groups to consider the matter. He stated that “if Auroville is happy with the way land purchase has proceeded so far, and wishes it to continue in the same way, I will not object.”
The APDC investigated the matter with two retired Tamil Nadu land acquisition specialists. They warned that court proceedings against land acquisition are normal and that courts have a tendency to allow for a higher compensation than awarded by the government. Consequently, they advised to purchase lands whenever possible and use land acquisition only for priority lands which cannot be secured otherwise. Their views were communicated to the Secretary. When in August 2004 the Secretary indicated that he wished to ask the government to notify all lands, the APDC repeated its preference for a ‘twin-track' approach and wrote to the Secretary: “The APDC is in favour of land purchase whenever possible. It admits that for certain key areas [compulsory] acquisition may be the only way to acquire them within a reasonable period of time… If lands are for sale at a reasonable rate, Auroville should purchase these lands as soon as possible and not resort to [compulsory] acquisition.” The APDC expressed concern at the threat of roadside lands in the Green Belt being purchased by outsiders or developed for commercial purposes, and warned that a single focus on lands within the city area might be a dangerous policy. It also proposed that the Auroville Foundation inform the relevant Panchayats [village councils] that land acquisition proceedings are under consideration for specified lands and of the reasons thereof, so that any problems with neighbours and those affected may be kept to a strict minimum. However, no action was taken.
In early September 2004, the Secretary requested the District Collector to take steps to notify all private lands (2,600 acres/1,053 hectares) in the designated Auroville Township area for acquisition. Subsequently the District Collector requested the Auroville Foundation to furnish all necessary details, including a certificate for availability of funds. The Secretary's request and his earlier decision to put all land purchases on hold was discussed with Dr. Karan Singh, the newly reappointed Chairman of the Auroville Foundation, who visited Auroville a few weeks later. Community representatives reiterated the desirability of the so called ‘twin-track strategy'. These views were consistently repeated in further letters to the Chairman and the Governing Board.
In December 2004, following a request from the Secretary and Working Committee, plans were approved by the APDC to prioritize land acquisition in phases.
The APDC proposed that 180 acres of critical roadside land in the Green Belt be included in the first phase as they are prone to house plotting and commercial developments.
But the Secretary decided to focus on acquiring all lands within the city area. His decision was afterwards – reluctantly – agreed upon by the APDC and Working Committee. In January 2005, the Secretary submitted the official request to the District Collector for initiating land acquisition proceedings for the remaining 226 acres of private lands in the city area.
The Secretary defended his actions in the first meeting of the new Governing Board in February 2005. APDC representatives, however, replied that “The views and actions of the Secretary have not been the subject of a consensus among the Auroville working groups concerned, nor in the community at large.” Recalling that concerns were expressed in a meeting with Dr. Karan Singh in September 2004, the APDC reiterated the need for the twin track policy and requested the Secretary to review his position and approve the purchase of land offered at reasonable prices through direct negotiation while simultaneously notification for land acquisition is pursued with the Tamil Nadu Government. In their subsequent meeting with the residents of Auroville on the roof of the Solar Kitchen, the Chairman stated that the Governing Board was considering the option for compulsory land acquisition but that the Board was also worried that land purchase had been stopped.
The local landowners, during these years, were becoming increasingly concerned. LEM was no longer allowed to purchase lands that were offered – and land is normally only offered when the owner is in dire need – and rumours about compulsory land acquisition intensified. The Secretary told them that land acquisition is a fair process which provides legal means to the landowners to protect their interest and that they should communicate their concerns to him and to the Tamil Nadu Government. The landowners left his office frustrated. Meanwhile, the real estate agent of the 50-acre plot in the Green Belt purchased an adjacent piece of 8 acres with access to the main road, and bulldozed the area in preparation for farmhouse plotting. Articles started to appear in Tamil newspapers such as the Malail Boomi of March 2005, under the heading “Are Tamils being expelled from their land to set up the international township?” and calling on all villagers to appeal to the Central and State governments. As could be expected, this article contained a lot of invective against Auroville.
The villagers' frustration reached its peak on June 19th. An all village meeting was called at the eucalyptus grove near Certitude. The agenda mentioned – falsely – that the people of 16 villages around Auroville would have to vacate their villages and that 3,000 acres of lands would compulsorily be acquired by Auroville. A vituperative paper distributed at the meeting called for a ban on all the activities of the Master Plan of Auroville. Though this meeting was only attended by 100 people, the next action was a road blockage near Kootroad on Sunday June 26th. The police arrested over 200 people for blocking the road. Tamil newspapers like Malai Malar and Dina Thanthi carried a report on their front pages, repeating some of the false accusations against Auroville in the process.
Auroville's response to the developments came soon afterwards. A general meeting was called on June 23rd in which Aurovilians expressed their concerns: opinions against and in favour of land acquisition were voiced. The meeting decided that proper action should be taken. A public clarification regarding the false rumours was to be made. Proper background information was to be provided containing both the pros and cons of compulsory acquisition. The Working Committee and the Auroville Council were instructed to initiate meetings with the Panchayats of the villages to discuss their concerns.
While discussions are ongoing, the community was informed that Mr. Sharma ceased to be the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation with effect from July 7th, 2005. The Finance Officer of the Auroville Foundation, Mr. Srinivasamurthy, has been appointed Acting Secretary and has been instructed to call a meeting of the Governing Board and International Advisory Council of the Foundation by the end of August. The final decision on how to consolidate the lands for Auroville may be made in these meetings.