Participant Observation

We have been in Auroville for almost two weeks, have chosen our organizations, and are preparing to begin work after the New Year. Through our readings (Participant Observation by Danny L Jorgensen and Participant-observation by Eric Laurier) and discussions we have learned about Participant Observation as a method in becoming involved in the community around us. The interaction with the local community is what has drawn most of us here. Observation and participation is something that it comes naturally to everyone since, at a simplified level, it means watching and mimicking. The challenge is to notice the nuances that happen in everyday interactions and be able to take a step back at the end and look at the big picture.

I was first attracted to India more than ten years ago through a book that many students in our AUP-Linnaeus group have read, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I was excited to arrive in India and I have to admit when we first arrived I tried to take pictures of everything. It is easy to get sensory overload in India with all the noise, the fast pace, and the chatter in a language you do not understand. According to our readings this is being a “tourist.” So how do you take regular tourist or researcher observation and turn it into participant observation? Daily, I found myself taking less pictures, taking more notes, and keeping my head on a swivel to try to pick up some cultural specifics of our Tamil counterparts. I began by learning some Tamil: Vanakkam! (“welcome” or “hello”); Nandri! (“thank you”); Iillai (“no”). Then I picked up some gestures—saying yes with a head bob. These simple things seem to open the door a little bit for us into the Tamil culture.

I am looking forward to begin work. Our group of students will participate in a number of different organizations that work with Tamil people and Aurovillians. The first step has been to introduce ourselves to our organization managers and listen to their specific needs. We have a lot of work ahead of us to produce photos, write content for websites, create logos, grant writing, interviews to conduct, and videos to edit. Over the next two weeks our experience of India will change through our hands-on work.

In the article “Sustainable Development” by Edward Carr (Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, 2007) it is said that sustainable development is the linkage between issues in environmental, social, economic, and political concerns. We have observed firsthand how these issues often inter-work in this community and in our work we hope to participate in the steps towards developing sustainable solutions.

By Karin Johnson

Creating Shared Value

Some recurring trends have emerged throughout our visits to the many organizations within and surrounding Auroville, including sustainability (of course), environmental awareness and preservation, and the effect of happy workers on the productivity of a business.  Listening to these truly grass-roots efforts explain their motivation to find creative solutions for social and environmental challenges that they have witnessed in their communities has demonstrated that determination and ingenuity can accomplish things without a strictly profit-oriented model.  In this remote location thousands of miles from Wall Street, these social businesses seem to perfectly embody on a small scale Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s concept of shared value. 

 

As articulated in the Harvard Business Review last year, shared value is the next emerging business model, which rejects traditional capitalism as both socially and economically destructive due to its short-term, encapsulated perspective.  Traditional business can create huge profit margins very quickly, but as Porter and Kramer argue, this is not sustainable in the long-term, and the evidence of its destructiveness is visible globally where we find exploited human and natural resources being pushed to the brink of extinction.  Shared value is defined as “policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.”[1]

 

Where NGOs were traditionally thought of as purely socially driven and businesses as purely profit-driven, here in Auroville we have witnessed a coalescence of the two that gives true clout to Porter and Kramer’s concept of shared value.  At Naturellement, a business that began with producing natural jams and juices and has now expanded to add other projects such as a lunch café, profits are extremely important because the Tamil women who work there are dependent on their salaries to support themselves and their families.  On the same token though, the owner Martina was adamant that the quality of work environment would never be compromised.  By creating a lunch program for the women who were used to eating white rice at every meal, she makes a long-term investment in strong and healthy employees.  Her philosophy is that by thinking about the business in a different way, she can have happy employees, who are able to work, to create and maintain the profit they need.

 

Although Naturellement is a very small-scale business, shared value is not limited to such enterprises. Porter and Kramer cite, for example, Project Shakti, an undertaking of the corporation Hindustan Unilever that creates shared value in communities across India by providing skilled employment opportunities for women and fights the spread of disease through access to hygiene.  These huge social benefits for Indians translate in profit benefits for Unilever, since Project Shakti now makes up 5% of their revenue in India.  Unilever is able to create new markets for itself while simultaneously benefitting the community, embodying a truly shared value.

 

As we begin to participate more actively with these organizations this week, we will have the opportunity to gain more insight into the practical operation of creating shared value and will ideally take away understanding that can be applied to any project we encounter in the future.

 

By Jillsa Aringdale

Whose Environment is it?

At the beginning of the day, I heard we were going to attend talks on environmental sustainability and I pictured myself walking through the boonies, and following dirt paths that led to smaller dirt paths. This was entirely accurate, though it does not begin to describe the  links that I found being built between the environmental projects and the local economy.

I knew that the benefits of having a more direct connection to environment can be found at every turn.  One expects to hear the medicinal benefits of plants and the usefulness of building with indigenous plants (bamboo.) These were the first explanations we were given today when visiting Pitchandikulam Forest, and the Bamboo Center. From a western perspective it’s hard to disagree with all the evidence that these are both worthwhile endeavors.  Yet these reasons barely scratch the surface of what environmental sustainability means for the rural villagers touched by these projects. These projects, which are all connected, bring jobs, knowledge and opportunities to villages where historically you did what your family did and your children did the same after you.  These projects offer ways for at least some villagers to stay in the village and not be forced to seek work in cities, where the only option is living in slums far away from family life.

Maintaining Pitchandikulam forest creates jobs for 200 people, who in turn support 200 families in and around Auroville.  Largely, these are not expats living off previous bank accounts; these are the true Tamil people, who have lived in the village years before Auroville was even conceived.  They plant trees that are indigenous to the region, and raise awareness about the Kaliweli Bioregion and the benefits of using local plants for preventative and curative medicine. In India alone, an estimated 8,000 species of plants are used as medicine in the folk tradition. Yet, In an age when pharmacies are cropping up in villages while the actual crops are being destroyed to make white rice, places like  the Forest, which serves as a medicinal plant conservation park connects villagers to livelihood, to knowledge, and to maintaining their historical ways of healing.

The Bamboo Center demonstrates the advantages of using local materials in building and how versatile bamboo can be. Everything from buildings to clothing and even musical instruments can be built with it. This practice follows their adage of sustainability because the materials are completely recyclable, but the Centers greatest triumph is the training and employment it offers for the community. Currently 14 women are trained for 3 to 4 month periods at the center, and after they not only have skills in working with local materials but they have the option of employment by the center.  Especially for local woman, the options of learning skills that involve working directly with manufacturing largely do not exist.

In the sense that these two places offer initial jobs for villagers and provide them with an opportunity to gain skills and buy themselves basic necessities, the programs offer a chance for a better financial situation. What isn’t clear is whether these programs will truly offer villagers a chance at sustainable development, or if these programs are merely sustaining them currently.  As the nominal rate of inflation grows, the real rate of inflation for villagers who spend almost their entire income on food is actually much higher, so even for villagers with these program jobs, their purchasing power shrinks each year.  It’s with this in mind that the question of environmental sustainability must be examined. What is the point of preserving the environment if an entire section of the population cannot afford to even survive?

-Kathleen Buchholz

Merry Sustainable Christmas

On the 24th of December – which is the most important Christmas day (at least where I come from –Germany) – was started off by a visit to Upasana and ended with a nice Christmas Eve dinner in Pondicherry.

Upasana is an organization that is mainly concerned with sustainable and ethical fashion, art and design.  When we arrived at their office in Auroville, two women that manage Upasana greeted us and gave us a presentation on the whole company, including its sub-brands. Uma, the one in charge for fashion and design, presented the latest addition to Upasana: the Tsunamika dolls. As the name already suggests, those dolls were made to help Tsunami victims. The history of the dolls, she said, goes back to a little child that wanted to put a smile on her mother’s face after the Tsunami had taken most of what she had owned and loved. The child crafted a doll out of waste material and succeeded in making her mother happy with such a simple little gift. Upasana’s role in this is that they hired women that needed help and liked the idea of the doll that was crafted out of waste material. The women working at Upasana still continue to make the unique dolls as a gift to others. They are never sold. Rather, they are gifted to those who make a donation for Tsunami victims.

Uma further explained to us that she and the manager of the company just came back from a business trip to Paris, where they presented their handmade fashion lines. One of them is Paruthi, the luxury organic cotton fashion line. She highlighted that all materials they use are 100% organic cotton or silk and are never chemically processed at any stage. Also, no artificially produced materials are used, such as Rayon or Polyester. The main reason for this is not only to save the environment and improve working conditions within Upasana, but also to improve health and economic situations of the tailors and the suppliers, such as the cotton farmers. The company keeps their own profit to a minimum so that farmers and tailors can benefit from sales. This is especially important to Upsana, as in India there is a high suicidal rate among cotton farmers. Mainly this results from health issues due to chemical processing during the production, but also due to not being able to make a living from their work. Uma told us, that it is common in India to commit suicide if you fail to make a living.

However, this is also a global issue. I worked for the corporation Monsanto, who produces only one single type of cotton GMO crop. This ruins local businesses as GMO crops are highly efficient and cheap due to economies of scale. Nevertheless, these crops do not only harm the environment, but also the health of workers on the field and customers wearing the final products. Therefore, Upasana’s work in providing help to farmers and tailors and solely using organic cotton is an invaluable step towards a more sustainable environment, society and economy. 

I found it especially interesting that Uma told us about how the Indian environment and also economy could benefit from this approach. Upasana does not only use organic material to create a sustainable environment and clothes production, but also as a unique selling point. Uma mentioned that many companies and wholesalers turn to China, as cotton and especially silks are much cheaper there. Therefore, she sees China as a main threat or as a “blocker” of changing society as most things we buy originate from there. “If this huge nation will not make an effort to improve environmental and health impacts during clothes production then change will be very difficult”, she said. Upasana is therefore trying to be a role model and to raise global awareness by producing sustainable and ethical fashion, art and design. I share Uma’s opinion, that people should be conscious buyers. I also believe that Upasana’s business model can inspire others and make impacts especially in sustainability-conscious nations, such as Germany and Sweden.

At last, Uma presented us other brands and projects such as “Small Steps”, an alternative to a plastic bag, which is reusable, and Navarasa, organic food and drinks. Afterwards, we went to the Janaki (House of Conscious Living), where most of Upasana’s brands can be bought.

In conclusion, the visit was very interesting as we learnt about how Upasana helps employees, suppliers and the outside environment with its work. I also found it impressive, that in contrast to the other organizations we’ve visited, Upasana does not rely on funding and aims to operate without it also in the future.

Later that day, we went to the closest city, Pondicherry, to have our Christmas dinner there. The place we ate at (Villa Shanti) was very nicely decorated and I felt a tiny bit like Christmas in the rather summery India.  

The day after (25th of December), we were given a day off. Some Swedish girls, Kallie, Melissa and I took that opportunity to spend a day at the Mango Hill Resort, a little hotel in Auroville with a nice swimming pool area.

Happy holidays to you from India!

Janine

The Day After the End of the World

By Karin Johnson

Today was the day after the End of the World.

The morning started out with another early morning music festival and dog barking, although most of us slept right through it, but today was going to be special. At the Tibetan Pavilion a marriage started at 7am with chanting monks and we soon shot off to the Vodaphone kiosk on the corner to buy a few liters of bright orange petrol. One scooter wipe out later the group was back on the road (via bus) to visit project sites.

First, we were introduced to WELL (Women Empowered by Local Livelihood) which is an organization that trains women to make paper products with the goal of owning and running their own business. Then we were bussed down and across the highway to the Auroville Institute of Technology and the Village Action Group. This was an education based center where they taught both women and men important skills for inside the village community and outside in the workforce. Lastly, we visited a children’s home called SALT (Social Awareness for Liberation Trust) where we learned that for 9 years the manager had been struggling to put, on average, 25 boys through school, but only had an operating cost of less than 400 Euros a month. We left wanting to participate in all of the organizations.

We headed back to AV (Auroville) to do some shopping since many of us had packed so lightly that by day three we were running out of clothing. A short trip down the “tar road” reaped a bounty of brightly colored parachute pants and tunic tops so we decided to continue up to the Youth Center for the Christmas Fair.

However, our plans were foiled. One scooter wouldn’t turn off because the key was so loose, it fell out while cruising around AV and was nowhere to be found. Then another collision, this time with the village people– Yes, an impact with a bundle of sticks sent one of our riders in a total wipe out around a bend in the road. Thankfully the entire village came out to see the spectacle of young AUP girls running over old, Indian women. All this made us decide against going to the Fair and settle for early dinner instead.

Dear readers please let me remind you this is only Day Three and the fun has just begun. We are more energized than ever to get involved. Hey, if we can scrape ourselves off the tar road time and again, we are ready to take on our Practicum projects head-on… all that is needed is a little rest.

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

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Shanti at work at the Auroville landfill

Today, Auroville was full of garbage.  Literally.  We kicked off the day at the dump, where we marched in our rubber boots (well, Victoria in heels!) and observed exactly how landfills operate.

We could smell the burning waste through our scarves as we conducted our own analysis of what was in the landfill and watched attentively when ­tractors dumped new loads of garbage.  Our passionate guide, Rheibu, explained how the waste in Auroville is disposed here unorganized and not separated by material.  He emphasized the importance of recycling—separating plastics, glass, and biodegradable waste—and then pointed to a woman sifting intently through the garbage. 

Rheibu introduced us to Shanti, a waste picker, who sifts through the garbage in search of re-usable items such as milk packets and metals to sell for profit in the secondary market.  As we learned, selling items in the secondary market can bring about 250-500 rupees a day.  Unfortunately, most waste pickers don’t have a long life span because of the exposure to unknown chemicals and bacteria commonly found in garbage.  At 37 years old, Shanti spoke proudly about her work and eagerly showed us the copper she had collected and the tool she uses to sift through the waste.  Also a wife and mother, Shanti works nearly everyday to provide for her sick husband and children who currently attend a local school.  It was both heartbreaking and inspiring to see such a young woman sift through the trash with the hopes of finding valuables.  In a sustainability sense, Rheibu explained that separating trash in the households can actually help waste pickers to collect material all at once and put them back into the hands of producers.  Basically, the work of waste pickers play an essential role in the sustainability cycle in Auroville.  

Next, we headed to the Town Hall for a lecture on Garbology 101 from Rheibu.  The emphasis here focused on educating our youth on the importance of recycling through a stimulating and interesting curriculum.  Through educational games, coloring books, and student input in the curriculum, this program can set the foundation for future generations, especially during a time when energy conservation is needed the most.  

Overall, aiding in the sustainability cycle comes down to one thing- YOU.  The individual needs to feel the desire to change and understand why they must do it.  Then, our actions and behavior to become environmentally conscious come naturally.  It’s critical for everyone to separate waste accordingly so they have the potential to be re-used in the sustainability cycle.  As far as Auroville is concerned, each day brings loads of new trash to the dump.  Or for Shanti and the environment, hopefully treasure.

 

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Kristen, Victoria, and Janine at the Auroville dump

By: Melissa Lerma

 

Aside

The first full day in India began with insomnia (too many naps in airplanes yesterday) and a chorus of new noises (dogs and cats, exotic insects and birds, and surprise! A ceremony in a neighboring village that started broadcasting their morning prayer chants around 4h30).  After a breakfast of fresh fruit salad, toast, tea and coffee prepared by our Tibetan Pavilion hostess, Kalsang, we set off for orientation at the International House, learning about safety, practical matters, recycling, upcycling, and off-the-grid sustainable living.  Then, it was off to pick up our scooters and ensure they had enough siphoned gas to last us for the duration of our “discovering Auroville” scavenger hunt. After a few near-miss collisions with bystanders and parked scooters, and one actual collision with a fence, we were successfully cruising down the left side of the road, searching for the destinations assigned to our group.

Although we were met with slight difficulty trying to read the map, every Aurovillian that we stopped to ask for directions was eager to help point us in the right direction, and we eventually found most of the places on our list. This included a lunch of tasty south-Indian cuisine at the Solar Kitchen restaurant, which must be one of the more popular restaurants in town, based on the bustling crowd of hungry diners waiting to make their way through the cafeteria-style line.

Lunch was followed with a history and philosophy lesson about Auroville and India led by Deepti, a woman who has lived here since just after the community was founded. Fascinating and thought-provoking, this talk had us walking away with many questions answered and even more new questions forming in our heads about what is in store for us in the days and weeks to come.

The last visit of this busy day was to our neighbors at the Solitude Farm where Krishna, an Aurovillian since 1989, maintains a perma-culture farm, a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a restaurant, and organizes the yearly Lively Up Your Earth eco music festival.  The philosophy of all of these projects is based on the idea that food is the fundamental reason we have community and culture, and that our relationship with our food has a critical influence on all parts of our life.  Furthermore, in connecting with our food, we are connecting with nature, which is perfect in essence, and something essential is lost when we try to bend its natural processes to our will.  Krishna and his friends kindly provided us with a chance to taste for ourselves at a candle-lit dinner under the stars, and the high quality of this homegrown meal was undeniable.

With light hearts and full tummies, we made our way back to our new temporary home, ready to face the end of the world (tomorrow is December 21, 2012!) with an enthusiastic “Namaste!”

By Jillsa Aringdale