The beginning of SAIIER

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The beginning of SAIIER[1]

By Alain Bernard

It will be soon 30 years that SAIIER exists, as it was founded on 28th February 1984. Maybe it is a good moment to recall the beginnings, particularly at the moment when SAIIER will finally enter into its own premises. But first, how did the name given to the Institute, Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research, came about?

The name SAIIER was not just invented by us Aurovilians looking for an appropriate name for our collective educational ventures. It was proposed by Kireet Joshi who was then Special Secretary in charge of Higher Education in the Ministry of Education at the Centre. He did not invent it either: quite a few years before, when he was the registrar of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) in the Ashram, The Mother at one point had suggested changing the name of the Centre into Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research (SAIIER). For various reasons, mostly legalistic, the change was never made, but Kireet kept preciously the name, hoping to be able to use it.

The occasion came when, shortly after the end of the Supreme Court case, in November 1982, which validated the intervention of the Central Government in the affairs of Auroville, Kireet begun to look more closely to issues of development for Auroville. And naturally, one of his main preoccupations was to promote the development of all educational activities in Auroville. A first grant was sanctioned in the year 1983-84 for a “Last School Programme” regrouping more or less all the existing educational activities. Then a suggestion was made to create a new institution to further develop and enlarge these activities. At the level of the Central Government, there was a good opportunity to get this proposal sanctioned as the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had wanted to create a big educational institution under the name of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry. On its side, Pondicherry had requested the setting of a Central University in its territory. The Prime Minister had agreed and wanted that it should be named after Sri Aurobindo. This created a strong reaction from the part of some local groups. Then the Prime Minister just dropped the proposal. A few years later, Kireet Joshi suggested to Indira Gandhi to establish a big educational institution named after Sri Aurobindo in Auroville and to allow the Central University to be built in Pondicherry. She accepted but further directed that the Institution in Auroville should be conceived on a large scale.

On February 21st 1984, The Mother’s birthday, a trust under the name of Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational research (SAIIER) was registered and on 28th February, Auroville’s birthday, the Institute was founded at 4.30 pm in the afternoon. A stone carried by Baldev Mahajan, the then closest collaborator of Kireet in Delhi, was set by children on a piece of land that would be part of the first campus to be built. One of the best astrologers of India established the theme of SAIIER and predicted that the new institution will be successful in its future undertakings. One of the previsions was that it would always find good financial support. This has proven to be true so far during these nearly 30 years of SAIIER’s existence. In fact, just after the turn of this century, SAIIER has become the main channel of funds from the Government for schools and activities related to education in Auroville.

The secretariat for the new institution continued to be in the Bharat Nivas. In fact it had been already established for the administration of the Last School Programme, which was the first educational grant sanctioned by the government prior to SAIIER. And for nearly thirty years it remained in the Bharat Nivas as it is only now, at the end of 2013, that the SAIIER secretariat moves in new premises near the Auroville Foundation office. Of course, at that time, SAIIER was sharing the space with other institutions like Auromitra, Auroville Trust, etc. It was really the main secretariat for Auroville at large. Besides the SAIIER secretariat with Alain, Bhagwandas and Djaia (now Gangalakshmi) and two accountants, there were at that time people like Michael T. (Auromitra) and Judith (Auroville Trust) who were regularly sitting in this secretariat with some administrative staff. It was in fact very helpful as, at that time, Auroville finances were quite challenging and there were frequent problems of cash flow which, today, look like distant memories in our well developed Financial Service. I must say that there was a nice spirit of mutual help.

SAIIER was then getting grants under a special scheme which had been developed after a visit of Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India, to the Centre of Education of the Ashram towards the end of the 50s. Nehru was quite impressed by what he saw and, shortly afterwards, requested the Education Minister to conceive a scheme to support such valuable experiments in the field of non-formal education. SAIIER continued to receive grants under that scheme till the early 2000s. Then a Central Government Visiting Committee came to evaluate a large 5-year grant proposal and they recommended the creation of a specific scheme for SAIIER and Auroville. It resulted in a substantial increase of funding from the Central Government.

From the beginning, in the spirit of educational research, all participants in the activities of SAIIER were considered as researchers in education and were eligible for a maintenance, which proved to be a great support for the then quite limited Auroville budget. In the first SAIIER grant for the year 1984-85 there were also funds for equipment for various educational activities and schools as well as funds, including for purchase of about 6 acres of land, to begin the creation of a first educational campus, which will become Transition. During the first years, the grant for equipment was often received very late and had to be spent before the end of the financial year. I remember once, it came like on March 25th and everything had to be done by March 31st. It meant that a lot of preparation had to be carefully done beforehand, having collected all the necessary quotations, etc. As there was a good spirit of cooperation, it usually went well. Fortunately, for construction, it was possible to request an extension of the period beyond the end of the financial year but we had to be careful not to delay too much as it could affect the next construction grant.

One of the special features of these first years were the seminars held in Delhi for the preparation of educational material. These research seminars were also sponsored by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (ICPR), of which Kireet was Member–Secretary. It meant organizing the travel by train (no cheap air travel possibilities at that time!) and stay in Delhi of quite a large group of Aurovilians researchers. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) campus with its various hostels offered quite a bit of special experiences as some designated hostels prove to be quite inhabitable but, fortunately, it was generally possible to find accommodation in the same campus in some better hostels close-by. The timings of the working sessions held in the residence of Kireet Joshi at Talkatora Road were quite variable as the convenor was obliged to juggle his many obligations as Special Secretary to find time to meet us. The atmosphere of these seminars was usually very good and stimulating and I believe that most of the participants have kept fond memories of these special moments. And there was an output as the three first research books published by SAIIER, The Aim of Life, The Good Teacher and the Good Pupil and Mystery and Excellence of the Human Body, were largely the result of the work done during these seminars.

The administrative organisation was quite informal. Basically, as I believe it is still the case today, each unit of SAIIER was autonomous and self-organising, with only a few basic rules, mostly concerned with accounting, expected to be respected, particularly in view of the fact that quite a big chunk of SAIIER funds were coming from Central Government grants. It is now a routine event when auditors of the CAG come every year to control the consolidated accounts of the Auroville Foundation but it was not for us when SAIIER became in 1985 or 1986 the first and, for a few years, the only unit whose accounts were yearly controlled by the CAG. Fortunately, we did not meet with problems and I still remember the nice head of the first CAG accounting team telling me that our accounts, although generally good, were not perfect but they were satisfied that the funds were well and properly used. He went on to say that in some cases the accounts of some institutions are so perfect that their experience make them suspect fraud even if they are unable to prove it, much to their frustration! I owe a debt to Toine for his early advice, in view of the large grants which were likely to come, to get a good professional accounting team to make sure that accounts are well maintained. Toine went further and did help to find the right people such as Sugumaram with a qualification level of chartered accountant and his assistant Manovalam. Important human qualities of Sugumaram were a keen sense of humour as well as good diplomatic skills, which help him navigate smoothly the sometimes treacherous waters of interaction with many Aurovilians.

There were regular meetings of representatives of the various units in which were discussed matters concerning the Institute at large, discussions about research projects or educational orientation, or for the preparation of grant requests, or reports, or any problems concerning several units. And also discussions about the necessary discipline in accounting matters with Government funds. I still remember the dismay of several participants in one of those early meetings when the administrative team (Bhagwandas, Djaia and myself) said that no funds would be released for equipment unless 3 quotations for each piece above Rs 5,000 (at that time, quite an amount!) were presented. We argued that quotations were so much easier to obtain before purchase than after but quite a few faces of the participants were telling me that they were not convinced and were feeling oppressed by so much bureaucracy!

The main building activity in these early years was concentrated upon the setting up of the Transition campus. Besides securing the land (6 acres) and creating some infrastructure (water and gardens), year after year, quite a few buildings emerged (small individual classrooms plus some larger facilities) including what remains for me the most beautiful water tank ever made in Auroville. Piero and Gloria were the architects in charge and were working closely with the teachers and other Aurovilians involved in the Transition project. Luigi was then doing the landscaping and gardens. We were working mostly with Pierre Elouard as the contractor (they had offices nearby in Bharat Nivas, of which Cristo was taking care). A nice cooperation with Pierre went on for quite a few years.

I have to conclude this brief recollection of how it was at the beginning of SAIIER by saying that I keep fond memories of these years, which gave me also the privilege of working closely with Kireetbhai in Delhi. In fact every year I had to spend months there to speed up the processes of grants release. In those days, it was not like now where somehow the amount allocated to the Auroville Foundation is kind of statutory, including the funds for SAIIER. Then the files had to go step by step from bottom to top, which is time–consuming. Despite the known support of the highest authority in the Department of Higher Education, that authority (Kireetbhai) insisted that everything had to be properly authorized at every level and every eventual objection met. (It did prove salutary years later when in-depth enquiries by the CBI, following trumped-up allegations of misuse of funds, concluded that the allegations were totally unfounded). So I had to be quite often in Delhi and the day-to-day administration of SAIIER was then in the hands of Bhagandas and Djaia and the accounting team. It worked very well in an atmosphere of mutual confidence and support. Of course the SAIIER of today is much larger and diverse than in the earlier years, reflecting the scope and variety of the many educational experiments that continue to develop in Auroville.

October 2013

  1. Originally published on Auronet on October 11, 2013