Hoardings will soon be back
The Government of Tamil Nadu has decided to permit outdoor hoardings once again in the city. A Government Order has been issued under the Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies Act 2022 to this effect. The reason is 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 will be affected by this decision, namely residents, pedestrians, motorists, have expressed horror but that is unlikely to cut any ice. That we have been without hoardings for over 15 years in this city is itself something of a wonder. Taken overall, this U turn is dangerous.
The industry itself, and the civic body which is supposed to benefit from this permission, are to blame for the mess they find themselves in. Over the years, the Corporation has been a 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.
DMK Govt Bans Hoardings
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.
And Now Brings Them Back
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 is all the more surprising that the Corporation, which launched Singara Chennai 2.0 a few months ago with much fanfare should now be going ahead with such a move.
The problems that plagued the hoarding industry have not gone away. Safety and illegality remain issues. And the Corporation is not going to be a tough bill collector. If it was otherwise, the civic body would not be having heavy arrears on property tax. And if it focused on collecting what is rightfully its due under that head, it would not need to seek funds by erecting hoardings. Overall, this is a regressive step and the Government will do well to consider a rollback.
This article appeared in Madras Musings dated May 16, 2023 – https://www.madrasmusings.com/vol-33-no-3/an-about-turn-on-public-hoardings/