AUROVIL, India – The bulldozer arrived one night in December, shaking Ganga Park awake in its treehouse and shoving it down through its trunk.
When her operator stopped the threat machine, which was there to clear a path through the surrounding woods, Mrs. Park clung to her. The confrontation between them continued until the driver surrendered and returned.
When the bulldozer returned a few days later, Mrs. Park faced it again, but this time she was joined by dozens of her neighbors in Arcadia, south India, in Oroville.
They tied their arms around the bucket, chanting “Om Namo Bhagavat,” a famous Hindu mantra that roughly translates to “Obedience to God Almighty.” They remained until they achieved at least a temporary victory: an environmental court order to stay, forcing the demolition work to stop.
“It was very instinctive,” Ms. Park, 20, said of the leap in business. “If there is an intruder, you immediately protect and defend.”
The intruder, in this case, was the Oroville government, an ideal society founded in 1968 with the goal of achieving human unity by placing the divine at the center of all things.
However, this unit has recently worn out.
A bitter dispute arose between the Oroville government, which had revived a long-awaited plan to massively expand the community, and those residents who wished to protect the thriving forest they had farmed from the wasteland where their social experiment began more than 50 years ago.
The society was founded by the French writer, Mira Al Fasa, known to her followers simply as The Mother, who believed that a change of consciousness and aspiration to God in Auroville would spread to the rest of the world.
Before her death in 1973, the mother commissioned French architect Roger Unger to develop a design for a city with a population of 50,000, about 15 times the current population. Mr. Unger envisioned a galactic figure: concentric spiraling circles around the Matrimandir – a circular golden meditation room – with 12 radial paths.
But without money or manpower over decades to carry out the plan, the community’s inhabitants, or Orophilians, built something different.
They dug wells and built huts with thatched roofs. They planted trees. Many of them. Under the cool forest canopy, civets, jackals, peacocks and other creatures roam, and morel bushes release a sweet, juicy fragrance.
The dichotomy between those Orophiles who wish to pursue maternal urban development plans – known as builders – and those who want to allow society to continue developing on their own – the organics – has been around for a long time.
But the conflict intensified last July, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office appointed a new secretary, Jayanti Ravi, to head the town’s board of directors.
Ms. Ravi was the health minister of Gujarat, the home of Mr. Modi. Earlier, she was a district judge under Mr Modi, then the state’s top official, when he faced near-universal condemnation for failing to control two months of religious riots Gujarat in 2002 left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
The government’s new interest in enacting Mr. Unger’s design reflects Mr. Modi Tendency to ambitious construction projects To promote tourism around Hindu or national sites. The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Movement, a social organization dedicated to making India an explicitly Hindu country.
Although Oroville was founded by a French woman, she was a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual teacher and independence fighter for India. The planned redesign of Auroville takes place ahead of the 150th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo’s birth in August – which Mr Modi plans for big celebration.
“Part of Narendra Modi’s agenda is to integrate all religious and spiritual figures into the BJP fold,” said Navruz Modi, the resident who petitioned to halt the development project.
Ms. Ravi promised to inject the project with millions of dollars in federal funding. Development will begin by paving a completely circular road, which is part of a wider pedestrian belt road that connects the four distinct Oroville districts. But in the way stands the Youth Center of Oroville, the catchment area and hundreds of trees.
It is a bit of a “degeneration” for Auroville’s 3,300 people – about half Indian and half foreign – to live on 3,000 acres of land in a populous country like India, said Sindhuja Jagadeesh, a spokeswoman for the local government.
“A lot of people have become so attached to their comfort in green spaces, but we are meant to experiment and evolve,” said Ms. Jagadish, who is also an architect and Orophilian.
Jagdish added that the position of opponents of the development strongly contradicts the mother’s vision of a model city of the future that can be replicated around the world.
“We are here for human unity, but also to build a city,” she said.
Proponents of the development plan, which ultimately envisions a high-density, self-sustaining city with a bustling economy and experimental architecture, mock today’s Auroville as an eco-village where a visitor can get a good cappuccino but not the change in consciousness that its founder had hoped.
“It’s not just a city plan, it’s meant to be an experiment,” said Shrimoyi Rosegger, a resident who approved the development and has a deep belief in the transformative power of a mother’s plan. “We think it’s an intelligence beyond us that, if we follow its guidelines, something will be revealed to us,” she added.
Orson Bystrom, 51, one of the first children born in Oroville, relied on a motorbike outside the community’s free clothing store and food co-op, and said he opposed Ms Raffy’s plans, but believed the heated controversy had energized the community.
“Aurobindo is all about evolution,” said Mr. Bystrom, referring to Sri Aurobindo. “And over the past 35 years, Oroville hasn’t felt all that development.”
Some opponents of the plan argue that Sri Aurobindo and the mother’s philosophy was not so much about building a new city as it was about building a new human being. This takes time.
said Suhasini Ayer, the architect of the mixed-use development in Auroville recently Won the Design Award at the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow.
Opponents of development say the community’s small population owes more to the unusual living conditions than the lack of a ring road the government wants to plow through the trees.
Those who wish to live here must undergo a year of scrutiny – and must invest their money in homes that will remain city ownership.
Auroville receives some funding from the government, but it mobilizes most of its budget internally, from private foundations and donations.
Residents purify their own water, grow their own grain and make their own paper. Those who work in public services in Auroville earn a meager salary known as “maintenance.”
“These people want to be pragmatic,” Rhino Nyugi, a lifelong Orophilian, said of Ravi and her supporters. “But this is not a pragmatic place, this is a utopia.”
Some foreign residents said they fear Ms Ravi might deny them the bail they need to continue living in India if they fail to join her plans.
While the two sides seem far apart, some residents believe the solution may lie in the communal decision-making approach that was Auroville’s founding principle: consensus building.
Alan Bennett, Oroville city planner, said a group of community architects were thinking about how to integrate the place a mother imagined with the place that exists today through a process known as weaving dreams.
“Architects are trying to capture the poetry of seeing the galaxy as well as the reality of the Earth,” he said. “Those are the concepts they have to weave together.”
Returning to her treehouse, full of bird song and sunlight, Mrs. Park thought what a bulldozer had to do to save it.
Mrs. Park grew up in Oroville, picking lemons and swinging on the limbs of banyan trees. When she went briefly to live in Seoul, she wore her school uniform and followed a strict routine.
“Outside, it’s inevitable to buy trash, get rid of consumerism. It really frustrates you,” she said. “It’s easy to be a good human being here.”
As a freelance writer, I covered lifestyles, business, education, the arts, and entertainment. I have also ghostwritten articles, editorials, and annual reports for commercial and nonprofit executives.