Pulling down unbilled-boards

Before an avalanche of flex banners and outdoor ads masked its appeal, Bengaluru once wore its green aesthetics with much pride. Then came the ad mafia, spreading its influential tentacles far and wide, covering the city in a deluge of ugly, unauthorized billboards that paid pittance to the BBMP. Can the High Court induced Palike crackdown finally undo the damage?

The court’s directive to BBMP was emphatic, loud and clear: Rid the city of those flexes, banners and buntings. Pushed by a tight deadline, the Palike scrambled for action. Its personnel fanned out to pull down thousands of billboards, dismantle their supporting structures.

Dramatic change

The effect has been dramatic. In less than a month, many of the hoardings have disappeared, unveiling a cityscape hitherto blanked out by greedy commercial interests. As an old Bengalurean put it, “I could now see trees that I haven’t spotted in 30 years!”

But how far will this new normal stay? Now, that would depend on a new law and a new set of bye-laws drafted under the ‘Outdoor Signage and Public Messaging Policy, 2018.’ The BBMP has called for suggestions and objections by the general public.

Ad policy

Approved by the Palike Council on August 28, the new ad policy bans all commercial hoardings within the civic body’s limits. The rules have prioritised maintenance of the city’s aesthetics, free movement of pedestrians and reduction of environmental hazards caused by plastic material. At least for the next one year, revenue collection through advertisement tax will have to wait.

BBMP Commissioner N Manjunath Prasad elaborates: “Certain features of the new policy restrict the use of hoardings by commercial buildings or shops to only in front of their shops. And, this is subject to specific rules like using 60% of the display in Kannada and sticking to the prescribed size.”

Public can file objections in writing till October 24, informs Prasad. “Copies of the bye-laws are available in the BBMP head office and eight zonal offices. A copy of the printed bylaws costs Rs 10 or the public can also download the copy from www.bbmp.gov.in till October 24.”

Delayed decision

But why did the Palike wait for the High Court to crack the whip? Former BBMP Standing Committee (Finance) chairman M K Gunashekhar recalls how he had got the advertisement policy included in the BBMP budget last year.

He recalls, “I wanted to do it in the interests of the city’s aesthetics and to streamline revenue generation. The outdated rules had to be taken down. But the policy was not even presented before the Council. Later, the matter went to the High Court.”

Any change in the old rules were bound to be resisted. Reason: “There is a mafia in advertisement hoardings. They get court stays to continue their illegalities. Even some BBMP officers are hand-in-glove with them. They ensure that the entire process remained opaque and is not accountable to anyone,” notes Gunashekhar.

Ad revenue shortfall

So, is it any surprise that the Palike hardly earned any revenue from the thousands of hoardings that dotted the city? In 2017-18, the budget expectation from advertisement tax was Rs 125 crore. But the actual receipt was only Rs 26.87 crore. In 2016-17, the revenue from ad taxes levied on the hoardings stood at a paltry Rs 31.76 crore. Getting a bit more realistic, the budget expectations in 2018-19 has been pegged at Rs 90.25 crore.

Former Mayor and MLC, P R Ramesh feels advertisements are a necessity as there is a huge demand, but the system should be disciplined. “There should be a comprehensive plan of action. When I was Mayor, in 2003-04, I had proposed defacing of unauthorised hoardings with sprays. Within a day of doing that, the advertisers were queuing up to pay the tax,” he recalls.

Crackdown, long-pending

The crackdown on hoardings that deface the city was long-pending, notes urban architect Naresh Narasimhan. “The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction. The city had 10,000 to 15,000 hoardings with potential to generate thousands of crores for the Palike. But BBMP was only getting a fraction of it.”

To circumvent the ban on new hoardings, bus stops and skywalks were installed at locations where they were not required at all. The motive, notes Narasimhan, was to use these structures as proxy billboards. The long list of unused but ad-heavy skywalks across the city is proof enough of this glaringly compromised system.

If the new advertisement policy is enforced with much rigor and honesty, the city might just get back its lost sense of aesthetics. As Narasimhan reminds, “you don’t need to be bombarded with billboards everywhere you look. It mars the physical beauty of the city. Look at how cities like New York have restricted ads only to Times Square.” That, in essence, is the message, and a harbinger of hope for the city.

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Pulling down unbilled-boards

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