Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Week in Auroville

To be honest, I had kind of a prejudiced attitude before I even got on the train toward Auroville,
and it really didn't do too much to change my preconceived opinion. This place was started back in the 1960s by a bunch of mostly European "spiritual" folks seeking to create a community dedicated to expanding universal consciousness and furthering the evolution of the human race. Riiiight. Anyway it now has a global reputation as a place where many innovative startups have taken root, especially with renewable energy, organic farming, value-added products, and other "social enterprises." Also this chunk of land near Pondicherry in eastern Tamil Nadu was severely deforested and degraded when the original legion of hippies moved in, and actually they have impressively reforested the area so that they can have ridiculous tree houses and such.

I spent the week sleeping in a "capsule" (actually quite nice, made only from tree branches and

thatch as far as I could tell) and trying to check out as many interesting projects as possible. One of the many, many differences between this place and "real" India was that a lot of people didn't have or didn't want to make time for me. I guess they're inundated with obnoxious tourists who come to India only for Auroville (I met several of these), and also the place had a palpable feel of European (especially French) snobbiness. Nevertheless, I did manage to shoulder my way into a number of places and the following is a brief rundown.The Auroville Earth Institute has apparently pioneered some innovative ways to use raw earthas a building material, mainly through the use of a human-powered press machine and various dies that form dirt into convenient shapes and sizes, such as interlocking tongue-and-groove blocks. They didn't have time to talk to me unless I was going to pay for an expensive earth building course, but the French guy in the office was nice enough to let me walk around and look at their displays. I briefly checked out Auroville Wind Systems although the main guy (German) didn't have time for me; apparently they make 5kw low-altitude wind turbines. I got a tour of Upasana fair trade clothing from an Indian fellow I had met the night before. Not really my interest, but at least this one was started and run by a lady from Bihar, one of the country's poorest states. Supposedly she's a real hardass and a also a former Ashoka fellow, quite a prestigious title. Finally, the (Indian) director of Sunlit Future, the Auroville solar energy installation company, was willing to give me a chunk of time and tell me about how most households and farms in Auroville have at least some solar capability and about the remote village installations they do from European grants. However, he said that solar makes up only about 8-10% of Auroville's total energy usage. The rest comes from the massive brown coal power station in nearby Neyveli, and I decided to make a trip there with the guy who gave me a tour of Apasana.

This nice fellow from Dehradun didn't really know what he was getting himself into, and I think

he wasn't really accustomed to my style of seat-of-the-pants industrial disaster tourism. Still he was a good sport about it and I couldn't have seen the completely massive open-cast lignite mines if not for him and his rented motorbike. It was visually reminiscent of the huge mines I saw in eastern Germany, except in this case a lot of really poor people were living right on the edge of the mining area. I found out that the huge, outdated power plant turning this extremely inefficient fuel into power for Auroville and the rest of Tamil Nadu was just down the road, so me and bubby started that way. He decided to ask the guards if we could get a tour of the plant, and while they were nice at first and seemed to be entertaining the idea they suddenly became very suspicious of me and even brought some "head inspector" to question me. I guess I was looking like a terrorist that day. We then went to the village area which is just outside of the concrete and barbed wire fence, and it was yet another intensely surreal Indian moment of the very traditional meeting the ugly side of modern development head-on. Massive smokestacks seemed to emerge directly from mud and thatch huts; field workers tending crops were overshadowed by huge steam generator units.

I spent the last bit of time at Auroville checking out some organic

farms and food processing enterprises, two more things I hope to do back in Appalachia. Buddha Garden was a 2-3 acre organic farm started by Priya from the UK who originally moved to Auroville as a spiritual hippy like everybody else but got fed up with the realities (i.e. hypocrisies, BS, etc) of the "communal life" and decided to move just outside of Auroville proper and start a farm. It was a very nice and efficient operation with a young Indian farm manager and a ton of white interns, with growing methods consisting almost entirely of permanent raised beds and drip irrigation lines. She has written several books about farming now and was nice enough to take over an hour to talk to me when she had several other things to do. I did a bit of volunteer work threshing rice at Solitude Farm (yes they all have stupid names) and ended up with a nasty rash, but it was nice to see their "one straw revolution" style planting methods and windmill-driven water pump. I also visited Botanical Gardens, which was actually a seed saving and selling farm as well as tree nursery, contrary to the name.

Naturellement was a value-adding business started some 20 years ago, and it seemed to be a

very nice enterprise despite the obnoxious French name. Martina, the Swedish founder/owner has done a good job of employing quite a few Indians from the surrounding villages for much higher than standard wages to make a diverse line of sweets and baked goods. While not all of the ingredients are local, almost everything is organic and the distribution is within India only. Kofpu was a small raw foods producer (mainly kombucha, spirulina, and such), and while I thought they were casually inviting me in to have lunch with them they ended up asking for 200 rupees, about 4 times the cost of a typical Indian meal. Pebble Garden was a fair ways outside of Auroville, but it was worth the trip to see how they've managed to turn very rocky, barren land into a thriving organic farm. As far as I could tell this half-Swedish-half-Indian older couple doesn't sell anything and mainly function to sustain themselves and save seeds which they distribute for free to nearby farmers. More than any other place I visited, they were focused on permaculture techniques with in-situ composting and raised beds using only fallen branches for the walls and a mix of leaves, biochar, and bits of dirt to make excellent soil. My last stop was the Sadhana Forest intentional community. I was too late for the proper tour and so I was only barely able to see the reforestation project and the dozens of "capsule" homes for the interns, and mainly ended up watching a film about how badly the aborigines of Australia are being screwed over. As with the rest of these projects you can learn plenty just by looking at their website that I've linked to, but basically this place was started by an Israeli family with the intention to bring back the native forest and its now home to a mass of almost completely white interns.

So, that was my Auroville experience. Definitely a lot of really good ideas and quite a bit of good execution, and I really only scratched the surface in my week there. But I just couldn't bring myself to actually like the place, and you would almost have to pay me to live and spend any more time there. Maybe it was the fact that it was an island of European wealth and pretentious attitude surrounded by some very poor villages, even by Indian standards. Maybe it was the way that I could feel this snobby attitude rubbing off on the Indian locals, as opposed to the very open and friendly India I had come to know. Or maybe I just don't like new age hippies, and there were plenty of those. Either way I was pretty happy to be taking a bus up to Chennai to catch a train to the mountains of northeast Andhra Pradesh, but at the same time I really appreciate all of the time people took to share their experiences with me and I hope it can all be somehow relevant for my future.

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