At Solitude Farm
The Sustainable Livelihood Institute: A Dream in Development
What is happening at the Sustainable Livelihood Institute is radical. The ambition is huge, the challenges are plenty. The Sustainable Livelihood Institute started in 2015 is a large-scale cooperation between the state of Tamil Nadu and Auroville encouraging rural development based on the principles of sustainable development. It is a result of the Tamil Nadu government approaching Auroville recognising the need for a profound shift in the current rural development policy.
What is being lost in rural India is the deep interconnection between the land and community that has existed as long as the Indian civilisation has. The general rural exodus reflects a loss of connection, a loss in faith and pride about the uniqueness of one’s village, of one’s sense of place in the world. While not a phenomenon unique to rural India, it represents an increasing loss of centuries of narrative traditions, a biodiverse landscape and a deep lived-knowledge of one’s bioregion.
One aspect of SLI’s work is to invite farmers, women’s groups and other community members primarily from Tamil Nadu to Auroville and provide training in areas such as sustainable agriculture, enterprise development, ethno-veterinary medicine, underlying all of which is an emphasis on a gentle relationship with what is around and essential to one’s community.As Alain Bernard, Aurovillian, explains, the experiments in Auroville are very important in the Indian context where the government still largely supports chemical agriculture. Some key solutions to the rural problem do exist within Auroville and other parts of Tamilnadu but they need a forum to enable and support the incubation of sustainable initiatives. SLI aims to play a critical role in this movement, training community groups on livelihoods that can flourish by being in harmony with the very place it utilises.
Another key focus for the SLI is the government servants. Using Auroville as a learning ground, SLI aims to shift paradigms within the system, revealing through talks and hands-on experiences the hidden assumptions and patterns that strongly influence work under the name of ‘rural development’. SLI’s experiential approach involves nudging, sometimes pushing the participants out of their zones of comfort. This can be spontaneous, emerging from the working culture in a place like Pitchandikulam forest for example, when Joss Brooks, essentially the ‘boss’, serves tea to the officers. Such simple uncontrived actions guided from viewing work as service offer powerful possibilities, here – a different, humbler way to work with power, to people working in a system that very often involves a rigid hierarchical separation between the server and the served.
Even with changes in mindset after the training programs at SLI, these officers face enormous challenges when they return to work. They return to a system that has a sentience, a power that they feel is bigger than their capacity to alter. What then does the SLI work on? Mr. Ramasubramanian, the current director at SLI mentions that that many of the visible changes in the follow up programs have emerged in the personal. Some district officers, realising that personal change is easier to approach than the systemic have implemented some encouraging changes in their personal lives.
Government officers exploring Auroville
Take the experience of a participant who connected the experience of cycling to his memories of starting out as a government officer. He recalled that in the beginning he entered government service to help people, to change the system. He cycled around his district as his mode of transport. He reflected that as the years went by he had become a part of the very system he despised, living on corruption and stagnation. This particular participant, moved to memory, reflected on how he had lost his initial drive to enable positive change. He has reported to SLI that he plans to cycle around his district, the cycle serving as a sensorial grounding to the dream – a daily reminder of his desire to be the change he wanted to see.
What emerges out of the stories in SLI, according to Mr. Ramasubramanian is inspiration. It should not be discounted. Listening to Bernard and Deepika from Pebble Garden speak, experiencing Solitude Farm and Cafe with Krishna, walking around Pitchandikulam Forest with Joss are just a few of key sources of inspiration for these government officers coming from a system that has long squashed the spark within, slowing and many times halting the evolution of their personal development.
It can be argued that inspiration often times is momentary, forgotten as soon as one changes environments. Why is inspiration vital then? I think a key offering of Auroville to the outside is the planting of seeds of possibility. Listening and experiencing living wisdom, witnessing the results of deeply lived lives is often a balm to the participants who feel their pillars of assumptions crumbling in what can be a very challenging program conducted by the SLI. Who knows when these seeds will sprout?
Progressive change is slow to happen. SLI is still brand new, working out of a temporary rented space in the old Naidu house in Kottakarai. A new campus is under work near Irumbai at the edge of Auroville. There is always a translation between the dream and reality and between the gap lies immense challenges. Any project involving the government comes at the very least with risks of funding and bureaucratic delays. Working with Aurovillians as well poses a variety of challenges. The very structure and courses offered are constantly evolving. Sustained change requires a collective input of energy for a long period. It needs the vision to always elevate and guide action, it needs the planning and the actual implementation along with critical reflection.
The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) is also a potential part of the SLI story, as a key international network connecting sustainability in action. There are important links to be made to push us out of our comfort zones of specialisation, our susceptibility to narrow the lenses of looking at the world. It is important to know and live the stories of the local, but there are offerings on a global level that can expand one’s realms of possibility. The dream is for example, a beautiful sharing of women’s group actions between rural Tamil Nadu and rural South Africa. What are the best practices emerging that can be shared? What are the possibilities of collaboration within the rural sphere across oceans?
Under the macrocosm of Auroville its inspired units will always need a continuous reflection and evolution, never satisfied, always in a state of metamorphosis. The SLI is to me, is another part of the vision of Auroville – to enable transformation amongst immense challenges, little by little across time.