Take a drive down the road in the early morning during monsoon, when the city sleeps, that is when the buildings are drenched in rain and look washed and clean. Or jog along on a wintry morning over the dew kissed meadow. Or think of an occasion when a beautiful painting remains draped by a curtain and someone pulls the strings that unfold the lovely manifestation of the objet d'art. Just as exhilarating was the experience when, thanks to the Supreme Court judgment vacating the order of stay of removal of hoardings and upholding the validity of Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies Licensing of Hoardings and Levy and Collection of Advertisement Tax Rules,2003, the hoardings came tumbling down. It all started with tearing away of the vinyl sheets with large iron frames standing tall. Next came those valiant men of the Chennai Corporation working on huge structures and shearing metal frames with gas cutters. Suddenly the buildings are visible; the trees look greener; the roads seem broader; the pavements are stumble-free.
Sparkling billboards are relatively a new phenomenon. Commercialization and consumerism fueled their growth to gigantic proportions. From drawings on walls, to paintings on large tin sheets to still larger colorful prints on vinyl sheets, they metamorphosed to powerful tools in your decision-making on the products you wished to consume. From roadsides, to arterial roads, to public property, to being mounted on tall private buildings, you could feel their ubiquitous presence at every turn. Again, from the single arc lamps, to colorful blinking lights, they arrested your attention and distracted you. From big to bigger to gigantic sizes, they clothed the buildings to a gaudy spectacle. Thanks to heritage activists and environmental friendly buddies, there were court restrain orders through enforcement of legislations.
Each state had its own problems. Metropolitan cities were the first sufferers. The objections at Mumbai came through a complaint- route targeting the hoardings as violating the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay, 1995. In a decision delivered by the Supreme court in 2005 in Mass Holdings Pvt. Ltd. v Municipal Corpn. of Greater Mumbai & Anr, it directed the removal of hoardings from Mahalaxmi precincts. In yet another case, the Bombay High Court ensured that a hoarding put up at the Tower of Silence (Zorastrian Crematorium) was removed on the ground that heritage sites could not be sullied. An Allahabad High Court judgment said that posters, hoardings and statutes on roads were a nuisance and directed in a judgment in 2005 that District Magistrates should make certain their removal, wherever they obstructed free flow of traffic. In the same year the High Court of Rajasthan initiated a suo motu proceeding which was in the nature of a public interest litigation directing the State of Rajasthan and other local bodies as to why hoardings were being permitted in Jaipur which were hazardous to traffic. The Supreme Court affirmed the directions and reiterated that Government was well within its powers to regulate licences regarding hoardings in a decision in 2006 in Jaipur Aloo Aaratiya Sangh and Ors. v State of Rajasthan and Ors. A decision in Punjab and Haryana High court in 2004 and still later a decision of 2007 from Delhi High Court frowned upon the hoardings as public nuisances and liable for removal. The Delhi Court decision was again affirmed by the Supreme Court. Tamil Nadu Rules are just as significant in that they prohibit grant of licences, (i) in front of educational institutions, popular places of worship and hospitals with inpatient treatment facility; (ii) in the corners of road or street junctions, up to a distance of 100 metres on either sides of the junction; and (iii) in front of places of historical or aesthetic importance.
Notwithstanding the consistent string of authorities expressing abhorrence to hoardings in public places and the State’s power to regulate their exhibition in public as well as private places, the particular industry has grown by court orders of stay. The judgment of the Supreme Court has not come a day too soon. The judgment has been delivered after a long gestation from the time when it was reserved for judgment. If you thought that the lackadaisical approach to helmet regulations, or auto meters were any indication to how the state government would enforce the judgment of the Supreme Court, you may be pleasantly surprised. The response from the government to the judgment has been phenomenal. The judgment had been delivered on a Thursday and the same night the hoardings were being removed. Be vigilant and make sure they do not come up.
There are sometimes, when you had rather wished that authorities do not act with such alacrity. The drive-in restaurant near the Gemini at Chennai is sadly closed. If you are a chennaiite, maybe, you had it as a venue for an amorous rendezvous, or for a business decision or held it as just a hangout with friends or as a weekend destination with your family. You may shed a tear or two, but don’t go overboard and break the gates open. If it is restored as a horticultural garden, would it not be good idea as a spot for the yearly parties of the Bar Association, but without speeches, shawls and garlands?