Monday, October 19, 2009

Keeping it legal

It seems that every Ananda community, whether in Assisi, California, Seattle or India, must deal with the problems of government regulations, bureaucratic oversight, difficult neighbors and legal hurdles. Things are no different in Pune although I find the form these take here to be more entertaining (or exasperating) than I’ve been accustomed to expect.

For the last year we’ve been working to receive permission to build a community with multiple uses on land that is reserved solely for agriculture. Since the concept of “community” as we use it is not familiar to local planners, we sometimes employ the term “institute,” even though all the locals simply say we are building an ashram, a term everyone knows and accepts. We’ve had to first establish an Ananda Sangha Trust in the state of Maharashtra (no small task), transfer our property ownership into this entity, consolidate our land holdings into one unit, define the official boundaries and then apply to the appropriate commissions for zone changes. It all seems so cut and dry on the surface but it’s only now, after one year of work, that we are taking our official submissions. In the meantime, our development has been constrained by local, village requirements, meaning that we can construct no more than 4000 sq. ft. of building space. Anything more must be designed in such a way as to be considered “temporary”.

It’s amazing what is considered temporary. It's such a loose term that just about anything could potentially qualify. It seems that the primary consideration is whether a building has a standard, permanent foundation dug into the ground with a solid roof over it. This is why the monks have built on concrete posts and pillars. Rammed earth buildings are “temporary” because they can be pushed over if necessary. I imagine a wood frame building on piers like those found in America, whatever its size, would be considered temporary because everyone knows those things won’t last beyond a lifetime. It could be argued that everything is ultimately temporary, so why worry about it? That argument might work on the village level, but because we are doing something broader, we have to proceed in a way that also satifies the higher scrutiny of officials in Pune. That’s a lot tougher.

You may have heard of Tip O’Neill’s quote, “All politics is local.” Doing a construction project in a small village in the countryside of India has reminded me of the truth of that statement. You may aim to change the world, but first you need to fix the neighborhood path. The other day I got a call telling me that someone had decided to dig, in protest, a trench across our road so as to block traffic. Road blocking is a familiar, local tactic. If you are upset, you block someone’s road and make angry threats in a very loud voice. He was sending a message that “he wasn’t going to take it anymore!” Unfortunately, I had no idea what our neighbor was so mad about, but after a little digging, it turned out that he and his wife were angry with the fellows who had originally built the road five years ago. They had failed to pay them for a small corner of their property crossed by the road. The villager had now decided that it was our job to resolve this for him. Did he ask us for help? Did he come and talk to us first? Of course not! He simply dug up the road. That’s how things work here.

Since the wife worked as a laborer on Swami’s house, I asked to speak with her. I reasoned, I complained, I appealed, I waved my arms and threatened dire consequences. No luck. She and her husband simply said they would continue to dig up the road unless they received satisfaction ($$$). Eventually, a nephew appeared to argue on their behalf. He looked like a Bollywood thug. A crowd gathered to enjoy the scene, multiple phone calls were placed until finally Amol (an Ananda Sangha Trustee in Pune) counter-threatened to stop the entire project and lay everyone off for a month if the road damage continued. This got everyone’s attention and brought an end to the argument. Stopping work was serious and the couple could ill afford to be the cause of their neighbors’ loss of wages. We soon came to an agreement. We would intercede with the previous owners on the couple’s behalf in an attempt to resolve their problem. They, on their part, would cease being a nuisance and repair the road. We had to go through this entire drama to reach an agreement that could have easily been achieved if they had simply come and talked to us first. But, the villagers aren’t used to dealing with common problems in any other way.

It wasn’t ten minutes after the road issue was resolved that I noticed a bunch of cleanly dressed, mustachioed men with sunglasses talking to our backhoe driver. You can easily spot the Indian politician and government official. This fellow and his henchmen had come from the talathi’s office to shut down our construction work because we hadn’t received the proper permissions from his office, or so he claimed. (The “talathi” is like the tax collector and registrar of government records. In India, it’s a prized post because of the many fees that pass through his office, making wealthy whoever holds the position.) To every assertion by the talathi, Biraj calmly explained in his broken Hindi that we were perfectly within our rights and no such permissions were necessary. "Toddle along, old chap and let us be." The fellow became increasingly frustrated by our lack of submissiveness to his position until he finally puffed himself up and asserted in English, “I AM GOVERNMENT!!”

After fifteen minutes of back and forth dickering (He making demands and we playing non-comprehending simpletons.), we called our attorneys. They quickly pointed out to this fellow that he was totally mistaken and that he should ask his supervisor to show him all the papers we had already submitted. The attorneys knew that no bureaucratic subordinate in his right mind in India would ever ask his boss for such a thing because it was highly likely the supervisor didn’t know the legalities or had ever read whatever documents had been submitted. He didn't do such things and that such a request would only cause embarrassment. This was something a subordinate could never do. To save the inspector from having to approach his supervisor, our attorneys volunteered to provide him with photocopies of everything in ten days. In this way, no one would lose face and the inspector would then be in the clear. He was now happy.

All the while this was going on, I could see one of the henchmen making surreptitious gestures toward me. He wanted to convey something, so afterward, when the above negotiations ended, he let me know through our labor foreman that the talathi had visited us at this particular time because was hoping for a “gift”, this being the season of Diwali when the giving of gifts is customary. I sent back an inquiry about what type of “gift” the talathi had in mind. “American googles (sunglasses), a baseball cap and some cash would do nicely.” After all, it was the day before Diwali.

Two weeks ago, Arjuna Lucki arrived from Italy to offer his help with our construction projects. Arjuna is one of the leaders of our Assisi center with extensive construction experience, he being the driving force behind the creation of our beautiful Temple of Light in Assisi and the temple/dining room/kitchen at the Expanding Light. He came to Pune with the thought of helping us finish Swami Kriyananda’s house but quickly realized there is little for him do to directly speed that project along. For now, it’s mostly in the hands of our contractor. Knowing of Arjuna’s fondness for temples, I suggested he help us erect a simple, temporary mandir (temple) we had been hoping to build before the end of the year. We need something to last us for a few years until we can afford to build a more substantial building and had been thinking of a pandal (tent). It was just the right project to get Arjuna excited and, as suspected, it wasn’t long before thoughts of a simple pandal had expanded into a pavilion with a blue mosaic-covered, ferro-cement roof shaped similarly to that of the temple in Assisi. To keep it within our budget, the sides would be open or closed with canvas. (See photo.)

As Arjuna and I were talking over the design with our local architect, a thought kept going through my mind, “How in the world are we going to justify this as a ‘temporary’ building?” We arranged a meeting with our attorneys and presented them with the dilemma. “Tell me again. What is this building for?” they asked. “It’s a place for satsang, puja, meditation and that sort of thing.” Hmmm. Thinking. Big smile. “No problem. It’s a mandir (temple)! Here’s what you do. Make a picture of what the mandir will look like when finished and put it on a big banner. In big letters, have a name for the mandir on the banner, something that clearly identifies it as a religious place. Dhyanmandir, or something like that. Place this at the site, and at the bottom, put our mobile numbers so that if anyone shows up asking questions, they can call us. Don’t say anything if officials come. Just have them call us. Oh, and one more thing. Make sure to start the project with a big puja to which all the local people are invited and hand out lots of sweets after. You won’t have a problem.”

We haven’t tried this yet, but maybe this is what we’ll do. We’re still thinking about it. In India, if you want to build a temple, it’s hard for anyone to object. You see temples everywhere and in the most unlikely of places. If someone gets inspired, they erect a temple without bothering with government regulations. That’s just how it is.

Arjuna has now returned to Italy for a couple of weeks to take care of personal business before returning in time to start this project in November. I’m hoping he’ll have a chance to show the design to Swamiji for his feedback. If everything goes well and we can squeeze enough money out of our limited budget, we hope to finish our “temporary” temple within a couple of months.

As you can tell, we have a lot on our plate. When it will be completed is anyone’s guess but we’re hoping to have Swami’s house habitable by the end of the year. “Habitable” doesn’t mean completely finished but we should have the inside working. We won’t have the staffs’ quarters done and landscaping will still need lots of work, but no doubt we’ll be far enough along to begin thinking of what comes next. Retreat? Flats? There will always be something.

Much joy to everyone,


(PS: If you would like to help us manifest our new mandir, you can contact me at my normal email address or at for information about how you can contribute.)