A towering hazard, the height of poor enforcement

Policies and guidelines lay down safety requirements for outdoor advertising infrastructure, but periodic enforcement of these standards in India is weak

Updated - May 20, 2024 09:38 am IST

Published - May 20, 2024 01:08 am IST

‘Corporations must also look towards creating platforms and mechanisms through which citizens may report violations’

‘Corporations must also look towards creating platforms and mechanisms through which citizens may report violations’ | Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO/S.S. KUMAR/THE HINDU

The incident in Mumbai, on May 13, 2024, where a giant outdoor hoarding collapsed in a widespread dust storm leaving at least 16 people dead and over 70 people injured has led to serious questions. The billboard was installed without authorisation from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). After the accident, the BMC has said that action would be taken against those who have put up illegal hoardings in the city.

This post-facto response is a lack-lustre reaction, especially when deaths caused by illegal hoardings are not new in India. Just days after this incident, a hoarding collapsed on on the Pune-Solapur highway, following rain, injuring an animal. In May 2023, again in Pune, an unauthorised hoarding collapsed leaving five people dead. And in June 2023, three workers were crushed when the huge hoarding that they were erecting collapsed at Thekkalur near Karumathampatti in Coimbatore district.

In the case of the Mumbai incident, that a hoarding nine times the permissible size was allowed to remain until it collapsed indicates a lack of oversight on the part of the BMC. A review of outdoor advertisement policies across different cities in India shows that these policies have very little to offer with respect to time-bound action against illegal hoardings.

Violations of dimensions

Although the policies provide for maximum dimensions for hoardings, many cities have billboards that are well beyond permissible sizes. High Courts often haul up corporations for their inaction or lack of enforcement with respect to advertisement regulations. Previously, the Bombay High Court went so far as to provide the procedure for the removal of illegal hoardings, and directed that it be undertaken by two police personnel, accompanied by a civic staff member at the time of removal.

Despite a slew of orders since 2017, negligence by the corporation has resulted in a serious incident, leading to a flurry of action by corporations across India. But will this interest in clearing illegal hoardings be sustained?

No transparency, weak enforcement

There are two key issues that hinder the enforcement of advertising regulations by city corporations: the lack of transparency and intermittent enforcement. Insofar as transparency is concerned, advertisement policies must expressly state the process through which complaints against illegal advertisements may be raised and the action to be undertaken. As far as enforcement is concerned, there is a need for a mechanism which ensures the prompt removal of unauthorised hoardings.

Enforcement mechanisms do exist in the various outdoor advertising regulations in force. The Delhi Outdoor Advertising Policy, 2017 requires that the owners of non-compliant advertisements be asked to remove the structure within a specified time, failing which they are to be removed by the municipal authority. The policy also allows the suo motu removal of unauthorised devices that pose a hazard to road traffic.

A more comprehensive enforcement regime is contained in the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Advertisement Rules, 2021 — but they were withdrawn after public backlash. The rules vested the Chief Commissioner with the power to remove unauthorised hoardings, and constituted an Advertisement Regulatory Committee to monitor compliance enforcement and the removal of unauthorised advertisements.

The Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies Rules, 2023 require the municipal officials concerned to review the licensing of hoardings every three months and submit quarterly reports to the chief administrative officer of the urban local body.

One mechanism through which a check can be kept on unauthorised hoardings is through the appointment of inter-departmental bodies which undertake periodic zone-wise or ward-wise inspection of outdoor advertisements to ensure that they meet the standards laid down in law. This will make periodic inspections a mandatory duty rather than a discretionary power of the municipal authority. Such enforcement and monitoring bodies may include relevant personnel from the traffic department along with zonal- or ward-level officers of the corporations and departmental safety engineers.

Multiple forms of risk

City-level policies or bye-laws must also specify the course of action to be taken by corporation officials subsequent to the identification of unauthorised hoardings. It may be noted here that unauthorised hoardings include not only durable installations but also unauthorised banners and flexes (often put up by political party operatives), which, despite being temporary, also pose a significant safety risk. Action must also be taken against officials who fail to remove illegal structures despite complaints.

Corporations must also look towards creating platforms and mechanisms through which citizens may report violations. Compliance may be monitored through the effective deployment of technology, such as the embossing of QR codes on all authorised hoardings.

Policies and guidelines lay down safety requirements for outdoor advertising infrastructure, but periodic enforcement of these standards continues to be overlooked. Very often, when harm is caused due to unauthorised hoardings, corporations attempt to evade responsibility by claiming that such structures were illegal in the first place. However, it is important for municipal authorities to actively recognise their role in the removal of illegal outdoor advertisements and assume responsibility for the identification of unauthorised advertising structures. The need is for municipal bodies to institute proactive enforcement mechanisms, instead of taking action only in response to either court orders or harrowing incidents such as the one in Mumbai last week.

Sneha Priya Yanappa is Senior Resident Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Deepa Padmar is Research Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Raghunandan Sriram is Research Fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy

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