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Return of the billboards in Bengaluru

Last Updated : 15 February 2020, 02:03 IST

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Shutting out the city’s islands of green from public view, ugly billboards once dominated Bengaluru’s skyline. Aesthetics took a mighty hit as visual pollution reigned. But a belated hoarding ban that offered some relief is now about to be revoked.

To get those skeletal billboard frames back to life, the State Government is ready with a notification: The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Advertisement Rules, 2019. Once this is out, it would effectively overrule the existing blanket ban.

This would mean the BBMP Outdoor Signages and Public Messaging Byelaws, 2018 will go. The new rules, as the State Urban Development Department (UDD) assures, will have built in regulations. Is this the right approach, or is there another way to fetch the much-needed revenue for the Palike?

Blanket ban

The Palike wants the blanket ban to continue and sees the impending government notification as a curb on its constitutional rights and interference in its affairs. In a letter to UDD’s Additional Chief Secretary, the Mayor Gowtham Kumar has reiterated that billboards will affect the city’s visual beauty.

How does the notification exactly undermine the Palike’s hold? As the Mayor explains, the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act, 1976 classifies hoardings under the category of ‘buildings.’ This implies the billboards can be installed only on buildings with an Occupancy Certificate. The new rules make no mention of this dimension.

Besides, the rules make no reference to the BBMP’s powers. This is seen by the Palike as eventually harming its administration. The new rules have also fixed a lower fee for the hoardings. This could severely hit the Palike’s revenue generation.

What Rules say

The BBMP Advertisement Rules framed by UDD mandate that the hoardings should have the BBMP commissioner’s approval with his permission and fee paid displayed. The approvals are on the condition that the billboards do not block the view of public gardens or historic buildings, do not endanger public safety and do not interfere with traffic signals.

The Rules disallow hoardings within 50m of religious places, within 3.5m from the edge of flyovers, rail bridges, road crossings, communication towers, national parks and water bodies.

But beyond matters of revenue, how serious is the Palike about the billboard threat to the city’s aesthetics? Palike insiders now talk about a grand plan to put up another 50 skywalks in the city, a definite, proven ploy to bypass the Court-mandated ban on new hoardings.

Billboards and skywalks

So, what is the connection between billboards and skywalks? Simply put, the skywalks work more as billboard frames than pedestrian overpasses. Here’s one big reason: “Skywalks don’t work. Utilisation by pedestrians of 90% of the existing skywalks has been estimated to be about 2-3 per cent,” notes urban policy expert V Ravichander.

Skywalks are strategically placed not to aid walkers, but to maximize visibility of the advertisements on them. “A skywalk ends up prioritising motorists over pedestrians. Pedestrians should cross the road at grade. Besides, the structure reduces the footpath width.”

The government’s contention is clear: A blanket ban will not help the Palike generate revenue. But when did BBMP make big money from the billboards? Since the ownership of the hoardings was outsourced to contractors, the latter earned all the big bucks while the Palike collected only the tax.

Old mafia, nexus

This compromised system was fertile enough to let an advertisement mafia, a nexus of bureaucrats, politicians and sundry contractors, to take root. Illegal hoardings mushroomed all across the city, eventually leading to the blanket ban.

The revenue from hoardings goes to unscrupulous politicians, points out Tara Krishnaswamy from Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB). “BBMP does not rent them out at market rates. The Palike charges virtually nothing from the contractors, while contractors make lakhs of rupees.”

BBMP revenues have to be raised, says Krishnaswamy. “But without addressing the original reason for imposing the blanket ban, it would make no difference. Trees were cut for higher visibility of the hoardings. The billboards obstructed streetlights and pavements. They were unsafe,” she explains.

Unearthing an advertisement scam, former BBMP Assistant Commissioner K Mathai had disclosed that the Palike lost an estimated Rs 2,000 crore in revenues between 2005 and 2015. The culprit: The nexus with its illegal hoardings spread across the city.

Remove frames

Forget revoking the blanket ban, aesthetics demands that even the ugly metal frames should be removed, contends urban architect Naresh Narasimhan. “Even the single pole billboards need to be taken out. The city looks much greener after the blanket ban. When cities like Chennai and Delhi can do without billboards, why can’t us?”

In November 2019, the Karnataka High Court had directed the Palike to take down all the illegal structures / frames installed for the hoardings.

The BBMP had then informed the Court that the city had a total of 1,806 such illegal structures. Three months after this direction, most of the frames remain where they are.

Alternatives

If hoardings are a proven blot on the city’s aesthetics, and BBMP fears revenue losses, is there a different way out? Ravichander suggests taking the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) model: Take ownership of the billboards, let the revenue flow in directly, minus the contractors. With multiple stakeholders involved in the game, this could be a mighty tough task.

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Published 14 February 2020, 17:55 IST

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