Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 15, November 16-30, 2023

When illegal hoardings alone pose a risk

-- by Sriram V.

The rainy season is here and with that the Government is gearing itself up for cyclones. As part of a slew of advisories, it has also addressed the issue of large outdoor advertisement hoardings and billboards. It has advised that all illegal hoardings be removed – which is good. But in the same notification it has merely asked all Government agencies to ensure the hoardings on their buildings have obtained necessary licences. Which makes us wonder if only illegal hoardings are likely to be blown down by cyclonic winds and cause damage? And why should there be illegal hoardings? Is the Civic Body not supposed to take action of such stones?

Over the decades, the Corporation was a mute bystander in allowing rampant violations in the erection of hoardings. More than 90 per cent of the city’s outdoor advertisements were supposedly illegal structures. And even among the few that were permitted by the civic body, rent payment was tardy at best. The Corporation proved ineffective in its collection drives. Litigation has been endemic to the industry and even when the Corporation tried to take recourse to law, it was stymied by delays and stays.

The public were the biggest victims of illegal outdoor hoardings. These were erected with no consideration for safety and very often were either distracting or plain obstructions to line of sight at traffic corners and highways. Accidents were caused owing to motorists’ attention being distracted and when there were cyclones there was bound to be a casualty/fatality or two because of improperly secured metal sheets falling on the road. This led to public interest litigations being filed as well. Eventually, the High Court in 1996 decreed that all outdoor hoardings be acquired by the Government. That however did not prevent a further batch of illegal hoardings coming up – with the law enforcement agencies either turning a blind eye or being incapable of taking action. Finally, in 2008, the then DMK government decided to make Chennai city hoarding free. Even then tongues wagged about the reasons behind this seemingly altruistic decision. But what was heartening was that the hoardings were removed. Suddenly the city could breathe, its iconic buildings and greenery emerged, and the sky was visible once more. Chennai has enjoyed this luxury for fifteen years. 

The problem of illegal hoardings however just refused to go away, at least in the suburbs. The former Mayor and present Health Minister, M Subramaniam, while in the Opposition even threatened to launch an agitation against these in Saidapet, whereupon action was taken. The present CM, while Mayor was also said to be against hoardings and the way they mar the appearance of Singara Chennai.

Which is why it was all the more surprising that the Corporation, earlier this year, decided to permit outdoor hoardings once again in the city. A Government Order was issued under the Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies Act 2022 to this effect. The reason was ostensibly to boost revenue for the cash-starved Greater Chennai Corporation. The actual pressure may well be from elsewhere for it is public knowledge that the business of outdoor hoardings is controlled by vested interests of all political persuasions. The parties who were affected by this decision, namely residents, pedestrians, motorists, etc, expressed horror but that did not cut any ice. And so hoardings made a comeback.

As did illegal hoardings as well, which means violations and lack of revenue for the Corporation, apart from safety threats to the innocent public. Which is where we began this story if you recollect. Some things never change.

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