A swanky, new, maroon coloured car drove down from Madhavan Park towards the Jayanagar shopping complex in south Bangalore one recent morning, as I was walking along that stretch. This car had a set of large, cute-looking, black-and-white puppies painted on its side. A man who was driving past in another car, pointed to the puppies painted on the maroon car and exclaimed to his wife sitting beside him, as I stood waiting to cross the road, "Look at that -" and while he was pointing he failed to notice the cyclist who was riding past on his right, and nearly ran him down. Both car driver and the cyclist were rattled.
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So how distracting could the huge graphics painted on the sides of Volvo buses as advertisements, be? I see quite a few buses of this kind, with eye-catching ads and visuals all along the sides and back.
A random survey that I did that afternoon, with road users (10 drivers, 12 two wheeler riders and 10 pedestrians) saw the majority of respondents (13 out of the 25 who chose to give their opinion ) saying that the ads could be distracting, and might affect drivers’ concentration. Only three said they added colour to the scene (one declared it was "fun") while two said those ads were permitted because they bring in revenue to the BMTC, and "money determines all decisions today, from sanctioning commercial premises in residential areas, to overlooking building violations". One woman also pointed out that these ‘painted’ buses make it difficult to see through from outside, which means they have an additional safety hazard (for this reason, glasses tinted beyond a certain level are not permissible in private cars too).
That generalisation about revenue being the sole criterion, with safety concerns only in second place, is something we should be concerned about. Buses looking like a safari park in motion, or a filmi close-up of a glamorous model extolling the merits of this soap or that cement (or even underwear) ought to have no place on a busy, public thoroughfare in a city already choking with traffic. Hoardings are, for that same reason, prohibited unless specifically sanctioned by the corporation authorities. They can be a distraction too, for drivers, especially if they show a curvaceous model beckoning to the passerby (believe it or not, there is one such ad, on the way to Majestic).
A news report says that there is actually a law, a high court ruling, and a Road Safety Authority (RSA) decree that prohibits the display of ads on vehicles as these could distract drivers. Rule 127 (1) of the Karnataka Motor Vehicles Act, the report adds, prohibits ads on vehicles without the permission of the RTA.
What takes the cake is the fact that not only do buses run by the government flout government rules regarding display of ads, they even feature large portraits of the chief minister and transport minister! Add to this the report that the Managing Director of BMTC claimed to be "unaware" of the display of ads, and you have a situation that goes beyond the risible and the absurd.
There are blogs on the internet commenting on the pros and cons, and some pointing out that public buses even in the UK carry ads, so there is "nothing wrong" while others say that the government should not be in the business of running buses, it should restrict itself to framing policies, enforcing them and penalising private operators who violate rules.
The point is not whether the government should be in the transport business, or whether London’s buses carry ads, it is the broader issue of a government undertaking flouting government rules, when it is a matter of raking in money (through ads) and hesitating to demand the removal of ads because they feature the transport minister! It is the deeper rot in public life, that results in ministers and politicians being held (and considering themselves) outside the purview of laws that apply to the aam admi and private parties.
One set of rules for the people, another for the powerful – that’s not democracy, by any stretch.
If land meant for a beggars’ home is appropriated for raising a convention centre, and a children’s playground is grabbed to turn it into a parking lot, because parking lots and convention centres generate money, and a law prohibiting advertisements on vehicles is ignored, either because it generates money for the BMTC, or because no one dares to tear down an ad containing the photo of a politician in power, what kind of democracy did we hoist flags for, on August 15th?
We have had some citizens’ groups saying "Enough is enough" when houses got bulldozed for road widening or metro work destroyed greenery, but this momentum, of claiming a voice in the running of the city, needs to be kept up.