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Who should be in charge?

Design

The cause of the conflict between government and the Indian Council of Architecture runs far deeper than a few un-registered architects, as Deepali Nandwani uncovers.

The recent controversy involving the Indian Council of Architecture (CoA) and the Union Human Resource Development (UHRD) Ministry apparently began over a rather unexciting point of bureaucracy.

The Ministry, in a nationwide survey conducted last year, found that many Indian architects were functioning without licenses. Under the Architects Act, 1972, every architect has to register with the Council to work or practise in the country. The Ministry sent a warning note to the Council. The CoA subsequently sent notices to over 11,000 architects and stripped 9,800 of their architect tags.
 

But there are signs that this was just a minor symptom of a much more serious issue – the jockeying for power over India’s architectural domain.
 
Many believe that the recent squabble lies in the CoA’s desire to recapture its role within the architectural agenda and the government’s efforts to obstruct them.

An insider says that the Council, which, under The Architects Act, 1972, is obliged to take government nominees on its board, has been fighting for more autonomy.

“There is a lot of pressure from the government. They not only want to take a call on appointing their own representatives, but even want to tell us who we should take on from the IIA and architectural institutions,” the insider says. “It hampers decision-making.”

As a result, the Council has been accused of blocking the renominations of various ministry officials to its board, despite a requirement to include elected and government-nominated representatives.

But from where does all this tit-for-tat quarrelling stem?
First of all, there are major concerns within the Council over how architecture is taught. According to the insider, the UHRD Ministry is looking to tighten its grip on architecture colleges.

It recently transferred the functions of regulating architecture education from the CoA to the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), which now regulates all technical education. The only mandate left with the CoA is to regulate the “profession of architecture.”

As a result, the architect community threw up its arms, not least because the CoA’s powers were cut not through a legislative amendment, but by terminating a decade-old arrangement that existed between the AICTE and CoA through a memorandum of understanding.

Now, it is the AICTE that decides whether a new architecture college can be set up, whether the approval granted to an existing college can be extended, and whether the number of students admitted in a particular college can be increased.

Besides demanding the transfer of all powers back to the council, CoA members also want architecture education to be separated from engineering education. Right now, there are more than 100 architecture schools in India. Most of them are attached to an engineering college or an arts college and very few of them function autonomously or can take independent decisions on the curriculum they want to teach.

Recently, Vijay Sohoni, CoA’s president, suggested that schools of architecture be turned into full universities and run free of any government interference. “There have been efforts to downgrade some schools to a university department and the Council does not support such a move. There are conflicts because what is prescribed for architecture is different from what is prescribed for engineering,” he says.

Many architects agree with the Council’s demands. Kolkata-based Pranav Mehta of Millennium Architects says: “The council and the architecture schools need to have the freedom to make their own decisions. The teaching methods, coursework, types of assessment should be decided by us rather than the government representatives.”

According to Delhi architect Prem Kumar Jha, who was once a serving member in the CoA, Indian architecture colleges continue to teach a very old curriculum, which is out of context in today’s age.

“Students require more interaction with professionals, but there are often restrictions placed by the government on who we can invite as the visiting faculty. It would be better if architectural institutions began working under the direct control of the Council.” 

The other issue on which the Council and the government are at loggerheads is the demand from the former to allow architects to work as promoters of companies. Simply put, large architectural studios in India want to partner with real estate firms to develop big commercial and residential properties as a way to offset the economic downturn.

But for this, they require CoA’s approval – which, under current law, it cannot give. The Architects Act, 1972, does not permit architects to practice and simultaneously take up ‘promoter’ or ‘contract’ work. They are allowed to either practise their craft or become entrepreneurs.

“Unless an enabling clause is included in the Council norms, architects cannot become entrepreneurs,” says Mahesh Vaswani, a former regional vice-chairman of IIA. “But the government isn’t ready. They say professionals like doctors and architects cannot work as entrepreneurs, which is a very old-world view.”

Internationally, he adds, many architects double up as entrepreneurs and work on developing huge infrastructure and real estate projects.

The conflict between CoA and the HRD ministry on these and such issues has led to the council rejecting the re-nomination of several state government nominees, as well as the central government nominee, despite a requirement to do so.

The latest to be shown the door was the central government nominee from the HRD Ministry. In the warning letter sent out to the CoA last month, the Ministry pointed out that many of its members are not being invited to meetings, the agenda wasn’t being sent to them and the minutes of the meetings were not available.

Terming it as an “an attempt to block the central government role,” the letter states: “All of a sudden, CoA is questioning the legitimacy of this ministry. It gives an apprehension… that there may be a hidden agenda for this about turn.”

Maharashtra’s chief architect Bipin Sankhe, whose re-nomination has been rejected by CoA, says: “The state government has written to the council twice. It insists a new member be nominated stating there has been a break in my term, though I attended meetings even after my first term ended.”

According to another CoA member from another state, the Council’s arbitrary handling of finances had affected the professional set-up and the architectural institutes. “I have completed only two terms and my state government has written to them thrice, but they have not called me for any meeting for almost a year,” he maintains.

The CoA contends that there is no reason for the ministry to assume it has authority over the Council. Vinod Kumar, CoA’s registrar, says: “We have asked the HRD Ministry to produce any copy of the order of the President of India, which states that the Ministry is in charge of the Council.”

In this tug-of-war between the council and the government of India, the architects stand firmly by the council. “Maybe it’s time the Indian government realised that professionals should be left alone to manage their own affairs and regulate themselves, instead of having big daddy on their heads telling them what to do,” says Ahmedabad-based architect Bipin Shah who runs S+A Associates. 

Where this argument goes from here will depend on whether the communication lines between the two parties are opened fully, or further muddied with accusations and political manoeuvrings. 

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