An award controversy

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The Barefoot Architects of Tilonia decides to return the Aga Khan Award in protest against the revision of the citation by the Aga Khan Foundation giving much of the credit for the award-winning work to a Delhi-based architect.

THE Barefoot College Tilonia has decided to return the Aga Khan Award for architecture it received in October 2001, following an unseemly controversy. The $50,000 triennial prize was awarded to the barefoot architects of Tilonia, for their "exceptional contribution in building rainwater harvesting structures, homes for the homeless and the barefoot college campus" until one who felt left out from the titles asked for his share of the honour sometime early this year.

Sanjit Roy, the Director of the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), who is better known as Bunker Roy, and a small, close-knit fraternity of men and women at Tilonia, a model village in Rajasthan's Ajmer district, decided to return the award on July 3 as the Aga Khan Foundation changed the wordings of the original citation to include the name of Neehar Raina, a Delhi-based architect.

Mohammed Rafeek, one of the Barefoot Architects, receiving from the Aga Khan the citation with the eighth triennial Aga Khan Award for Architecture, in Aleppo, Syria, on November 6, 2001.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The cash-starved Tilonia has apparently made use of the money that came its way as award. Bunker Roy said that the award money would be returned in instalments. "Provided Raina too returns his citation," he said.

As for the three citations - one for Bhanwarlal Jat, one for Rafeek and one for Bunker Roy himself - and the trophy Tilonia received, Bunker Roy will soon carry them to Geneva. "I am going to drop them there in the Aga Khan Foundation office. I am doing my part of it," he said, while revealing that he is yet to hear from the Foundation.

This is perhaps the first time in the history of the prestigious Aga Khan Awards that anyone has returned the award. The Barefoot College was one of the nine recipients of the architectural awards in 2001. The Tilonia project was found exemplary by the master jury of the Award Foundation as it "augmented traditions and knowledge of a rural community, enabling untutored residents to design and build for themselves".

Bunker Roy now wants a debate on the barefoot concept, which is based on the traditional wisdom of the villages and on the capacity and resourcefulness of their common residents. "Who is a barefoot architect? The return of the award should provoke a debate. In this case the ideology of the Barefoot College has been misunderstood and misrepresented," he lamented.

"It had been an agonising decision but we have to keep our honour," Bunker Roy told Frontline. "There was no question of accepting Raina as the architect since he was a beginner and was still learning from the elders in the village. When Romi Khosla and Raina came down to Tilonia to discuss the issue with the men and women here in April this year we had agreed to acknowledge Raina as a designer but of course not as an architect," he observes.

The original citation, given away by the Aga Khan in person at a ceremony in Aleppo, Syria, on October 6, 2001, to Mohammed Rafeek and Anwar, two barefoot architects from Tilonia, carried the names of "an illiterate farmer from Tilonia (Bhanwarlal Jat) and 12 other barefoot architects". The text of the citation said: "The success of this approach is exemplified through the construction of the campus by an illiterate farmer from Tilonia along with 12 other barefoot architects, most of whom have no formal education." The revised version, now with Raina, reads, "A young architect, Neehar Raina, prepared the architectural layout, and an illiterate farmer from Tilonia, along with 12 other barefoot architects, constructed the buildings."

Bunker Roy said: "We disagree with the decision of the Aga Khan Foundation as we are unable to accept the claims of Raina about his own contributions and his disparaging description of the role played by our own barefoot architects."

Raina had worked with the Tilonia fraternity - which then included Bunker Roy's wife, the Magsaysay Award Winner Aruna Roy as well - for some time when the campus, on National Highway No.8, came up. He complained to the Aga Khan Foundation when he found that his name was missing in the citation. He also described the barefoot architects as masons and supervisors who merely executed the design he had prepared for the campus. In one of his letters to Jack Kennedy of the Aga Khan Foundation, Raina ridiculed the claim of Bunker Roy and his colleagues of having created the new campus of Tilonia as an attempt to "make a mockery of architectural profession as well as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture".

The complaint prompted the Foundation and the Delhi-based Council for Architecture to send a senior architect, Romi Khosla, to investigate. Khosla and Raina visited Tilonia in April last to hold an open meeting with Bunker Roy and other members of the group. At the meeting, which was videographed, Tilonia's people refused to acknowledge Raina as an architect but agreed to concede his role in the project as a designer.

Bunker Roy denies that Raina had a role in the construction of the rainwater harvesting structures or homes for the homeless. "His contribution was only in helping prepare an initial layout of the barefoot college campus. In this too, he vastly benefited from the knowledge and wisdom of the local people, including women," Bunker Roy said.

In a telephonic interview to Frontline from New Delhi, Neeher Raina, the man who triggered the controversy, said: "I feel very sad. It is unfortunate that the award has been returned. On my part I was only fighting to establish my role. Now that has been done, it is for the Foundation people to decide."

Raina, who worked in Tilonia during his formative years as an architect for a project funded by the Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART), was paid Rs.72,000 for his services. According to Raina the Tilonia project was like any other for a professional architect. He had prepared the designs in his office in Delhi after researching traditional architecture and locally available materials, Raina insisted.

Did the much decorated Tilonia, which brought a new self-esteem to the ordinary people and the deprived women of Rajasthan's semi arid tracts, overlook the role of the professional architect in the award-winning concept, behind the 250 homes and 350 rainwater harvesting structures? "We have not made any false claims or taken credit for work done or contributions made by others. We still believe that the original work was designed and executed by the barefoot architects and that the professional architect made his contribution only as a member of the total team, by making the blueprint in order to be able to receive government funding for the campus," Bunker Roy stated.

According to Bunker Roy, the barefoot architects, mostly illiterate or semi-literate persons, included rural women who had special knowledge of house building, particularly roofing. "It is an established practice in our society to ignore or leave unacknowledged the extraordinary contributions often made by 'ordinary' people. The whole class of people have thus remained invisible throughout history in spite of their brilliant creativity just because they were poor and illiterate," Bunker Roy said in one of his rare outbursts.

"The philosophy of the SWRC and the Barefoot College attempts to counter this trend and re-establish the genuine claims of these people without a voice," Bunker Roy added. Tilonia's barefoot philosophy spreads to a whole lot of human endeavours including, crafts, education and solar lighting. Tilonia has a number of night schools where village children, especially girls, learn by night after helping their parents in the fields or in the kitchen during the day.

"It is demystifying technology for the masses," Bunker Roy said about the community-managed systems of solar electrification, which generate 264 kw in eight States in the country. The Barefoot College in Tilonia, with solar panels that can generate 40 kw, is the only fully solar electrified college in the country.

THE Aga Khan Foundation is yet to respond to the episode. It has no office in this part of the country other than that of the Rural Support Foundation. "Absolutely nothing has been heard from their side after the announcement on returning the award," Bunker Roy said and added, "It is a shocked silence."

The uncertainty about the status of the award persists as Raina too does not know what will happen to the citation that he received once the original citations with Tilonia are returned. He now resorts to the logic that it is for the Aga Khan Foundation to decide. "They gave the award. They are now to decide," he said.

As such Raina never made any claims for the money given as part of the award. It was not for money but for recognition that he had fought for, he explained. "Not that I don't recognise Tilonia's work. But they should have recognised mine as well," he added.

After all the allegations, Raina has some praise for Bunker Roy. "Bunker has always been an inspiration. I have great respect for him," he notes. Yet this is not going to solve the dilemma of the Aga Khan Foundation as it cannot allow Raina to retain the citation once the rest of the recipients return it. It also cannot ask Raina to return his citation just because others did so. Again, what would be the status of the award if only one of the recipients holds it?

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