September 12th 2021 marked the second death anniversary of R Subhashree. The 23-year-old techie died after an illegal hoarding erected on the road’s divider fell on her while she was riding her two wheeler on the Pallavaram -Thoraipakkam road in Chennai. Two years later, despite the Madras High Court (HC) coming down heavily on the then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government for failing to stop the menace of illegal hoardings in Chennai, places in the city such as OMR, GST road, Tambaram and Velachery are witnessing the return of advertisement hoardings on medians and foot overbridges.
Following Subhashree’s death, the Madras HC was quoted to have observed in September 2019: “How many more litres of blood do you want to paint the roads with?” The court had then also stated that it was tired of passing multiple orders against illegal hoardings and banners. Earlier in December 2018, the Court had, in fact, directed political parties to not erect flex boards or hoardings in a way that could cause inconvenience to motorists and other commuters.
The 2018 order was passed after it was found that local bodies as well as the police were not following the laws with regard to the erection of hoardings in Chennai. Responding to the Court’s September 2019 rebuke, both the DMK and AIADMK had given an undertaking to the court saying that it would comply with the laws with regard to putting up banners and cutouts.
Activists including Jayaram Venkatesan, convenor of Arappor Iyakkam, an anti corruption NGO, have called attention to the fact that although hoardings by political parties have declined as a result of the undertaking they furnished to the HC in 2019, illegal advertisement hoardings can still be seen everywhere. And why is that?
Legal vs Illegal hoardings
A hoarding can be said to be illegal if it is found to be violating the provisions of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act and Chennai City Municipal Corporation Licensing of Hoardings and Levy and Collection of Advertisement Tax Rules, 2003.
According to the latter, licences shall not be granted for erection of hoarding in the following places:
- In front of educational institutions, popular places of worship and hospitals with inpatient treatment facilities.
- In the corners of road or street junctions, upto a distance of 100 metres on either sides of the junction.
- In front of places of historical or aesthetic importance.
Vishu Mahajan IAS, Deputy Commissioner, Revenue and Finance says that as of now, the legal position on this is that hoardings are allowed to be put up only with the permission of the Corporation and only on Corporation-owned land, and not on any private land. This rule came into effect following a 2018 amendment of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act.
“Earlier, subject to due approval from the Corporation, hoardings were permitted on any land — private or public. But since the amendment was made, hoardings are allowed only in land belonging to Chennai Corporation and that too, after going through the tender process of the Corporation,” says Mahajan. He cites the example of a bus shelter maintained by the Corporation. If the Corporation allows advertisement hoardings at the bus shelter, it will float a tender, inviting bids from various advertising agencies and the one that wins the tender would secure the right to erect hoardings in that bus shelter.
However the manager of a Chennai-based advertising agency, who did not wish to be named, told us that the above law notwithstanding, they continue to put up hoardings on private property, based on “good relations and communication with the property owner”.
The executive explained that over the last couple of years, it has been very difficult to win approval from the GCC to erect hoardings anywhere. But they still manage to do so on private property, if the owner of a particular building or property gives them permission. “We just have to pay him the rent on time,” he said. Other agencies are known to follow similar processes as well.
Who is monitoring?
In early September, Mahajan had said that the Corporation had formed various teams in each zone to identify areas with illegal hoardings. “The teams will be taking stock of the illegal hoardings in different areas across the city and have been asked to take them down.”
However, he also added that such teams have generally been formed only during the time of elections to implement and ensure compliance with the Moral Code of Conduct and that the same teams will be now used to identify and remove illegal hoardings. Clearly, there appears to have been no concerted or structured effort in the past to actually act against the menace of illegal hoardings in public spaces.
When asked about the action that authorities will take if a hoarding is found to be illegal, Mahajan says there is already a given process for this, starting with the removal of hoardings to imposition of penalties. “For hoardings, there is a penalty up to Rs 25,000 and imprisonment up to three years and for banners, the penalty is Rs 15,000 and imprisonment of up to one year’. But when asked about revenue from such fines, he said that no penalties had been collected in the past and that the Corporation officials would only remove illegal hoardings from time to time.
Corruption within the system
Jayaram Venkatesan states that there is a lot of corruption involved in this entire process of hoarding installation. Advertisement hoardings fetch the local bodies revenue, unlike the hoardings put up by political parties. “If an illegal advertisement hoarding comes up, it is the responsibility of the local municipal bodies to take it down but many of the officials are on the payroll of the advertising contractors, who provide the officials with their monthly commission,” alleges Venkatesan.
According to Chennai City Municipal Corporation Licensing of Hoardings and Levy and Collection of Advertisement Tax Rules 2003, the District Collector shall arrange to remit 25% of the advertisement tax collected on the advertisement to the Personal Deposit account of the Chennai Corporation once in a year between April and June of the succeeding year. Mahajan, however, clarifies that the agencies no longer have to pay advertisement tax since it was subsumed under the Goods and Services Tax (GST). “Now they pay only two fees: rental for the land and a licence fee per square metre,” he says.
David Manohar, another citizen activist, one of the founding members of Arappor Iyakkam and a resident of Chennai’s Chrompet alleges that the police is also hand in glove with offenders in many cases. Recalling an incident from 2019, Manohar says that when he filed a complaint with the police regarding an illegal advertising banner near his house in Chrompet, the police passed on his contact number to the contractor of the advertisement hoarding. “One day, when I was in my office, the contractor landed up at my house and threatened my wife.”
Lack of jurisdictional responsibility
Chennai city comes under the limits of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) but once you cross these limits, into areas like OMR, Pallavaram – Thoraipakkam radial road or the Velachery main road, it all comes under the respective local bodies. Manohar says that many of these local bodies wash their hands off when it comes to violations within their jurisdictional limits. “Often, when the concerned local bodies are approached regarding the issue of illegal hoardings in these areas, they allege that they don’t have control over such matters and that it comes under the jurisdiction of the District Collector.”
This lack of accountability has put various stand-alone houses in several residential areas in these places at the risk of hoardings falling down on them. “There are many unipole hoardings in the residential areas of Pallavaram – Thoraipakkam stretch. If there are strong winds, these could pose a threat to the safety of residents in these areas,” states Manohar.
Speaking about the dangers of such hoardings, Venkatesan adds that most of these hoardings are not structurally strong and to make matters worse, no one is standing guarantee for these either.
Needed: A stronger policy and will
According to Venkatesan, one of the ways in which the issue of illegal hoardings can be tackled is through strong “political will”. Welcoming the new Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s appeal to party workers to not put up hoardings and flag poles, Venkatesan said that this should also be followed up with action. “Political will along with stern action in the form of suspension, filing of FIRs and so on will send a strong message to all offenders.”
David Manohar feels that there needs to be more clarity and transparency on the guidelines around hoardings. Addressing this concern, Mahajan said that the guidelines with regard to obtaining the required licence, placement of hoardings, their size and specifications etc are all mentioned from Section 326 onwards of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act and Chennai City Municipal Corporation Licensing of Hoardings and Levy and Collection of Advertisement Tax Rules, 2003.
In 2018, following the amendment of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act to allow hoardings only on Corporation-owned land, the Chennai Hoardings Association and other interested parties approached the Madras HC. They alleged that the amendment was discriminatory and went against the constitutional principle of equality; many felt that they should be allowed to generate revenue from their private properties.
In March 2020, the Court struck down the legal provision and stated that even those who wanted to erect hoardings on private land could apply for a licence. According to a report in The Hindu, the court said that exclusion of private land amounts to prohibition and denies the fundamental rights of private landowners to make an earning from their property.
Mahajan says that the Corporation has already drafted a proposal to amend the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act to comply with the instructions of this 2020 HC order. “The amendment has been drafted and is right now with the Corporation’s law department for vetting,” he adds.
Meanwhile, on September 8th,the Greater Chennai Corporation tweeted a contact number which citizens can call to complain, if they spot any unauthorized or dangerous hoardings or flex banners. The number is 1913. In their tweet, the GCC also states that they had, till date, removed a total of 20 unauthorised hoardings and 83 unauthorised flex banners in Chennai.