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Auroville Experience

March 2008


Is the Auroville Foundation an autonomous body?

- Carel

au·ton·o·mous adj. 1. Not controlled by others or by outside forces; independent. 2. Independent in mind or judgment; self-directed. 3.a. Independent of the laws of another state or government; self-governing. b. Of or relating to a self-governing entity. c. Self-governing with respect to local or internal affairs. (American Heritage dictionary)

“The Auroville Foundation is, like any government department, subject to all the norms and regulations applicable to Government departments and particularly in relation to handling of finances,” opined advocate M. Bharathi of Madras in an extensive legal opinion obtained by the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation in August 2007. His views, shared by some members of the Governing Board, were the basis of a contentious dispute in the meeting of the Governing Board in September last year.

The topic was financial matters: should the Secretary be mandatory co-signatory of all cheques, and so virtually control the expenditure of all Auroville? Or was this authority to be held by the Aurovilians themselves, as has always been done in the past? The Board, after hours of meeting, opted for a compromise solution. It made the Finance Officer of the Auroville Foundation mandatory co-signatory of all cheques over Rs 5 lakhs, but only for a trial period of six months, which ends in March 2008.

On behalf of the community the Working Committee of the Residents' Assembly accepted the decision of the Board, but stated that it wanted to study the applicability of government rules to a body like the Auroville Foundation. For more is at stake than the freedom in financial matters. In question is the very freedom of Auroville's residents to develop Auroville independently, and not as per government directives. Comparisons were drawn with Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore's world university in West Bengal , which, according to many, has become paralysed due to over-regulation by the Government. Is Auroville doomed to the same fate?

The Working Committee decided to obtain another legal opinion – not just from any lawyer, but from Shri Soli Sorabjee, former Attorney General of India and Senior Advocate to India 's Supreme Court, who ranks amongst India 's most eminent legal luminaries. Three questions were asked: is the Auroville Foundation an autonomous body or a government-controlled organisation? Is there any legal provision which makes it compulsory for the Secretary to be co-signatory to all cheques? And what is the position of the Residents' Assembly vis-a-vis the Governing Board?

The legal opinion was long in the making. It arrived in January 2008. Its contents, however, were most enlightening.

Shri Sorabjee did not concur with the view of Mr. Bharathi. He first referred to the circumstances under which the Act came to be passed and the eloquent speech of Sri P. Shiv Shanker, then Minister for Human Resource Development, when introducing the Bill in the Indian Parliament in 1988. He had said: “The object of the Bill is to maintain the autonomy of the Foundation … As far as the day-to-day activities are concerned, they will be looked after by the residents through appropriate autonomous arrangements, which will include Residents' Assembly and its Working Committee. The idea underlying this arrangement is that the residents of Auroville should have autonomy so that activities of Auroville can grow under an atmosphere conducive to harmonious growth.” Shri Sorabjee then examined the provisions of the Act itself, and concluded that the Auroville Foundation is not a government body but an independent juristic entity and that the provisions of the Act guarantee complete autonomy to the Foundation. {emphasis added, eds.]

He further explained that there is no provision under the Act nor is there any legal principle from which it can be inferred that the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation must be a compulsory co-signatory to all disbursement of funds. “The Governing Board is free to authorize any person to sign the cheques for withdrawing funds from the Foundation's accounts.” And he added, “It is significant that over the last 15 years this Fund has been managed by Aurovilians alone and this practice has not been doubted by any authority so far.”

Shri Sorabjee then investigated the role of the Residents' Assembly versus the Governing Board. At first reading it appears that the Act gives all the powers to the Governing Board while the role of the residents, through its Residents' Assembly, is only advisory. But Shri Sorabjee disagreed with this reading, and wrote “The role of the Residents' Assembly is not limited to acting in an advisory capacity. While taking all decisions in respect of all activities relating to the residents of Auroville, the Governing Board is required to give due weight to the advice of the Residents' Assembly since the Act envisages a specific advisory role of the Assembly in that behalf. The Governing Board cannot render such a role that is specifically envisaged by the Act redundant by unreasonably rejecting the advice of the Residents' Assembly. At the same time the decisions of the Governing Board must subserve the objectives of the Act which are, inter alia, to further the development of Auroville and its residents ‘in accordance with the original charter of Auroville' and to advance the ideals for which Auroville had originally been established.”

Shri Sorabjee then referred to the role of the International Advisory Council. “An important objective sought to be achieved by the Act, through the International Advisory Council, is to ensure that the residents of Auroville are allowed freedom to grow and develop activities and institutions for the fulfilment of the aspirations and programmes envisaged in the Charter of Auroville. Like every power conferred by statute, the Governing Board must also exercise its powers purposefully to further these objects of the Act. The Act envisages that the three constituents of the Foundation [the Governing Board, the International Advisory Council and the Residents' Assembly] will work in harmony and co-ordination, with minimal governmental interference … The decisions and functioning of the Governing Board and its decisions must keep in mind that the residents are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Foundation and the purpose of enacting the statute was not to ‘take over' the properties of Sri Aurobindo Society but to consolidate the undertakings and facilitate the fulfilment of the vision conceived in the original Charter,” concluded Sorabjee.

As can be expected, Aurovilians were pleased with Shri Sorabjee's unambiguous legal opinion. So was Shri Kireet Joshi, former Chairman of the Auroville Foundation, who, as Educational Advisor to the Government of India, had been responsible for drafting the Bill in 1987/8. In a letter to Shri Sorabjee, Kireet Joshi congratulated him for his brilliance in bringing out the intention behind the Act. “Your statement regarding the role that the Residents' Assembly is expected to play and the autonomy of the Foundation as a whole makes it very clear that the Auroville Foundation can never be described as a department of the government,” wrote Kireet. “The conclusion that you have drawn emphasizing the need for harmony among all the three authorities of the Foundation is impeccable.”


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