The Telegraph - Calcutta : Look
The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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No room at the top

In a city bursting at the seams on the ground, a fight is now on for space at the top. And Faiyaz Ahmad Khan, member of the mayor-in-council, is planning the next stage of battle. “We want to check the growing illegal hoardings across the city and we will pull out all stops to ensure this,” he says.

Somewhere else in Calcutta, a chief executive officer of an advertising firm complains about clients who angrily descended on him when they found that their hoardings had been replaced by local advertisements. Clearly, the battle for billboards is going on in right earnest.

According to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, (CMC), the corporation manages 358 hoardings while over 2,000 are in the private domain. The corporation gets land utilisation tax from the former and visual display tax from the latter, which includes metro railway sites, buildings and public works department land. But apart from this, there are hundreds of hoardings all over the city that are completely illegal.

Industry reports state that Calcutta is the fastest growing retail market in the country today. Not surprisingly, this translates into growth for the outdoor industry. Khan states that the corporation earns over Rs 12 crore from outdoor advertising every year but believes it can get well over Rs 20 crore. Advertising agencies estimate that the outdoor business in Calcutta is worth something between Rs 80 crore and Rs 100 crore. About 25 to 30 per cent of this goes to the agencies that organise the illegal hoardings.

For every 10 billboards that one comes across the city, at least three may not be legal. The process goes somewhat like this: a company that seeks space for a hoarding may not get a site. This is where some of the errant advertising agencies step in. They organise a hoarding for the company. The company pays the agency in question, and the CMC gets nothing. And there are no checks on the size of the hoarding, its visual content, or how long it can be displayed.

The problem of hoardings is not peculiar to Calcutta. The Rs 800 crore outdoor advertising business in India is plagued by problems in most metropolitan cities. In Delhi, for instance, hoardings are viewed as traffic hazards. Outdoor hoardings and neon signboards along traffic thoroughfares were banned about five years ago, following a ruling by the Delhi High Court.

In Mumbai ' which boasts of over 2,000 hoardings and 11,000 glow signboards ' the city sees hoardings as a threat to heritage buildings. The municipal corporation disallowed hoardings across heritage sites after a public interest litigation was filed in the Mumbai High Court.

Illegal hoardings endanger heritage sites in Calcutta, too. Recently, the United Nations declared the Dalhousie area in Calcutta a heritage site; Esplanade and Park Street may follow suit. Ironically, these are the areas that command the highest charges for displaying illegal advertisements.

Not surprisingly, the CMC is up in arms against the illegal billboards. While the complete eradication of hoardings will take time, CMC has already swung into action against defaulters. Khan and his team have issued legal notices to over 100 companies for displaying advertisements on illegal hoardings. “When companies have not paid the statutory charges to the corporation, and they take more space and time than the stipulated time frame, these, for CMC, are illegal,” explains Khan. The corporation hopes to mop up over Rs 3 crore through the operation.

That the CMC means business is apparent. A meeting was also held between department officials and representatives of the city’s leading advertisement agencies. Khan says the meeting was conducted to send a warning to the advertising and marketing community that illegal hoardings would not be tolerated. The corporation has made it clear that an agency caught displaying advertisements on such platforms would be blacklisted. The corporation plans to release the list of errant firms to state and central government agencies to ensure that they are boycotted.

Advertising agencies have welcomed this move. Says Sanjeev Lal, chief executive officer of Pioneer Advertising, which controls 15 per cent of Calcutta’s outdoor advertising business, “Illegal hoardings put off big companies. They fear that their reputation will be tainted.”

A clean-up operation is easier said than done. An advertising agency head points out that it is difficult for an agency to figure out the difference between legal and illegal hoardings.

Khan, however, is upbeat. Sites that are termed illegal are to be photographed and the pictures sent to the company advertising there. Companies will, in turn ' or so Khan hopes ' pull up the agency responsible for the hoarding. This would act as a dampener to agencies indulging in illegal activity.

The corporation on its part is also trying to provide alternative modes for advertising, apart from the billboards. CMC plans to home in on virgin territory, taking a cue from Delhi and Mumbai, which have signboards on the walls of public utility spaces such as bus stops, garbage collection centres and public lavatories. Khan states that the corporation is in talks with agencies to come up with banners that would not obstruct public view. For heritage areas, it has plans of doing theme-based advertising that would seek to enhance the beauty of the place. There is talk of banning advertising on sign trucks which can pose a traffic hazard to motorists, more so because Calcutta’s roads are narrow.

But all that’s for later. Right now, it’s clean-up ' or perish.

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