The government has accused top officers at the COA, India’s apex architectural body, of criminal misconduct. Brijesh Pandey tracks the issues as the CBI investigates
IN A move that could change the face of the study and practice of architecture in India, the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) has recommended a CBI probe against the president, registrar and four members of the executive committee of the Council of Architecture (COA). The COA is a regulatory body constituted by the Architects Act of 1972, which accredits and licenses educational institutions to teach architecture in India. Moreover, every architect working in India has to be registered with the COA.
letter to the CBI dated August 27, 2009 (DO No. C-1301168/2009-Vig) — from the Joint Secretary and Chief Vigilance Officer (CVO) of the MHRD, Sunil Kumar — requested the investigation of six top officials of the COA, namely, the President, Vijay Sohoni, the Registrar, Vinod Kumar and four members of the Executive Committee: KB Mohapatra, Uday C Godkari, IJS Bakhsi and Prakash Deshmukh. In the letter (a copy of which is with TEHELKA) the Joint Secretary alleges that:
• People at the helm of affairs of the COA are misusing the authority of the Council to levy fees that are not authorised by the Architects Act.
• Institutions that refuse to pay the unauthorised fees are being threatened with de-recognition.
• Council memberships and COA executive committee memberships are being manipulated and members are being allowed to continue beyond their terms.
• Prestigious institutions such as the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), NIT Patna, the Lucknow College of Architecture and the Chandigarh College of Architecture are singled out for punishment, while private Institutes such as Chitkara Institute in Punjab and the Piloo Mody College of Architecture in Orissa are given preferential treatment by these individuals despite having inferior facilities and fewer, less qualified faculty.
Regulate the education in and practice of architecture
Maintain a list of accredited architects
Ensure minimum educational standard of architecture
Recommend official recognition and de-recognition of architectural institutes
The letter states bluntly that the preferential treatment of private institutes suggests that bribes have been paid to those named above. Letters written by Anjali Bhawar, vice-chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar (GNDU) and Kamal Singh Chahal, head of GNDU’s Department of Architecture to the MHRD seem to corroborate this. Bhawar writes that while an expert committee of the COA had allowed GNDU to admit 40 students to the architecture course, the Executive Committee of the same Council refused to accept the recommendation of its own expert committee. Chahal’s letter reveals that while GNDU had declared 14 faculty members in the prescribed form submitted to the COA, that figure was mysteriously reduced to 10 in the COA’s report. The Joint Secretary states that this was done “perhaps to show private institutes that if the COA wasn’t sparing government institutions, private institutions had better fall in line and cough up money” to avoid de-recognition.
THE HEADS of the department of two premier architectural institutes stated on condition of anonymity that the Council uses frequent inspections and the threat of de-recognition to extort and intimidate. On top of that, institutes have been charged exorbitant fees by the COA for inspections and for periodic extensions of recognition. The prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia, for example, was charged a whopping Rs 40,000 for a three-day inspection in 2008. While the law provides for an inspection once in five years (without permitting the COA to charge for them), several premier institutes faced yearly COA inspections, while, for arbitrary reasons, other institutes escaped. After several complaints to the MHRD, Deputy Secretary Harvinder Singh admitted on March 16, 2009 that the COA could not take money for inspections or for the extension of recognition and asked the COA to adhere to the five-year interval between inspections. Significantly, former COA Vice-President Vijay Uppal wrote in October 2005 to the MHRD, objecting against Sohoni’s role in appointing inspectors and approving their reports, but to no avail.
Prestigious institutes threatened with de-recognition
Unauthorised demands worth crores from educational institutes
Council membership/tenure manipulated
Allegations of criminal misconduct made against president of the council
And where did all this money go? Shockingly, according to Prof SM Akhtar, the HoD of Architecture, Jamia Millia Islamia, “There has never been an audit of the funds of the COA.” The Architects Act clearly states that the COA has to go through an annual audit.
Another instance which has had universities and the COA at loggerheads is the National Aptitude Test for Architecture (NATA). The COA declared that from 2007, the NATA would not only be mandatory for all institutes, but exclusive as well. In other words, institutes would be forced to discontinue any other entrance examinations or procedures they had in place and accept candidates who passed the NATA. Significantly, the NATA is a computer-based test, a fact which would have made the manipulation of results extremely easy to commit and difficult to detect. Premier institutes such as the SPA, the JJ College of Arts, Mumbai, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Roorkee, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jadavpur University were up in arms at this, claiming that forcing them to use the NATA alone would dilute their high entrance standards. Unfazed, the COA asked the MHRD to de-recognise the SPA and 19 other premier institutes. When TEHELKA spoke to Vijay Sohoni about this, he said, “I had to act only because these so-called premier institutes have an abysmal student-teacher ratio. We look at facts and figures rather than the prestige of the institution.” After a fierce legal battle, the de-recognition of the institutes was lifted and the NATA no longer made an exclusive entrance test.
For a stickler for rules and someone so seemingly particular about de-recognition, Sohoni is curiously lax when it comes to himself. One of the most damning allegations in Kumar’s letter to the CBI is that while the Vidya Vardhan Institute of Design Environment and Architecture, Goa, of which Sohoni is the president, is shown on the COA’s website as an institute affiliated to the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), the Vice-Chancellor of IGNOU has categorically denied any such affiliation. Kumar states bluntly that this amounts to cheating the public. The letter states that since “Sohoni is fleecing the students by collecting fees though the college is not recognised as per the Architects Act, the position of the President of the COA is thus being misused by him with criminal intent.”
Unauthorised Fees Would Be Charged By The COA For Inspections And Recognition
However, when confronted with these allegations by TEHELKA, Sohoni denied them all. He rubbished charges of financial irregularity and stated, “I haven’t even received any complaint. The mandate of the COA is to ensure that there should be no compromise on the quality of architectural education, regardless of the name and fame of the institute. We take action only when there is a fall in the mandated student-faculty ratio. If the ministry has received any complaint, they should come to us, but sadly, this was not done.”
Ever since the CBI began its investigation into the case in the first week of September, there is a huge sense of relief among architects and at various schools of architecture. They believe that this investigation will ensure that instead of being focused on placating a rampant COA, they can now concentrate on architecture in India.