The unbilled billboards

Systematically depriving BBMP of an estimated Rs 450 crore every year in advertistement taxes, the illegal hoardings menace is a well-oiled machinery

The unbilled billboards

Monstrous, ugly and a huge blot on the city’s fragile aesthetic sense… Flaunting a million products and political faces, those hoardings dotting Bengaluru’s streets and junctions had turned repulsive long ago.

But did we know that only 2,800 of those estimated 23,000 billboards are actually legal?

Did we know that a hideous nexus of contractors, politicians and officials has perfected a well-oiled machinery of loot, systematically depriving BBMP of an estimated Rs 450 crore every year? Isn’t it time the city is rid of this shady cobweb of unauthorised flex-boards, buntings and luminous billboards, freed from the corrupt tentacles of authority, muscle power and greed?   

The muck runs deep. Despite a late crackdown driven by the Upa Lokayukta Justice Subhash B Adi, the clean-up drive could take months. Officially, BBMP has told the Lokayukta that all illegal hoardings in the city will be out by January 22. But this could prove a tough task. Threatened by local political leaders, physically assaulted -- as an Assistant Revenue Officer (ARO) recently experienced -- the troubles could mount.   

Interference in crackdown
The Upa Lokayukta is aware of the challenges. “All the joint commissioners, revenue officers and AROs say there is interference,” he told Deccan Herald. But the crackdown that began six months back, cannot be allowed to lose momentum. Spare none, penalise every violation. This is the dictum. The Palike commissioner has been asked to crack the whip and show results.

Over 60 per cent of the unauthorised billboards, Justice Adi asserts, are put up by political bigwigs or their followers. AROs have been clearly told not to buckle under political pressure and to book cases against those with their photos displayed. Local police stations have been reluctant to take up the cases. The Upa Lokayukta had a way to get over this: Register police complaints online.

Unrelenting pressure from the top has finally begun to work. In just three days from December 31, 2014 to January 2, 2015, a total of 995 flex-boards, 148 banners, 540 posters and 3,450 meters of buntings were pulled down in the Rajarajeshwarinagar zone alone.


As many as 69 FIRs were registered in Bengaluru East, cases booked against politicians from different parties and all illegal banners removed in a single day. 

BBMP’s official figures show the number of authorised hoardings as 2,815. Of these, requests for licence renewal have been received for 1,798. The Palike says the rest of the hoardings are illegal.

No count
There is no count of the unauthorised billboards. So, what is the problem? A BBMP officer, preferring anonymity, explains it this way: “We are dependent on the zonal officers and engineers. Our records have data provided by the zonal officers. If people have any doubts, they should ask the respective zones.”

To get a number, the ruling BJP leader in the BBMP Council N R Ramesh did a videographed study six months ago, which revealed that the City had 23,000 hoardings in the BBMP limits.
Informs Ramesh: “Our survey shows that there are 3,000 hoardings on Sarjapura-Anekal Road, 900 on Bannerghatta Road from Dairy Circle to Meenakshi Temple and about 1,000 hoardings from Richmond Road to Hosur Road.”

Two years ago, the BBMP administration had maintained that the city had no more than 900 hoardings.  After Ramesh lambasted the Palike for turning a blind eye to the nexus between BBMP officials and the advertisement mafia, BBMP marginally raised the figure to 1,798.

Ramesh had even handed over 38 hours of video in eight DVDs, showing all the hoardings across Bengaluru, to the Palike. But there was no action. In frustration, he says, “Due to the unauthorised hoardings, the Palike is incurring a loss of Rs 450 crore a year. More than revenue, these hoardings, banners and buntings are defacing the City's aesthetic look.”

Streamline permission grants
The Upa Lokayukta now wants BBMP to streamline its system of granting permissions. The Palike’s assistant commissioner, advertistements, is tasked with sanction of permissions for hoardings, mass advertistements and poll ads. But when the Lokayukta sought more data on permissions granted and licences renewed, many files were found missing.

“All this is because of a lack of coordination between the head office and the divisional offices. This has to change,” says the Upa Lokayukta. Making the entire process of licence application, renewal and granting online could be the way out, according to the Upa Lokayukta. The Palike, which had stopped collecting penalties since 2008 before restarting it recently, will benefit from the online, transparent system, he adds.
 
Bengaluru once had a chance to be completely hoardings-free. In 2000, the then state government had taken a policy decision not to entertain any advertisement billboards. But it failed to get into action mode.

Such a prospect still remains Utopian, and frowned upon by many even in the government circles. Nor does the Lokayukta favour a total ban.

An alternative has been proposed: Notified areas in each BBMP division where such flex-boards and banners can be displayed. Fifty-nine such areas have been identified in Dasarahalli.

The BBMP commissioner is expected to get a list of all such designated areas from all the divisions. But here too, only those billboards and display boards complying with the prescribed conditions will be permitted.

If the recent crackdown could take out the temporary billboards and banners with relative ease, the permanent structures built on steel frames have proved to be tough nuts to crack.
Some of them weigh several thousand tonnes, requiring men, machines and gas-cutters to remove them. Towering above almost every road intersection, such steel frames remain deeply entrenched.

Brilliantly lit in the night, many unauthorised billboards appear legal. But how did the brains behind these structures manage the power connections? Fingers once again point to a nexus. The Lokayukta has now got an undertaking from Bescom that power will be supplied to only billboards sanctioned by BBMP through proper channels.

Hollow assurances
Yet, assurances need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Take for instance, the police’s commitment to help the Palike deal firmly with the advertisement mafia, widely known to be backed by criminal elements. It emerged later that a huge unauthorised hoarding had been put up right inside the Halasuru Gate police station, opposite the BBMP head office.

A honest, well-coordinated, multi-agency effort might just help the BBMP get some control over the hoarding menace. Yet, it could face cumbersome legal problems.

As the Upa Lokayukta informs, many advertisers, by virtue of interim orders obtained from lower courts, manipulate the number of billboards. One of them had 500 poll ads, but misused the order to justify the installation of 5,000 display boards.  
   

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