The NGO Auroville Village Action Group, or AVAG in short, was founded in 1983 and focuses on four major areas of rural development in the Auroville bioregion: capacity building, psychosocial services (fighting and curing alcoholism, for instance), economic development and community development. What makes the organisation unique is that it operates holistically and participatory, on a basis of need and input from the communities themselves, and not on a preconceived project basis. Just as noteworthy is that all community members, including women and Dalits, are represented in all decision-making processes.
When asked about how her work at the Auroville Village Action Group is going at present, director Anbu Sironmani smiles and says that she is satisfied with how it is going, even though, no doubt, there is always room for improvement. At the moment, however, one cause of regret for Anbu is that AVAG cannot do more in the area of psychosocial development, as the organisation is always so busy with the other areas of their work. This is tied together with the main and persistent difficulty AVAG has to cope with: a chronic lack of funding. Because AVAG has no fundraising team, and therefore too little funds to employ more staff, the organisation is chronically understaffed. As Anbu puts it: “Out of enthusiasm, we take on more and more work without increasing the number of staff. But I wouldn´t say it´s because of greediness, it´s because of our passion – whatever comes, we tend to accept it, thinking: It´s good for the community, let´s not miss it.”
AVAG mostly runs on donations, but also got a grant from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to be used as revolving funds for the women´s groups, as well as a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) fund from Indian tech company MSSL for the education of the girl child. These women´s groups are voluntary self-help groups formed by 15- 20 members of the same village who collect savings and in return can lend out money to their members in times of need. As a collective, they are also eligible to receive micro-credits from banks. The interest the grants collect is used for different activities and programs for the benefit of the village women. From the first 10 groups founded in 1996, the idea slowly but surely caught on. Now, there are over 350 women´s groups and around 60 men´s groups in the bioregion. All the women´s groups together in turn make up the Women´s Federation, which has become a legal entity in 2013 and can directly apply for government funds to implement projects since then. The office board of this Federation is re-elected every two years and consists of representatives from all groups, including all castes and villages.
But AVAG´s work does not stop at the merely economic – what also makes AVAG quite special is that it is adamant about preserving traditional Tamil culture:
“Since the beginning, I can say that Village Action is for traditional arts and culture. We used to have women´s festivals. Right now, we are training the young girls in traditional dance and drama forms. As the movies (Bollywood and Chennai-Tamil movies alike) portray women in a negative way, focusing only on exposing their bodies, we have a policy that these movies and dances are not allowed to be shown or reproduced at any cultural events we hold here.”, Anbu emphasises. AVAG instead exposes the young girls, many of them for the first time in their lives, to the traditional dances and dramas conveying social instead of sexual messages.
“We encourage the people to come up with their own stories, and we only engage people who are experts in traditional dance and arts forms.”, Anbu says. And even though many of the young girls complained at first, as most of them want to dance to the immensely popular movie songs, since this years’ girls summer camp (an education and orientation camp), they have grown more curious and just recently actually requested learning the traditional arts and dances themselves – a great success for AVAG´s cultural advocacy work!
Although AVAG mainly works in the surrounding Auroville bioregion, in 75 different settlements, to be precise, it is nonetheless a unit of Auroville. Yet Anbu perceives the relationship between Auroville and the villagers as being ambivalent.
She explains why: “Back when Auroville was founded, the villagers sold their land to Auroville for what was then quite a low price. So the villagers feel a bit like they were taken advantage of, as Auroville has grown and developed so much since then.”
Still, the villages directly surrounding AV undoubtedly have also developed a lot, especially compared to villages further away: proper housing for everyone, including Dalits, has become quite common there. But the villagers still feel that they are entitled to keep receiving all kinds of benefits from Auroville, as they feel Auroville is “theirs”. In Anbu´s opinion, this makes it quite a complex relationship.
And of course, the cultural differences were always and still are a big factor: the language barrier, the social dimensions of gender and caste issues, which foreigners have trouble understanding, and the vast economical differences.
When asked about these social dimensions, or more precisely, what improvements she perceives the Village Action Group has been able to make in the lives of women and Dalits, Anbu underlines the unique approach AVAG follows: The organisation works with all caste groups on all levels of representation and clearly addresses the problems the Dalits have, yet does not label them as a human rights issue, as this would cause a lot of defensiveness on the side of the caste people, she explains. Instead, AVAG tries to encourage the importance of solidarity among women, be they Dalit or from other castes. Without denying that there are differences, AVAG members still repeat, mantra-like, at every single meeting the universal issues and problems everybody has just because of being human, and that those can be dealt with much better as a collective. “Women solidarity is the key issue here,” says Anbu: by concentrating on the importance of solidarity among women, regardless of their differences, contact and interdependence between the castes is created.
AVAG also does exchange programs between women´s groups of Dalit and non-Dalit women: the Dalits visit other villagers and caste groups, get invited to their homes, cooked and served for, shown around the village and visit the temple together, and vice versa. At first, this caused a lot of hesitation and difficulties:
For instance, Dalits are not allowed to visit the temples of caste people. Similarly, caste people traditionally do not accept food cooked by Dalits or enter Dalits´houses. Because this was “basically a brainchild of myself”, as Anbu puts it – not even her staff was experienced with this kind of experiment – Anbu at first was present at all exchange meetings to encourage the exchange to actually happen. But as the number of women´s groups grew, the women got more and more accustomed to the practice, and now the older groups guide the newer ones to go through with the exchange. What also helped a lot was the above-mentioned Women´s Federation, with its representatives from all the groups at every level: as the Federation makes the decisions for all the women´s groups, the exchange program was implemented in more and more villages.
This kind of taboo-breaking work did not, however, go unnoticed: in 2004, some local politicians targeted the organisation, claiming that AVAG was pro-women and pro-Dalits – accusations which apparently still have the power to discredit an organisation in rural Tamil Nadu. Although there were always some politicians who fully backed the organisation, and it also got continual support from different parts of society, AVAG nonetheless suffered quite a heavy blow from the politicians’ discreditation and stopped it´s exchange program for a few years.
Because castism is currently becoming stricter instead of more permeable throughout India, and Tamil Nadu hosts lots of caste-based political parties who support only their own caste, AVAG´s work became an obvious target. However, it was the Federation and the women themselves who demanded to restart the program, and AVAG now is organising exchange meetings yet again.
As Anbu sums up this astonishing development: “In 2004, it was the program of the office. Now, it´s the program of the Federation, and therefore, of the people!”
Finally, concerning how all these different people in the bioregion – Aurovillians and villagers alike – can grow closer together, Anbu´s message is clear:
“Instead of judging people, we have to start accepting them as they are, and have patience in dealing with them. From Auroville´s side, there should be more real and on-going initiatives to try to understand the culture and further exchanges to reduce the gap. From the villagers’ side, the sense of entitlement needs to lessen and instead, the belief in participatory development needs to increase.
Written by Sophie Burke for Auroville Art Service