Suddenly, what Bengalureans had not got for years – though they yearned for it – suddenly happened in a day. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) officials got active recently to knock down more than 5,000 illegal flex boards, banners and buntings from hoardings and electric poles. People could even file FIRs against offenders and hecklers who tried to stop them.
On Thursday, the BBMP claimed that 21,140 flexes and banners have been removed, though an estimated 2,500 hoardings still remained here and there.
But how exactly did the BBMP suddenly get into action mode? It began at 10.30 am last Wednesday when Chief Justice Dinesh Maheshwari ordered that it should happen before 2.30 pm, or much before the court took up a couple of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) against unauthorised banners.
“If you cannot work properly, you close down the BBMP,” said the court, firmly.
But while it could not happen so fast, it was a drive that continued through Wednesday night till Thursday morning, when there should not be even “one flex banner or poster in Bengaluru”, according to BBMP Commissioner Manjunath R. Prasad.
Citizen Matters found that a case was registered by an Assistant Revenue Officer (ARO) in R M Nagar Police Station near MM Temple. It charged six people with trying to stop the removal of unauthorised flexes by BBMP officials. Four of the accused were arrested, while two absconded.
While the attack on the flexes and banners is ongoing, the city’s zones reported that the following heartening action was taken on the first two days of August 2018:
|Serial No.||Zone||On 1.8.2018||On 2.8.2018||Total|
Why the orders
The High Court stepped in because the Palike has not issued or renewed new licenses to any hoardings in the past one year. Hence, all hoardings in the city become illegal. The existing ones have been put up without structure stability certificates and also by violating setback rules.
The BBMP had issued a circular noting that advertisers / publishers/ printers and any person who display these photographs and flexes would be fired by criminal prosecution. This is the rule according to
- the KMC Act, 1976 and
- Karnataka Open Places (Prevention Disfigurement) Act 1981.
Officials who “actually sat on the file” related to the issue for more than a year have also been questioned. The petitioner has also challenged the “legality and validity” of the Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Advertisement Bylaws, 2006, permitting advertisement hoardings.
The flex menace
What exactly do flexes do? They look bad and ugly. They obstruct straight vision and trigger off car accidents by diverting motorists. They create environmental hazard, as they are made of plastic, they create space pollution.
There are three categories of hoardings:
- Those on BBMP land
- Those on government agencies’ land
- Those on private land
While hoardings on the government land can be removed, those on private land would be issued notices and given a grace of 15 days to be removed.
Hoardings are illegal if their licenses did not get renewed since 2016. Commissioner Prasad clarified that on that year, the BBMP received revenue, but after the GST rollout, they could not collect advertisement tax. Hence, the BBMP has to “amend” its advertisement policy bylaws, therefore the renewal hasn’t happened.
Citizen Matters had reported earlier that the issue of illegal hoardings has been a menace for a long time. Till September, last year, the BBMP had detected 3,000 illegal banners and flexes, out of which a 1,000 had been removed, according to the Department of Advertising. Last year, the High Court of Karnataka banned flex banners and the BBMP Commissioner claimed that they were working towards closing down flex printing units, although 2,693 services are still listed online.
In spite of a plastic and flex ban, the Karnataka Open Places (Prevention of Disfigurement Act), 1981 and Karnataka Municipalities Act 1964, the polluting buntings and banners have continued to sprout in the city. In February, 2018, a PIL was filed against the illegal hoardings. On March 1, the High Court issued an order to the BBMP and the state government for an action taken report as well as plan of action.
No revenue for BBMP
The BBMP has not earned any revenue from the illegal advertisements, as reported earlier by Citizen Matters. A survey in 2015 showed that 3,643 out of 6,119 hoardings were illegal. But the then Assistant Commissioner K Mathai noted in July, 2015, that the Palike’s ad revenue loss was pegged at Rs 2,000 crore over a decade. It could have earned at least Rs 300 crore from the ads in 198 wards, according to the Advertisement Byelaw 2006, which has specified that penalties worth lakhs could be slapped on illegal ads.
In spite of several circulars, reminders and orders to the joint commissioners of the eight zones, the hoardings were not documented or removed. BBMP introduced the online advertisement tax payment system in August 2015, but advertisers did not cash in on the online license renewal or tax payment system.
However, the issue was dropped when Mathai was transferred, while the BBMP Commissioner complained that Mathai had tarnished their image by going to the media.
Reasons for the non-removal
There seems to be an unholy nexus between advertisers, BBMP officials and enforcement contractors. A BBMP official told Citizen Matters that while its staff can only remove the frame of the hoardings, the huge metal structures can only be carried out by enforcement contractors. However, the tardy response of the contractors was specified by the then Revenue Inspector of Mahadevapura Zone, Buddhesh. As the enforcement contractors are not well-paid, they strike their illegal deals with the owners. In February 2014, BBMP issued contracts to five enforcement contractors. They removed 2,350 hoardings, flexes, banners, buntings and cut-outs and carted away the iron materials. The BBMP did not succeed in collecting the penalty from advertisers and property owners.
In another case, a contractor was assigned to clear illegal hoardings, banners and buntings, cut-outs and posters of the city’s East, West and South Zones. He was instructed to hand over the seized materials from dismantled advertisements to BBMP. His earnings were low, as he was given 50 per cent of the “collected” penalty amount, although he had demanded the share in the “imposed” penalty.
The story got repeated eight months later, when no tab was kept on how many materials got dismantled, how much was submitted to the BBMP and what happened to them. While the BBMP accused a contractor of delay, the answer that shot back was that the contractor was not given the “list of illegal advertisement hoardings” in the zone”.
Earlier, the BBMP had paid the contractor for the work, as well as for the machines used in the removal of hoardings. However, as they were submitting fake bills, the BBMP decided to change the system, but it was no better.
The contractors flee with the materials, or get into illegal contracts with advertisers and accept kickbacks. As there is not clear or well-documented database of legal as well as illegal advertisements, the tender process too becomes unclear. There is no definite list of advertisements or related details, or even a clear definition of what “illegal advertisements” are.
Strangely, in spite of repeated demand notices, the BBMP found that defaulters simply erected the illegal hoardings even after they were removed. In September 2016, the BBMP started a drive. But a month later, C Nagaraj, who was the Assistant Commissioner, Advertisement (BBMP), said that in spite of issuing 5,400 notices, the advertisers simply did not care. After issuing demand notices and giving the defaulters a week to respond, pay the tax arrears as well as the penalty, the BBMP filed almost 80 cases with the Bengaluru Metropolitan Task Force (BMTF). Yet, the hoardings would come back even after they were removed!
Learning from past mistakes, the BBMP also filed caveats in civil courts to prevent the advertisers from getting stay orders as soon as the notices were served. Earlier, BBMP’s weak legal cell led to the problem. The advocates refused to appear almost 30 times for the hearings, which helped the advertisers to hold on to the stay orders for four to five years! Even after the BBMP filed caveats, 40 advertisers managed to get stay orders!
The High Court order and the super-quick committed action from the BBMP can go a long way in solving the long-pending problem, and untangle the unholy mess.