Small towns do not degrade the rural environment

Auroville, or 'the city of dawn', is a unique township located in a predominantly rural district of Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. At the time of its establishment in 1968, the area was barren and deforested. Three decades later, the Auroville community has transformed a veritable desert into a lush green place. Luigi Zanzi and Guy Ryckaert of the Auroville Project spoke to Ajit Chak and Mridula Chettri on why it is better to encourage small townships

Published: Saturday 15 April 2000

Can you tell us something about the Auroville township?
The Auroville township project has a population of about 60,000 people covering 13 villages. But in the designated Auroville area, there are only five villages with a population between 8,000 and 10,000. The Auroville community comprises only 1,500 people, 30 per cent of them are Indians.

Is it possible to reach your goals without a healthy environment?
Absolutely not. We started regenerating the environment 30 years ago. At that time, the entire landscape was barren. Now, there are around 300,000 trees.

Are local people involved in the project?
Local people as well as the members of the Auroville community are involved in the project. At present, the mission has employed some 5,000 local people in various sectors. But not all of them are members of Auroville because in order to be one, you have to subscribe to a few basic rules. For instance, there is no private ownership of property. Obviously, we cannot ask people who have been living there traditionally to also give up their ownership of house and land. Geographically they are within the Auroville area and are part of the experiment, which aims to create unity not only among community members but also between members and the local people.

Do you expect a lot of migration from rural areas into the township as is the case in most cities?
The only way to avoid migration and shanty towns is to strictly adhere to the master plan of Auroville where the land use pattern is specified. We have different zones -- international, cultural, residential and industrial zones. In the case of industries, we have tried to focus on small-scale units. Many local people are employed in these units. Besides, we train the local people. For instance, when villagers come to work with us in the handicraft units, they learn the techniques. They then go back to their villages and start their own workshop. Now there are a large number of workshops which manufacture incense sticks, toys and other goods.

Do you think we should have many such well-planned towns, than have a big cities like Delhi?
That is exactly the proposal of Auroville. Big cities spread like cancer -- once they start growing, the authorities can do nothing about them. So instead of metros, the focus should be on small townships which are self-sufficient and are linked to other townships by a network of speedy communication facilities. In India, there are many big towns and there is a lot of poverty in rural areas. Poverty can be alleviated by creating such towns, which again reenergises the villages around them. It could also help solve the problem of unemployment and migration.

Do you feel that small townships are more eco-friendly?
In small towns, the population is less and they are more aware about each other. The impact of their activities on nature is also better managed. For instance, in Auroville, we practice an integrated approach to watershed management. After an extensive study of the land and the water flow in the area, bunds and check dams are constructed to control both the soil and water run-off.

The Auroville Centre for Scientific Research ( csr ), which was established in 1984 and is recognised as a scientific research institution by the Union ministry of science and technology, has also come up with cost-effective ways to purify water. At present, it operates 14 small and medium-size waste water recycling systems for households, schools and communities. csr has also been active in promoting the use of renewable energy -- namely solar, wind and biomass.

Do you think towns like Auroville eat into the rural areas?
Normally, what a city does is attract people from small towns who are intelligent, thereby depriving such towns in terms of human resources. Secondly, in terms of environment, they use up the natural resources in an unsustainable manner. But the Auroville project feeds the surrounding areas and at the same time makes them interact with the centre. Whatever is being done in the centre is then replicated in the bioregion.

Would it not be better if local people managed the resources and the Auroville community just acted as the catalyst in the development?
That is the normal approach in any rural development work. But, in Auroville, we have a different mission. In the quest for peace and international understanding, we are involved in environmental and rural development work. All this is important but it is not the only objective of Auroville.

The process of urbanisation has led to an increase in pollution levels in India. Is Auroville the new paradigm for development in India?
To say that Auroville is the new paradigm, will be pretending. This is just one solution, but it cannot be and should not be the only one.

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