Dr Anahita Pandole smiled at the news she read in October this year. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which she had taken on first in 2002 over illegal and unauthorised hoardings and posters, had told the Bombay high court that it had removed 4,800 of them across Mumbai in the two preceding months. It had also filed nearly 100 complaints to the police, many of which should result in First Information Reports (FIRs).
It has been a long battle for Pandole and her lawyers, starting with the redoubtable Iqbal Chagla, who first filed the Public Interest Litigation (PIL), but the gynaecologist is undeterred. The endless tracking of the case and trips to the high court are worth the outcome, which is to have a city free of hoardings, banners and posters, and have the BMC follow the law.
The high court ordered back then that the BMC must not allow hoardings, advertisements and boards, unless it strictly adheres to the required provisions of the Mumbai Municipal Act 1888, Motor Vehicles Act 1988 and the guidelines issued by the BMC, failing which licences should be revoked and hoardings be removed immediately. “However, the BMC continues to conveniently ignore the court orders even today, as we still see hundreds of illegal hoardings that violate norms,” Pandole said.
Pandole’s battle is far from over, but she takes some satisfaction in the fact that Mumbaiites are now sufficiently awakened to the eyesores that hoardings and posters are, and alert enough to take initiative on their own, to have them taken down. Citizens have pointed out and taken action when they saw trees being poisoned or cut down to make way for hoardings and posters. This general awareness is her victory, Pandole said.
It’s a long way from when Mumbai’s public places were plastered with hoardings, banners and posters of all kinds, mostly political and religious, and most of them illegal. Worse, the city’s heritage structures were blemished by such hoardings, obscuring their Gothic and Victorian attributes. Pandole’s battle had as much to do with urban design principles as it did with the BMC flouting the law. Even as she got the court to tackle the latter, the former was taken care of.
The BMC’s lackadaisical attitude brings on the court’s ire. This year, for instance, the court was not satisfied with the civic body’s complaint system on the number 1916, and asked for more. The BMC was forced to install two toll-free lines, 1292 and 1293, for citizens to dial to report hoardings, banners and posters. “It’s a continuing fight. It took me one year to have a hoarding removed near a religious place,” Pandole said.
For the unassuming gynaecologist, the battle against hoardings and the need to follow a policy started one morning when she was on her way to work. She saw that a tree was being chopped down. A hoarding had taken its place the following day. Aghast at the mindless action and its recurrence across the city, Pandole wrote to the BMC. The letters, typically, were not even acknowledged.
Pandole then resolved to take action. Her friend and noted lawyer Iqbal Chagla turned her resolve into a litigation that most people initially believed was a frivolous cause. Over the years, Pandole’s battle – lawful, quiet and dignified – has found a resonance with Mumbaiites who have noticed and acted upon the illegal hoardings, banners and posters in their areas.
A majority of these happen to be religious hoardings which are often surreptitiously put up during festivals, while the BMC continues to look the other way. Worse, most such hoardings are more about self-promotion of small-time political leaders in a locality, than extolling any deity. The political hoardings constitute the second-largest segment.
Her PIL continues to bring shocking facts to light, every once in a while. In 2009, a court appointed committee found that 892 of the 1,971 hoardings were illegal. Worse, as many as 750 trees had been cut to make way for the hoardings.
The battle has become a part of her daily routine. When she is out commuting for work or leisure, Pandole stops her car to take pictures of illegal hoardings. She has more than a lakh such pictures, crowding her clinic. The genteel doctor’s clinic now resembles a lawyer’s office, with thousands of court documents and official letters stacked up. This one encroachment Pandole does not mind, but she wishes freeing the city’s landscape of illegal hoardings was not such a long and continuing battle.