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December 2004

Constructing the city

in conversation with Carel

A portrait of Dhanapal

Few people in Auroville have constructed more buildings than this unassuming man. “Probably about 150,” he thinks, but it is clear that Dhanapal hasn't kept an exact tally. “At present I have nearly finished the building of the collective housing complex, Creativity, and the new Ilaignarkal School buildings. I am busy with the extension of the Village Action building in Irumbai. The Multi-Media Centre is scheduled to be ready in February. Then I am involved in the student hostel behind the Town Hall. Next month I plan to start a construction outside Auroville to see how it is to work in that environment.” He grins. “Though I have now about 350 people working for my unit Auronirmatha, I still have to refuse some new projects.”

Dhanapal in front of the Town Hall

The story of how Dhanapal got into the construction business starts when he was about eight years old, son of one of the headmen of Kuilapalayam village and very curious about the developments next door, where vellakara men and women were beginning to build a city. “That was in 1976,” he remembers. “There was practically nothing, and people who wanted to see the Matrimandir construction site would often stop in the village and ask for directions. For us kids that was great, we would jump on the hood of the car and tell them where to go.” Contacts with Aurovilians were a natural consequence, and that brought the young Dhanapal to his first job as tambi in Dana, planting trees and milking cows. “They asked me to come and live in the community, but my father did not like the idea, so one of Dana's gardeners would pick me up and bring me back home when the work was over. Soon afterwards, Gerard asked me if I wanted to join school. I said ‘yes!' and was admitted to a school run by Gordon and Jean in Kottakarai and in Fraternity, together with boys such as Selvaraj and Rathinam and other Tamil Aurovilians. But Kottakarai was a bit far away. Soon afterwards, I joined Meenakshi's evening school and came to stay there in the hostel. I must have become an Aurovilian at the age of ten or so.

“Then I joined Last School in Aspiration. It was a great time. I worked for half days with Ruud, Lakhsminarayan or André, and would be at school for the other part of the day. But after about 3 years, I stopped Last School . I was more interested in working at Matrimandir.”

He became a bar-bender and welder and began living in the Matrimandir Workers' Camp. While living in Camp he married a young Auroville girl, Vijaya. “There was a lot of pressure from the family. I was senior to her, rather fat at the time and could not believe it when she said ‘yes'. But she did. She moved into Camp with me. Because we were young, we decided to wait before getting children – even though the family did not like that very much. Eight years later our son Pradeep was born. Pradeep is the Sanskrit word for ‘Light' and we chose that name because he brought light and joy and happiness into our life.” When the Camp was razed to make place for the extension of the Matrimandir gardens, the family moved to Prayathna. Vijaya is now working at Solar Kitchen. Says Dhanapal, “We have decided that one of us will work in an Auroville service.”

Like many other Tamil Aurovilians, money was a problem. “My family owned large plots of land, and they sold much of it to Auroville. Sharnga is largely built on land once owned by my father; the land of Prayathna belonged to my uncle. But the sales did not make us rich. So around 1987, before my marriage, I decided, like many others, to go to Saudi Arabia and earn some moneyBut when I got my passport doubts came up. Did I really want to go outside? I decided I did not, and instead started my own construction unit, benefiting from all I had learned at Matrimandir.”

The year was 1988. Dhanapal started doing small works, until Prem Malik asked him to build a room in his house in Auromodèle for a fixed price. It was his first big job in interaction with the architects Roger and Raman. “Every day I cycled down to Pondicherry to buy the materials, and sometimes I had to go twice,” remembers Dhanapal. “But the work I did was seen by Prem's neighbours, such as André Hababou, who liked it.” Soon afterwards, André asked him to help build the ferro-cement roof panels of the Auromode factory. “Work kept flowing in. In 1992 we renovated a building in Pondicherry where the Kalki shop was to come. I was asked to build houses in Auromodèle and built the Information Center , the Vikas community and elsewhere. Life was good, and my company was flourishing.”

The turning point came in 1998 when Dhanapal was constructing the entire Surrender community consisting of 21 units and a water tower. When the project was coming to a close, the costs had soared beyond estimates and the prices at which the units had been sold appeared to be too low. Various occupants complained about the bad quality of construction and faulty design. The Auroville Fund and Asset Management Committee investigated. It allocated equal blame for mismanagement to the contractor, the project managers and to the architect, though it found that of all the parties to this debacle it was Dhanapal who had suffered the most and had the least resources either psychologically or financially to address the situation.

“I still don't like to talk about it, even though the issue is now over and good relationships have been re-established,” says Dhanapal. For the blow had been a crushing one. “I was very depressed. I had lost my work and my savings, and my tools had been sold to meet the debts. I wanted to close my unit and give up. But Vijaya gave me unfailing support. She urged me to start again and show my talents, as it was not all my mistake. And also, unexpectedly, I received a lot of emotional support from many Aurovilians.”

And so Dhanapal started once again, now, with Anupama as architect, building SAWCHU at Bharat Nivas. The errors of the past became lessons for the future. No longer would the estimates of a project's cost be left to the architect. Instead, Dhanapal hired his own quantity surveyors and accountants and became professional. “Today I know what I am doing in all details. And this works so well that nowadays I work on contracts, on the basis that all the designs are final. It is a fairer system. The client knows the price, and will only be charged extra if the designs are changed. The other system, whereby the contractor charges 15%, has always created the suspicion that the contractor has an interest in increasing the costs.” Dhanapal points out that a good contractor cannot be a desk manager but needs a daily interaction with the workers, suppliers and architects. “You have to be a worker yourself. I come to the site regularly, and will be there when any concreting or any other work goes on at night. You can't play the ‘I am the boss' game.”

The Surrender experience also opened Dhanapal's eyes to a deeper reality of Auroville than he had related to before. “Many people had supported me throughout the experience, and I started to realise how many Aurovilians have a truly Auroville spirit. They had a faith in me and helped me to start again. One day, Roger Anger saw me walking on the road when I was very depressed and he said, ‘Look, you will come back, believe in Mother. Don't worry.' I started to learn a bit about Mother, and slowly, I got more involved with Auroville as a whole. You see, many Tamil Aurovilians feel inferior to the Westerners. We do not have their level of education, we do not master English well enough, and we are not so good in expressing ourselves at meetings. So there has always been a tendency to only stick to one's own work . But especially in the last years, this attitude has been changing.” When, during the discussions on the management change of Matrimandir a signature campaign had been launched warning that Western Aurovilians were taking over the Matrimandir, Dhanapal and other Aurovilians launched a counter signature campaign stating that the Indian Aurovilians were happy with the proposed management changes. “Many Tamil and other Indian Aurovilians signed this petition. It was the beginning of the awareness that we, the Tamil Aurovilians, should be more actively involved in Auroville. We called a meeting which drew more than 180 Tamil Aurovilians. Soon after this event, the Mira's Women Group was created and we started the movement ‘What we can do for Auroville'. Even though we have our difficulties with each other, the awareness that we Tamilians have to play an important role in manifesting Auroville is growing.” He points at the increasing importance of commercial units that are run by Tamil Aurovilians. “They will increasingly contribute to Auroville. But you should be aware that Tamil Aurovilians also have responsibilities towards their villages and their family members who are not Aurovilians. My unit sometimes donates to the Auroville schools and monthly to the Auroville Central Fund, but I also make donations to village sport groups and the temple, and I help my family whenever needed.” The fact that Dhanapal is the son of a former headman is also a factor in this decision.

The ‘What we can do for Auroville' group has not only been successful in organizing some festival events, but is now also dealing with Tamil people accused of embezzling money from Auroville. “In coordination with the Auroville Council we selected ten Tamil people to deal with the issue. It was very difficult and a lot of other problems came out as well. We are still working on it.” Reflecting on the process, he adds, “I think that this has been a good development, creating a pride in Auroville and in us being Aurovilians. Now more Tamil people will be willing to come forward and over time the feeling that Tamil Aurovilians are inferior to North-Indians or Westerners will disappear. For this attitude has to go. We have to live and work together. And a greater Tamil involvement will also help to address the problems of admission that Auroville now faces of people who come from the nearby villages.”

Asked for his views on the future of his son Pradeep, Dhanapal insists that he be given a full education and be taught discipline. “I did not study much; I only received what Auroville gave me. But it is my dream that he becomes an architect or an engineer so that he can follow in my footsteps and join my unit Auronirmatha in due time. But all that is for the future. He is now in the Kindergarten, and I have heard good things about Transition School 's education. But the Auroville High School must be such that he can enter a university afterwards, otherwise I will have to send him to some other school to get a diploma. I want my son to study at a university, just like the children of many Western Aurovilians who go back to their home country to study at a university. It is only by providing equal education that feelings of inequality between Western and Indian children can be dissolved from the beginning. I am confident that our new generation will work together, probably better than we adults do.”

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