A Growing Problem?
The word ‘growth’ is one often bandied about by politicians and businessmen as the raison d’etre of all human societies. When they do so, they are almost always referring to the economy. Ever since Adam Smith crystallized the capitalist religion in his seminal The Wealth of Nations (1776) the idea of ‘more, more, more’ has itself grown to become the very bedrock of all consumer-capitalist economies. Advertisers tell us to consume more, and the middle-class belief that ‘we are what we own’ dominates societies from East to West.
When we consider transport, this trend is most apparent. In all countries on the rise economically, perceptions of class are reflected in our choices over transportation. If I own a motorbike, I am higher up the social chain than those who have to take the bus, cycle, or walk. If I own a car, then I’m superior to all those hoards of noisy motorcyclists.
However, there is one problem with this model of economic growth and value, when applied to personal transport. To put it simply, it doesn’t work. When almost everyone owns cars, as is the case in innumerable cities around the world, then those cars become useless. Traffic jams and air pollution are the bête noir of all modern industrialised countries. Virtually every car commercial shows a lone driver, heading out on the road to freedom, but the reality is that you will spend most of your time stuck in a line of traffic, watching the cyclists and pedestrians overtake you, as your blood pressure rises. The only tangible growth in this economic/industrial model is that it makes the owners of car manufacturing, construction and oil companies very rich. The overwhelming majority of the economic growth in the personal transport sector is theirs and theirs alone.
And yet we fall for this illusion time and again. Even in Auroville, a city dedicated to living in harmony with nature, the presence of cars is a rising problem. Heavy four wheelers kick up way more dust than two on our dirt roads, not to mention the oil-pollution, traffic, and parking problems that come along with increased car ownership both inside and outside the city. And then there’s the polemical argument that every time you fill up your petrol tank you are directly funding America’s oil wars and the concomitant rise in global terrorism (but let’s not even go there). If this much-lauded economic model of growth in production and consumption-ownership is the ultimate truth, then we are all going to hell in a handcart, and quickly.
But here I’ll let you into a little secret – Adam Smith didn’t know everything! There is a kind of growth that has tangible benefits to society and to the individual – and that is a growth in consciousness. Although spiritual in its essence, this kind of growth does manifest itself in the economic realm. The proliferation of Organic Farming and ‘Fair Trade’ produce in many countries demonstrates that a growing number of people can see value in things quite apart from a purely economic, monetary value – the wellbeing of our bodies, our farmers, our environment. These things are valuable to us, and we pay to protect them and invest in them.
Returning to the issue of transport, Auroville’s alternative transport systems and options are a manifestation of such consciousness-in-action. There are communal transport options that have been around for years, but the real and recent story is in electric transport. The move towards electric bikes and cycles began in Auroville about a decade ago, but right now it’s spreading like wildfire. (And before any petrolheads come out with the ‘electricity is generated by fossil-fuelled power stations too’ argument, virtually all of Auroville’s electrical power is generated via solar panels and wind turbines.)
For more than a decade, individual Aurovilians have been choosing electric motorbikes and scooters over petrol. Several guesthouses have e-bikes for visitors to use. But in the last two years, the number of e-bikes in Auroville has soared. Established in early 2018, the Integrated Transport Service (ITS) is located opposite the Solar Kitchen eatery and provides e-scooters for rent to Aurovilians and guests alike. Now in partnership with Mahindra Electric, the ITS also offers electric ride sharing and community transport solutions in the form of e-vans and electric rickshaws. At the time of writing, the ITS has 24 e-bikes to rent but they are buying more whenever they can. The demand, it seems, is endless.
Probably the most impressive manifestation of conscious transport solutions in Auroville is the Kinisi programme. In early 2017, the Kinisi team, led by Debabrata Sahoo (Debo) made a study of the transport needs of the average Aurovilian. ‘They typically travel within a radius of 8-10km per day’, Debo told me. He referred to this transport need as ‘micro mobility’. Therefore, why would someone need a car or gas-guzzling Enfield bike for daily use? After analyzing several options, the most economically viable and environmentally friendly solution appeared – e-cycles. These are bicycles with an electric motor, which can be used either for electric assisted pedaling, or fully electric (no need to pedal) mobility. Kinisi began designing e-cycles using imported Chinese motors and lithium batteries in the summer of 2017, and found Indian partners to build the cycles. The first handful of Kinisi e-cycles began trundling along Auroville’s roads in September of that year. Now there are close to 100 of them, and they come in several different models.
To return, briefly, to the ego-related transport issue above, Kinisi aims to break that illusion utterly. Instead of ‘will I look more cool on a 500cc Enfield or a TVS XL?’ Aurovilians were asked to consider what their basic transport needs actually are, and then how to meet those needs, while causing the least possible harm to the environment. Every month from September 2017, more and more people are choosing Kinisi e-cycles.
Moreover, Kinisi is not just an e-cycle rental facility. Anyone in Auroville (guest or resident) can rent, buy or even convert an existing bicycle to an e-cycle with Kinisi. But at the very heart of the enterprise is the Kinisi-In-kind-Mobility scheme (KIM). The KIM scheme aims to strike at the very roots of consumer capitalism. Nobody in the scheme actually owns their own e-cycle. For a small monthly fee, Aurovilians can receive a KIM e-cycle for their personal use, but it is owned and fully maintained by Kinisi, itself an asset of Auroville. There are none of the usual problems associated with ownership, such as the huge initial expense, and having to find and pay for regular servicing, repairing and replacement. Kinisi e-cycles are serviced regularly, batteries are replaced every 3 years and the entire cycle can be replaced every 6 years, if necessary. If and when a problem occurs, there is no time lost – Kinisi will replace the bike immediately while the other is being repaired.
Furthermore, nobody in the Kinisi programme makes any profit. All profits from the rental side of the business go straight into maintaining and expanding the KIM scheme. At the moment, demand for this anti-consumerist, environmentally friendly, community-conscious transport solution is out-stripping supply by more than 100%. Kinisi is constantly expanding their fleet, but every day more and more people want to be part of this revolutionary transport system.
Auroville was designed to be a living experiment, and every once in a while, ideas spring up that have huge ramifications for the rest of the world. Just as the early Aurovilians showed that all it took to transform a desert into a tropical forest was the will and the determination to do it, Kinisi has shown that a rapidly growing proportion of the population will choose conscious transport solutions when given the choice. We do need to express our egos through our transport choices. We do not need to feed the capitalist beast, or global pollution, through our transport choices. We can express a growth in consciousness in every area of our lives, and that growth in consciousness can move mountains.