Aspirations Versus Realities of Utopia in India
December 14, 2021
The story of Auroville serves to highlight the changing aspirations and consciousness of India as a country, a land of mysticism and spirituality, which it still is, while being one of the biggest consumer markets in the world. Juxtaposed with Aamby Valley and its wealth-driven ideals, it is this heady mix of ancient culture and otherworldliness with modern capitalism and materialism that makes this tale worth telling, to present the stark realities versus aspiring models of utopia.
Auroville, an experimental township in South India founded in 1968 for the purpose of realising human unity, led one of the most successful afforestation campaigns that India has ever seen, transforming wasteland into a rich forest. Aamby Valley City, a private city for India’s super-rich that started construction in 2016, flouted environmental norms and built a golf course in one of India’s four biodiversity hotspots. Almost antithetical to each other, one stands for frugality while the other wants to be the flagbearer of consumerism. The latter here serves as contrast, an example to underscore the realities of creating utopias in a country where its spiritual culture and history are as ancient and deep-rooted as its class and income disparities are apparent and pervasive.
On 28 February 1968, citizens of 124 countries across the world came together on what then was a barren piece of land situated 10 kilometres north of Pondicherry—a former French colony in South India—to lay the foundation of Auroville, an ‘experimental universal township’. Founded and conceptualised by Mirra Alfassa, popularly known as The Mother by her followers, Auroville could be seen as one of the material culminations of the counter-cultural resistance of the 1960s, which saw growing anti-establishment sentiment across the Western world.
Though Alfassa came to India for the first time in 1914 to meet her spiritual collaborator Sri Aurobindo—with whom she later set up the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926 in Pondicherry—it is safe to say that Auroville came to be as a result of spiritual and alternative lifestyle demands of its time. The resolution to set up the town was passed in 1964 and the French architect, painter and sculptor Roger Anger was appointed by Alfassa to be the chief architect of Auroville, which she stated would be “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.” Anger was an established name in France and had a number of important buildings attributed to his name when he was invited to plan and build Auroville, where he stayed till his death in 2008. Anger collaborated with Alfassa to put together the town’s radial plan, known as the galaxy with Matrimandir and the banyan tree serving as its centre.
The Galaxy Master Plan and its interpretation
Located in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu—a southern state in India—over a plateaued land 50 metres above sea level, the township of Auroville is spread over an area of 20 square kilometres, which includes the planned city in the centre with a green belt around it. However, not all the land belongs to the township—there are multiple small parcels of land owned by the residents of the surrounding villages called the locals by the Aurovillians. The township is divided into four zones between the peripheral green belt and the Matrimandir: residential zone; cultural zone; international zone; and industrial zone.
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The zones, as seen today, were conceived by Alfassa, which was then translated into the galaxy-shaped master plan by Anger. Realised as a plan for a truly futuristic city, the plan has buildings emanating from the centre—called lines of forces—which are supposed to be interconnected housing units meant for a population of 50,000 people. When measured against traditional urban planning concepts, the galaxy plan made by Anger appears almost undecipherable. There is a strong sculpture-like quality to the master plan that is provoking and antithetical to any or all widely accepted notions of how a master plan is conceived or delivered. For example, the plan limits itself to the physical and built forms without concerning itself with the services that are required to make a city functional.
India opened its arms to a new era of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation in 1991, ending its four-decade-long struggle with socialism, unleashing unparalleled market growth as never before seen. The country, which saw the soft drink giant Coca-Cola withdraw after the latter refused to reveal its formula to the government in the 1970s, now became a market ready to be explored and conquered by Western corporations. At the turn of the century, India was changing at an unprecedented rate. Images of the burgeoning middle and upper classes armed with money and aspirations replaced images of poverty and spirituality that had long defined the country. The days of frugality were over. Within a span of a decade, India became the most promising market for consumer goods—from cars and branded clothes to even housing, which was previously firmly in the ambit of state control and regulations.
Housing was discouraged from being commodified in the pre-1991 era, where most of the housing stock was either developed by the government or by individuals forming cooperatives. However, that swiftly changed when private developers were allowed to enter the housing sector to fulfil the needs of a growing urban population, which increased manifold during this period. The private developers were more interested in packaging housing as a lifestyle product to the aspiring middle and upper classes instead of solving the housing crisis. Thousands of gated communities presented as mini oases of prosperity and wealth, away from the cramped, dense and impoverished quarters, were launched in close vicinity of almost all major cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Amongst the first to be developed solely by private developers was the city of Gurgaon, also known as the Singapore of India and the Millennium City.
In the initial years of its conception, Gurgaon was hailed as the changing face of Indian urbanity, which can deliver without being dependent on the state for its basic infrastructure needs like water, drainage and electricity. It is interesting to note that the generation that embraced globalisation and privatisation wholeheartedly grew up navigating through the labyrinth of Indian bureaucracy, where it could take months to get a telephone connection or gas connection, since almost every service was controlled by the state. To be able to get nearly everything at their fingertips without standing in queue or paying bribes was liberating for the generation. However, the side effects of this instant development would begin to show slowly in the proliferation of slums that would line almost all the ‘world-class’ townships, exposing the deepening economic and social inequalities worsened by market forces.
A dysfunctional utopia
Shivani, a 24-year-old photographer, visited Aamby Valley in 2015 after one of her relatives bought a bungalow in the city. “It truly feels like a utopia at first, especially for a person like me who grew up in a dense and populated city like Mumbai. But soon the novelty wears off once you realise the human and environmental costs of this dysfunctional utopia.”
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Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner based in Mumbai, India. Trained as an architect, she currently works with Community Design Agency on projects that seek to improve the built habitats of some of the most marginalised communities in India’s urban areas, using participatory tools. She is deeply passionate about gender rights and using architecture and design to address issues of social inequality and inequity in these areas.
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