PondyCAN! (Pondicherry Citizens' Action Network) is a group which has come together to preserve and enhance the natural and cultural fabric of Pondicherry and to promote sustainable development in the larger region. It works closely with Auroville on issues like coastal erosion and participated in the recent collaborative planning workshop.
Auroville Today: How did PondyCAN! come about?
Aurofilio: On 4th February, 2007, a group of concerned Pondicherry citizens came together to discuss various issues like footpath encroachments, garbage, traffic congestion, noise pollution etc. During that meeting I presented the huge threat posed by the proposed port project to the erosion of the coastline and mentioned that in ten days a public hearing on the project was scheduled. Alarm bells started ringing and, basically, in those ten days the group that later became known as PondyCAN! formed.
PondyCAN! was partly a coalition of existing groups. There was Ajit from Shuddham – which focuses on solid waste management – there was INTACH and Prashant from Auroville Coastal Development Centre was also there.
The port started us thinking, but when we looked at other urgent issues we realized there was a vacuum in Pondicherry planning. For example, Pondicherry wants to expand its existing airport, but this is in the wrong place, squeezed between Pondicherry and Auroville, forcing most people to drive through Pondicherry town to reach it. Congestion will also be increased by the plan to site a family entertainment centre at the end of the beach road.
In fact, when we looked at all the pressing problems – coastal erosion, congestion, salt water intrusion etc. – we realized that none of these were exclusively Pondicherry problems: they were Pondicherry-Tamil Nadu problems which could only be addressed properly by a regional development plan.
Yoo Mi Lee: We want development to happen in a sustainable regional fashion. That's why, for example, we've said that instead of a constructing a centrally-located solid waste management facility for the State, as is planned, it would make more sense to decentralise it. And if separation of organic and recyclable waste was made mandatory at source, it could be income-generating rather than simply being a nuisance.
Prashant: We had a lot of help from Dr.Harjit Singh Anand, former Secretary in the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. I first met him when he visited Auroville and we got into a discussion about the proposed lake around Matrimandir. He told us we should look at the wider water scenario. Later some of us met him in Delhi and he suggested we should start drawing up a regional plan which would work towards maintaining a healthy urban-rural continuum. He was interacting with the Town Planning department in Pondicherry whom he felt would be very interested.
So, together with L'Avenir d'Auroville and the Pondicherry town planning people, we organized a consultation meet on water management through integrated planning and regional collaboration. This took place at Auroville's Town Hall in May, 2008. Dr. Anand presided over this and Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu officials attended. In late July, we organized a regional planning meeting at the Pondicherry Chief Secretariat which was attended by key people from Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry Governments. It laid down steps to move forward. In October 2008, together with Dr. Anand we made a presentation to the Pondicherry Lieutenant-Governor. He liked the idea and set up a meeting with the Pondicherry Chief Minister, the Town and Country Planning Minister, the Chief Secretary and others. They were all very eager to go ahead with a regional plan and welcomed the idea of a group like ours pushing it forward and working alongside them.
After the recent workshop in Auroville on collaborative planning for the bioregion, the Lieutenant-Governor invited us to come and tell him about the outcome. He had invited all the Secretaries, Heads of Departments, the Development Commissioner and the Chief Town Planner. His first reaction to our presentation was that it was ‘utopian', but then he said it was worth pursuing. He encouraged us to take up the matter with the Tamil Nadu Government and, meanwhile, to work on the Pondicherry Master Plan within the larger framework of the Regional Plan.
Aurofilio: Without support from the politicians, nothing will happen.
Probir: We feel that our main function in PondyCAN! is to get people on board, to build consensus, to drive this process: without us, nothing would have happened. We have a lot of support at the top levels of the administration, but we haven't yet worked at the lower levels. This has to be done as, unlike Secretaries, the Directors are here for a long time.
PondyCan! members. Back row from left: Ajit, Probir, Yoo Mi Lee and Nini
front: Prashant and Aurofilio
Ajit: Nobody's taking ownership of the idea as yet. One thing we need to establish is that it's a win/win situation for all stakeholders. Pondicherry , for example, is afraid of being swallowed up by Tamil Nadu, while a regional plan is not a priority for Tamil Nadu. Then again, middle management is not excited about it because it would mean changes and they already have their systems in place.
Nini: But, ultimately, everyone recognizes that this plan would be for the benefit of all.
Yoo Mi Lee: Meanwhile we at PondyCAN! continue with our daily task of fire-fighting. And we've had some successes. A recent plan to build a dysfunctional market building nearby was dropped in favour of a more sensitive INTACH design, and Ousteri Lake , which was to be developed as a boating centre, has now been declared a bird sanctuary, thus protecting one of the key sources of Pondicherry 's drinking water.
Auroville Today: What part can Auroville play in developing a regional plan?
Ajit: In November we met with the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation and presented the regional plan idea to him. He was very positive – in fact, he said he would lead the charge to get it adopted. Once the elections are over, he promised to set up a meeting with the Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu to discuss it further.
Yoo Mi Lee: The Chief Secretary of Pondicherry wants Auroville to help with their planning as she sees that Auroville has so much expertise.
Probir: PondyCAN! is driving the process in Pondicherry but we need someone to take up the work in Tamil Nadu; Auroville can help here. There should be a separate cell in Auroville to take up regional planning as its prime focus. In fact, it was agreed during the recent collaborative planning workshop that such a group will be formed. It would also be good to get international recognition for this new regional planning model – if international bodies are watching, it forces you to behave in a certain fashion. Auroville could play a big role in making such contacts.
For more information visit pondycan.org