Should there be a ban on hoardings?
Policy reforms are hard to come by, but when they do, they are singular moments of victory marking sweeping change: reversing an existing regressive norm, or introducing a progressive new one. In the past few months alone, we have seen the critical role played by the courts in catalysing such reforms — from privacy issues to the recent LGBT ruling. While these are large constitutional issues of civil rights and freed`oms, the courts play a critical role in more mundane battles too.
In Bengaluru, for example, over the past few weeks, a high court division bench has set in motion a flurry of activity on reforming outdoor advertising in the city. A series of court orders in August 2018 directed the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (Bengaluru Municipal Corporation, BBMP) to “remove all illegal hoardings, flexes and banners, as well as prevent their re-occurrence so as to ensure Bengaluru becomes a flex-free, poster-free, plastic-free city”.
The order was triggered by offences reported under the Karnataka Open Spaces Prevention of Disfigurement Act of 1981, and the ban on plastics by the Karnataka department of forest ecology and environment. The divisional bench has been unsparing in its criticism of the municipal corporation’s perceived inaction on the matter, and the BBMP has responded with two commitments: first, speedy action on removal of illegal hoardings; second, drafting of a new advertising policy for Bengaluru. The second is because the BBMP is cognisant of the 1997 case - MC Mehta v Union of India, and the ruling of the Supreme Court whereby “the civic authorities, including the DDA, railways, police and transport authorities are directed to identify and remove all hoardings against the roadside…carried out not withstanding any other order or directions by any other authority, court, or tribunal…”.
On the first commitment, the Bengaluru Traffic Police and BBMP have booked 228 cases against violators, closed many facilities that print flex banners and hoardings, and gone on a war footing to remove all hoardings, banners, wall posters, in the city, so much so that the aam aadmi has begun to notice.
On August 31, the BBMP also submitted a new draft advertising policy to the court. The draft policy prohibits all commercial hoardings and banners within the BBMP jurisdiction. The only allowance on public roads is for signage that communicates on-premise use and activity. Sponsored advertising in the public realm is permitted at bus shelters, public transit stations, bike-sharing stations, car-share facilities, public park signboards, recreation grounds, street furniture, public toilets, street kiosks, public art, pedestrian bridges and tunnels, and other such facilities.
New draft by-laws to replace the existing 2006 by-laws were tabled and discussed in the municipal council. Impressively, the members of the municipal council appear to have taken an enlightened view of the high court’s orders. By unanimous consensus, the council has approved the new policy and by-laws. For a change, the municipal council will play hero in the tale.
The council’s decision could be a calculated response based on two factors: first it retains the moral high ground rather than ceding it to the court, which would presumably use the 1997 Supreme Court precedent to ban all hoardings anyway. Second, the municipal revenue from advertising tax is a paltry Rs 26 crore annually, from about 2,500 licensed hoardings, with an equal number estimated to be illegal. Realistically therefore, the current revenue could at best double, even with the best enforcement measures. The visual degradation and public criticism is too large a price for so meagre a return.
At first glance, this new policy of virtually zero hoardings seems draconian. But because the virus of outdoor advertising has crept in gradually, we don’t even see the epidemic it has become — rather like the frog that is boiled slowly in water and doesn’t jump out. If the new by-laws do indeed see the light of day, Bengalureans may expect to see a lot more of their city sky.
The revised policy places “public purpose” above revenue generation — for private business, property owners, or the municipal corporation. There are three “public purpose” considerations that anchor the proposed policy: environment, traffic safety, and aesthetics.
In undertaking this reform, Bengaluru will be following in the civic footsteps of many cities around the world, big and small. Beyond the usual examples of global cities like New York or London, in 2007, the municipality of Sao Paulo in Brazil passed a Clean City Law, with a blanket ban on all commercial advertising, removing thousands of hoardings, oversized shop signs, and advertisements on taxis and buses. In 2014, the local government of Grenoble in Europe replaced all commercial advertising with community boards.
In India, Mumbai and Chennai too have taken baby steps — undertaking removal drives and area specific prohibitions. Hopefully, Bengaluru ’s experience can trigger substantive advertising reform in other cities as well.
While the state has given an in-principle blessing to the ban on hoardings, it remains to be seen if the divisional bench continues to keep the foot on the accelerator. One hopes that in the coming weeks, unaided by fanfare in a quiet courtroom, a small but crucial reform can be catalysed for our cities.
Swati Ramanathan is the co-founder of Jana Group, and chairperson of Jana Urban Space Foundation. Jana Urban Space supported the BBMP in the formulation of the draft outdoor signage policy and by-laws for Bengaluru.
The views expressed are personal