A young Aurovilian who studied business in Holland comes back with some challenging ideas
“I'm good at marketing, presenting, anything where I can talk!” I've hardly got my first question out and Kumbha is already in charming full flow. No wonder he's so successful at Sound Wizard. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Kumbha was born in Auroville in 1979. He went through the Auroville school system but didn't study for exams. “I was more into mechanics then. Sukrit and I taught ourselves about cars and we put together a Citroen in our spare time. It was fun.”
But he wasn't sure he wanted to stay in Auroville: he wanted to see more of the world first. He bought himself a ticket to Europe but then had a bad motorcycle accident which put him in bed for six months, followed by six months rehabilitation. As soon as he was fit again he bought himself another ticket. “I thought I'd be back in half a year.”
He travelled to Holland , Canada , the US , London , enjoying new places, new people, but also looking for a job. That wasn't easy: “It didn't occur to me that I was only 18 and a bit young to be doing this.” Finally he lodged up in Zutphen, Holland , where he stayed with the family of an Aurovilian.
That summer there was an international meeting of Citroen fanatics in Holland . He decided to go along and make a bit of money in the process. He asked his mother, Li Mei, to print out some Citroen t-shirts she'd designed and send them over. “I hitch-hiked to the meeting, slept under cars, and sold all the t-shirts straight out of my duffle bag. Great.”
While there, he noticed that a company which made kit cars and modified Citroens had a Zutphen address. He met the owner and got a job. “But he always told me I could do better than this, that I should be trying for something more.” He suggested Kumbha go to college.
Kumbha first thought of studying jet engine mechanics. “But then I realized what I really wanted to study was business: I've always liked buying and selling stuff.” In fact, his business career began at Certitude Sports ground where, at the age of 14, he was already selling things off the back of his bike to young Aurovilian innocents. “Muni challenged me to make money and gave me one rupee as start-up. I bought chutney, sold it, bought more, sold it, bought a Pepsi...and so it went on. By the time I stopped, I had several thousand rupees.”
Kumbha signed up for a four year course in business and management studies at a college in Arnhem . “I had no clue about studying – I'd quit school at 16. The first assignment was to write a one page account of myself on the computer. I didn't know anything about computers, formatting etc., so that one page took me six hours! I thought, I'm never going to survive this course.”
He struggled through the first year, but then he really began to enjoy it. His graduation assignment was to draw up a strategic marketing plan for a Dutch corporate. They were so impressed they employed him for a further year to implement it.
His contract finished, he fulfilled a long-term dream and bought a round-the-world ticket. He travelled to North America, New Zealand , Australia , south east Asia... “I was still looking for potential places to live because by then I'd discovered I didn't want to stay in Holland .” At the same time his personal business plan was to do a management traineeship with a multinational company in the West, with the idea of eventually starting up his own business in India or south-east Asia .
“But then I came to Auroville and I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, why do I have to do that management traineeship? Why all the stress, and hard work?!'” He stayed.
Had Auroville changed? “I couldn't get over how many work groups had sprung up – there's a group for everything here. And the bureaucracy! At the same time there was still the simpleness of it all, the friendly, small-town feeling. The big change, however, was India . Suddenly, everything here seemed to be moving fast forward.”
Kumbha sees the opportunities for Auroville in a new, dynamic India . “We definitely have the talent, the know-how. I had ideas about starting up new companies here, even dreaming of setting up joint-ventures with people like Tata to build solar cars. Now, a year on, it doesn't look so easy.” He mentions the “extreme restrictions” placed upon business in Auroville which make it unattractive to outside companies, the fact that competition is frowned upon, and the ‘mom and pop store' units which generate little energy and money for the community as a whole.
“And then there's this religious thing, ‘He said', ‘She said'. That really grinds me down. We've got this beautiful Charter which puts down enough broad guidelines. So why do we keep pulling things out of books which don't necessarily apply any longer?”
So what's his answer? “I'd privatize everything. Let there be competition between Auroville units, let Aurovilians earn a decent wage so they can build things and take a holiday. If somebody wants a Ferrari, fine: I want people to enjoy life to the maximum. At the same time people shouldn't take advantage, we're here to build a town. But it has to be voluntary; you can't force people to contribute to Auroville.”
“I see no contradiction between privatization and The Charter. The Charter gives us a direction towards unity, it doesn't specify that we can't have private enterprise here or that we can't collaborate with companies outside. Privatization gives organizations the liberty to act in a way which is the most beneficial to the customer and the organization. The market economy is also a great tool to generate the drive which we've been missing here. Anyway, most of us still need a goal that is tangible. I sometimes joke about it – first we need to make enough money to get out of survival mode, then we can start doing the yoga!”
Kumbha wants much more interchange between Auroville and India . “Take the idea for a new Pour Tous distribution centre. Personally, I'd bring in the Nilgiris (a south Indian supermarket chain) people. We could set up the space, write a contract which obliges them to purchase Auroville products etc. then let them run the show. After all, that's what they're good at. We shouldn't feel threatened by the world out there.”
And his personal ambitions? “For me the future, for now, is here. I'd like to make Sound Wizard, (the acoustic design consultancy where he works) the biggest thing of its kind in India : as far as I'm concerned, the sky's the limit. I like working hard, it gives me a buzz, and I enjoy the regular travelling which keeps me in touch with developments. It's amazing how fast things are moving in India . When I come back, Auroville looks a bit slow...”