Billboards sell dreams to consumers. But since Monday, when a gigantic hoarding fell in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar area killing 16 people and injuring many, the spotlight has been on the dark side of the outdoor advertising industry. The illegal hoarding that crashed on the petrol station at Chheda Nagar weighed a whopping 250 tonnes, breaking all regulations.

As brand consultant Sanjay Sarma, says, “Outdoor media in India is highly disorganised, riddled with corruption and definitely needs stronger regulation. “

The tragedy has prompted civic authorities in many places to take rearguard action quickly even as adfolk advise agencies to only go with outdoor sites that comply with rules. 

In Delhi, the Municipal Corporation has ordered all outdoor media operators to audit the structural safety of hoardings, unipoles and other billboard structures, and submit a compliance report. 

In the Capital, size of hoardings is capped at 32x16 ft for roads wider than 100ft, and 20x10ft for roads less than 100ft in width but these rules are often flouted according to officials. 

In Kochi, M Anil Kumar, Mayor, Kochi Municipal Corporation, said the authorities have taken steps to check all illegal hoardings erected in the city post the Mumbai tragedy.

According to M.Chitra Prakash, district president of Kerala Advertising Industries Association, 70 per cent of the hoardings in the city have necessary permits, and stability certificates. However, 30 per cent do not have such permits..

As per Kerala Government stipulations, all hoardings should be considered as a structure like buildings and need to obtain necessary sanction from the concerned civic authorities before installations. The civic authority has the right to impose a fine of ₹10,000 if any banned materials are found in such hoardings. The fine will go up to ₹25,000 in the second year and to ₹50,000 in the third year including the withdrawal of license to such hoardings. According to an ad industry observer, “The fines are too low to be a deterrent.”

Illegal banners

The story is same in Tamil Nadu. In June 2023, a huge billboard on the side of the Salem – Kochi Highway at Karumathampatti near Coimbatore, collapsed killing three workers on the spot. The police then said it was installed without authorisation by the local civic body. In 2019, a 23-year-old died in an accident after an illegal banner fell on her in Chennai. 

R Sathyanarayanan, an Associate Professor of Marketing at IFMR Graduate School of Business - Krea University, suggests that authorities should evolve a system of a QR code, an approval symbol, and a Citizen Journalist portal through which even a citizen journalist can check if a hoarding is legal and report with photo and location details to the portal if there are anomalies.

Atul Shrivastava, Group CEO, Laqshya Media Group, one of the largest outdoor advertising firms, said  it is the responsibility of the media-owning company to adhere to safety standards to ensure the safety of structures. He feels that digital billboards are safer as they require much bigger investments, so short-term players or illegal media owners don’t enter this space.

Meanwhile, Hyderabad had become a hoarding-free city over eight years ago,and all uni-poles were removed. The then Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) Government had decided after heavy winds wreaked havoc damaging several hoardings and posing a threat to life and properties.

Soon after IT Minister K T Rama Rao announced the decision over a Twitter post, civil officials cracked down on hundreds of hoardings and removed them. 

Advertisements on bus shelters and medians across the roads, however, are excluded from the ban. Reports suggest that the Revanth Reddy Government is planning to bring the hoardings back.

However, the ban doesn’t apply to the municipalities on the periphery. “You can see them here (Kompally),” the Chief Executive Officer of an advertising company said, wishing anonymity.

Income source

“The move has adversely impacted both the advertising companies and residential and commercial properties which used to get huge rental incomes. At the time of the ban, a hoarding at a key junction like Nagarjuna Circle would have fetched a monthly rental of ₹3 lakh,” he said.

The ad fraternity has also come down heavily on the need to regulate the OOH (out of home) category. Veteran adman Ramesh Narayan said responsible advertisers should only go with outdoor site owners who comply with all rules. He said this should be made mandatory and industry associations should lead the charge.

(With inputs from V Sajeev Kumar, KV Kurmanath, Meenakshi Verma Ambwani and TE Rajasimhan)

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