Ours is a city that has seen footpaths shrink and vanish. Most pedestrians, those still brave enough to walk on our roads that are, have to make do with whatever space is left on the periphery, often competing for it with two-wheelers. In such a situation, how justified is permission being granted by the authorities to erect banners on the edges of roads? Most decidedly not, but yet the menace continues unabated.

These banners have in recent times proliferated. There are now banners announcing deaths, weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies and births. There are others that announce temple festivals. By far the worst offenders are the political parties that aggrandise entire stretches, blocking them all with large banners hailing their political leaders. On certain roads, well known for regular VIP movement, the scaffoldings that support these banners are more or less permanent structures, with only the vinyl sheet changing periodically. That there are more such nuisances to come was made clear last week when a revolving and illuminated kiosk was put up at the Gandhi Statue intersection near the beach. The police, which is objecting to a statue that has been there for almost a decade now, kept silent about the kiosk, perhaps because it was in honour of those in power.

The banner menace, long in the public eye, but rarely debated in the media as it is likely to ruffle the feathers of the powerful, was out in the open recently. It transpires that the Collectorate of Chennai, which is apparently the permitting authority, wants to wash its hands off the whole matter. The reason cited is that the Collectorate lacks the manpower to monitor these banners.

The rampant misuse of footpaths for putting up banners was recently brought once again to the notice of the High Court of Chennai. The judiciary has directed the Collector to take stringent action against banners and digital hoardings that have been put up without prior permission. Faced with an order that it will have to implement, the Collectorate is keen that some other department takes it over.

The authority to permit the erection of temporary banners is now likely to revert to the Commissioner, Corporation of Chennai. Interestingly, it was this office that was vested with the necessary powers around ten years ago when, for no particular reason, the Collector of Chennai was given control of the subject. It is learnt that the Corporation has decided to resume its authority once more and has sent a proposal to this effect to the State Government. The latter is yet to decide on the matter.

Handing over this responsibility to the Corporation makes sense from one point of view, namely, that the civic body being in charge of most of the roads, barring those that come under the Highways Department, can be effective in monitoring the banners. But that is more likely in theory than in practice. Given that the Corporation is unable to detect wholly illegal buildings when they are being constructed, can it in any way identify banners?

But why at all have banners? That is something that nobody wants to address. After all, we claim to be a city that wants to be of international standard. Which world-class city has banners announcing celebrations and praising politicians? It is a wholly third-world country habit. And its continuance shows that we are not really serious about our global aspirations. As to who is not for change is clear from the wording of the transfer of power from Collector to Commissioner. The banners to be monitored are mainly those publicising cinemas, jewellery, food products and motor vehicles. The worst offender, the political class, is not even mentioned and is, therefore, above such trivia as permissions.