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November 01

 

Secretary departs

"We will miss you"

- interview by Carel

 

Mr. N. Bala Baskar I.A.S. has been the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation since October 24th,1996. His original term of office was three years, it has been extended twice. How was his experience as senior civil servant working in the Auroville atmosphere?

 

AVToday: Mr. Bala Baskar, you are known to have strong views about what's happening in Auroville and how it could happen better.

Mr. Bala Baskar: Yes, like every Aurovilian I also have strong views on many things.

AVToday: ...but what is remarkable is that you have never chosen to impose those views. Why didn't you do it?

Mr. Bala Baskar: For two reasons. One is that the Auroville Foundation Act does not envisage that anything should be imposed either by the Secretary or the Governing Board. The other is a purely pragmatic reason. If you want to effect a change in the administrative functioning, it never helps to impose it all of a sudden, it has to be introduced slowly for the same to be accepted. I think that I have achieved many things in this fashion rather than dictating the ways in which something has to be done.

AVToday: Can you give an example?

Mr. Bala Baskar: Take the recommendations for the issuing of visas. The Government had written that visa recommendation should not be issued by the Auroville community through its Visa Service. The Auroville community felt very strongly that it should be sending the recommendations and that it should not be left to the Foundation. It took a long time to convince them, but when they saw that things were working out well, they no longer had any reason for objections. This has resulted in a very smooth cooperation: the visa service sends me a recommendation letter on the basis of which I return them my recommendation. It happens that we disagree at times, and in those cases there is a dialogue and I explain the reasons. It has worked out beautifully.

Similarly, I have been working on a system to replace that much objected-to Office Order # 5. It has become clear to all that some type of document is necessary to transfer authority from the Foundation to the units and trusts. We have created a large number of pretty independent trusts, and some of these trusts have a large number of units. But there is not much of a connection between the units and the trustees. The units have been grouped under the trusts for reasons of administrative expediency, the unit executives function independently from the trustees and the trustees in fact prefer not to take responsibility for the units, their ways of functioning or their losses. But some way of assigning responsibility needs to be found, so in the Funds and Assets Management Group (FAMC) we are working to find a solution for the problem, taking into account all perspectives as well as the legal necessities.

AVToday: Contrary to your predecessors, you have had a regular interaction with Aurovilians by your participation in the FAMC. How did you experience those meetings?

Mr. Bala Baskar: I see the FAMC meetings as important occasions for interaction with representatives of many working groups. I think this interaction has been beneficial for both sides, for us to better understand the difficulty the community faces, and for them to get instant feedback from us, including our assessment of possible outside responses to the problem. We have been able to solve or anticipate many problems across the table. It has become an essential point for interaction for us as well as for the Aurovilians.

AVToday: You have always stressed on the need for the community to get itself organised...

Mr. Bala Baskar: The community, in fact, has a lot of power. But unless there is some kind of framework in which this power is exercised, it will remain difficult for the community to assert its will. Some framework of regulations is necessary. Someone who wants to have a decision taken should know that framework. Clarity should be there for each individual. The absence of a framework will lead to mistrust and to people seeking other ways to solve their problems such as contacting me as Secretary with the request that I intervene in a situation. Very often I had to tell people that it is not my role to take this kind of decision. Other instances are when representatives of working groups come and ask me to act on their behalf. My question is always: "How am I to know that their decision is in accordance with the will of the community expressed in a resolution of the Residents' Assembly of Auroville?"

So I feel very strongly that a framework is necessary for Auroville's own good. Some individuals think that rules imply a limitation of individual freedom. But individual freedom is completely compatible with a set of rules laid down for the community, and I have the impression that an increasing number of Aurovilians already agree with this view. The work done by the Unity Committee with their so-called 'Divine Anarchy' document describing such a potential framework shows that there is more acceptance. I do feel that a Divine nature can certainly sustain anarchy. But I do not quite see how an anarchic nature can lead one to the Divine. That is perhaps why Mother put 'Divine' before 'anarchy'.

AVToday: When you first talked about the need for regulations, you stressed that without them the Government would never step out of Auroville. Do you consider the Government stepping out of Auroville as feasible and desirable?

Mr. Bala Baskar: I think it is feasible, though it won't be very easy. You would have to give intimation to the government that you are capable of managing everything on your own, and that point you haven't yet reached.

But I doubt whether it would be beneficial for Auroville at the present moment. The presence of the government gives many types of protection and facilitates many things, which you may not realise. Without the governmental umbrella, the Auroville Foundation may find it difficult to get exemption from paying income tax, for example. Instead, Auroville should look at the present situation as a tool for progress. For example, Auroville hardly made any use of the goodwill of the members of the various Governing Boards and International Advisory Councils to further Auroville's cause. Dr. Swaminathan, the previous Chairman of the Governing Board, for instance, was ready to find donors for Auroville's projects and he gave many hints to people in this direction. But except for the two earth movers which were donated to Water Harvest, in my view his offers went mostly unattended.

AVToday: You have a certain double function, being both Secretary of the Auroville Foundation as well as representative of the Government of India in Auroville.

Mr. Bala Baskar: Yes, that double function is there. The Governing Board of the Auroville Foundation is not really the agency for deciding on visa matters and in these cases I deal with the immigration officers. 

In some cases Aurovilians themselves came to give me information about somebody considered undesirable, which information I took into account to decide on the matter. In some cases I have told the person concerned as well as the Auroville visa service about my reservations or objections. There was never any need for secrecy about these things between the Secretary and the Visa Service.

AVToday: When you came in 1996, there was the unhappy situation that a few Aurovilians had received Leave India notices and as of today one person has not yet returned. You yourself have worked hard to solve these matters. Do you see any general improvement?

Mr. Bala Baskar: No, not really. The government has certainly not taken the view that Aurovilians have a right to any different treatment. India doesn't have a green card system such as the USA, and the Aurovilians who happen to be foreign nationals are only residents of India, not its citizens.

If a foreigner is insecure about the possibility to continue living in Auroville, he or she should apply for Indian citizenship. Not many Aurovilians have done that. My office has issued only two recommendation letters so far for someone to acquire Indian citizenship. There is also a possibility for persons who are born in India to apply for Indian citizenship. But this implies that one loses one's nationality, as India doesn't recognise the right to have a dual nationality.

AVToday: The community has always refused to create a so-called 'exit-group' which could expel Aurovilians. Are you in favour of such a group?

Mr. Bala Baskar: How can I not be in favor? The Auroville Foundation Act describes specifically that the Residents' Assembly has the power to terminate persons in the Register of Residents in accordance with regulations made by the Governing Board. At present you have no such regulations in place and you depend on the government to evict a person by recalling his or her residential permit or visa. And how do you evict Indian people? You need a regulation even if you want to expel a person temporarily.

AVToday: You have repeatedly told us that in certain circles of the Government of India, Auroville still has a bad name.
Mr. Bala Baskar: Yes, that is sadly true. It has already changed in many areas, but negativity about Auroville is still prevalent.. It is a relic from the past, from the fights with the Sri Aurobindo Society. The Society has a large network of associations of India, and I do not think they ever bothered to create a good image of Auroville. Dr. Kireet Joshi is very aware of this and has been fighting a lone battle against this for a very long time. Not too many people have come to see for themselves the reality of Auroville as it has been developing. Many continue in their negative impression of the past. But some change has taken place over the years.

AVToday: What would you advise Auroville does to improve its image?

Mr. Bala Baskar: Auroville has to do a vast public relation exercise. For example, Auroville is not very good in hosting important people and does not create any occasion for those people to come. In India, you just cannot invite a VIP for a visit and a cup of tea, there must be a formal kind of occasion: organise a conference and ask them to give a lecture, or inaugurate something. Auroville seems to find it difficult to do that kind of thing. And it is not a question of money. Money for these things can always be found.

AVToday: When you came in 1996, you mentioned that you had a Saivite [connected to the god Shiva, eds.] background. Now you have been exposed for five years to an atmopshere that is based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Has it changed your views?

Mr. Bala Baskar: It has certainly widened my views. Working in the Auroville atmosphere was a complete novelty. I doubt very much if I will ever be working in such an atmosphere again. These five years have changed a lot of things for my family and myself. When we came, we had just lost our eldest son, and we went through a period of depression. Gradually we got acclimatized to Auroville, my younger son went to school in Auroville - though my wife and I had some initial misgivings about that - and we made friends. It was a very enriching experience, we came to know many wonderful people. Though my son has lost a year by going to school in Auroville, the experience has been very good in general, for all of us. And as is the case for my kind of people, just when we are nicely settling in, we are posted again somewhere else. That's a pity.

AVToday: Do you know what the future is going to bring to you?
Mr. Bala Baskar: No, I still have nine more years to go before my retirement. I hope I will get a posting with the Government of India once again. .

AVToday: I think the community will miss you.
Mr. Bala Baskar: We will miss the community also but we hope to be visiting often.

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