The fight over illegal hoardings and banners in Mumbai in some sense takes me back to Simon and Garfunkel’s seminal song about urban dissonance, ‘Sounds of Silence’: “…and the people bowed and prayed, to a neon god they’d made,” goes a line which could be true of any megapolis, including this city.
Mind you, there is something thrilling and exciting about a city sky lit up by neon signs. Think, for instance of Tokyo’s Koshu Kaido area, made so famous by posters and signs of movies.
Or Piccadilly Circus in London and of course, perhaps the most famous of all, New York’s Times Square where I spent a couple of hours recently.
Mumbai has its fair quota of this, and I dare say it lends the city a character which is different from any other in the country. The stretch from Nariman Point to Walkeshwar, to name one promenade, with neon lights brightening the horizon is a sight that has dazzled me from childhood.
Neon signs, hoardings, banners, wall graffiti are now considered essentials of urban art. In many ways, they define a city’s culture and its ethos. Of course they can be as ugly as they are amusing or exhilarating, but that’s how a city speaks for itself.
The problem is of beauty and legality; and when the law is being callously bent to spoil the façade of the city, it becomes really serious. In Mumbai’s case, there is no doubt that the situation had spiralled out of control with hoardings and some remedial action had become imperative.
In the past, the worst sights of Mumbai were the slums and the destitute and homeless sleeping on pavements.
If you arrived by air, slums were the introduction to the city and could be seen long before the plane landed; if you came by train, it was not much different except that these settlements were that much closer.
In recent years, however, I believe the real eyesore has been how hoardings have come to inundate every nook and corner of the city. Slums, jhuggies, pavement dwellers and beggars one can rationalise as a socio-economic problem compounded by poor politics.
But illegal hoardings and banners filled are an abomination. They not only mar the beauty of the city, such as it can be, but are also an exploitation of the citizenry by unscrupulous, self-seeking people in conjunction with a lax civic authority.
It is not uncommon, for instance, to find birthday greetings to political leaders, religious leaders, social organisation heads, businessmen etc being put up by their minions and sycophants.
Often, I understand, these hoardings/banners are sponsored by the person who himself is being felicitated!
As it happens, one banner sparks off scores of others as rivals make it a game of one-upmanship. In one part of Kherwadi sometime last year, I counted 22 banners of different political parties, several of them obscuring the view of residents from their buildings or blocking the pavements. How many of them were legal hoardings is a moot point.
The fact that 5000-plus were pulled down from across the city last week suggests that the problem is endemic and the Bombay high court has to be commended for its strict stand which has sent the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) scurrying to carry out its orders.
Why things should come to such pass is well-known – political patronage and cowardly or corrupt municipal staff. As with the hawkers of Mumbai, we seem unable to find a balance between useful and intrusive.
Now that the high court has shown a way, it is up to citizens to be vigilant that there is no relapse of the malaise.