Vol. 5 Num 527 Sun. November 20, 2005  
Front Page

Outdoor ad business in mighty hands

An influential quarter very close to the top command of the ruling BNP has established a veritable monopoly in outdoor ad business in the capital in the name of its beautification.

For the last three years Advance AD, a firm owned by prime minister's second son Arafat Rahman, and its unofficial partner Arkay Group have been in control of the most lucrative advertisement spots in the city, especially those owned by the government and Dhaka City Corporation (DCC), business sources said.

Some of the sources said the prime minister's sons are also the real, behind-the-scenes, owners of Arkay Group. The twin firms, according to them, have been enjoying every support from the DCC and other government authorities concerned in rearing and running the monopoly.

The sources said, driving other entrepreneurs and firms out of the business, Advance AD alone has been pocketing the lion's share, over Tk 100 crore a year, of the roughly Tk 150-crore annual outdoor ad market of the city. Arkay has not been doing any worse either. Together, the pair bags around 80 percent of the capital's total outdoor ad revenue.

Of some 300 ad firms in the city, a number of decades-old ones have been forced to wound up their ventures in this area by the sudden and rapid rise of hegemony of Advance AD and Arkay, some nettled admen said. As the PM's son owns Advance AD, nobody dares to raise any question about what they alleged was 'the most obvious nepotism' going on.

Whomever the two firms approach, be it the DCC or a government agency that owns ad spot sought, they get quick approval offor setting up ad apparatus, while similar applications ofalthough others' ad firmsfiles remain put on ice.

They also usually don't have to pay the rent for the ad spot straight away, the businessmen alleged, adding the rent too is but a token amount. That is why the DCC in the last two fiscal years (FY04 and FY05) has earned only Tk 70 lakh against a target to the tune of Tk 30 crore from the ad sector.

The project of Dhaka City beautification was spawned by the Good Governance and Development Committee of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). Following the PMO's approval of the project, the DCC on August 26 last year handed over the major city roads and avenues including the medians, islands, roundabouts, roadsides etc to 65 private and government organisations to beautify and maintain them for the next four years.

Advance AD was entrusted with the road sections from the Bijoy Sarani Fountain to Agargaon Link Road beside Bangladesh-China Friendship Conference Centre and from Jahangir Gate via Mohakhali rail crossing to Kakoli crossroads.

Arkay Group received the road section between Farm Gate and Bangla Motors, the road-island at Farm Gate, the roundabout at the eastern end of Manik Miah Avenue, Panthakunja Park beside Sonargaon Hotel and the road corner in front of Pharmadesh Laboratory premises in Tejgaon.

At the contract awarding ceremony, the DCC mayor and his staff categorically warned that none of the bodies commissioned to beautify and maintain specific road areas would be allowed to use them for any commercial purposes including displaying ads. They were allowed to display a small signboard of their own in their respective lots.

But the practices of Advance AD and Arkay Group have been quite contrary to the conditions set by the DCC Beautification Cell. Business insiders said, right from the start, the pair has been making a fast buck by using the roads and roadsides for displaying billboards, neon signs, megasigns, unipoles and digital display screens of giant business houses in exchange of hefty sums.

The road and roadsides from the Bijoy Sarani Fountain to Agargaon Link Road under Advance AD are saturated with such ads.

The firm of Arafat usually fences in the ad spots with corrugated tin before setting up advertisement boards there, even along Bijoy Sarani, which distinguishes it from other ad houses. "If we see an ad board is being installed by fencing in the spot, we know Advance AD is doing the job, because no one would be allowed to erect a fence on footpaths or in the middle of a road except Advance AD," an adman remarked.

Arkay has been equally active in misusing its trust. It has been renting ad spaces at all the DCC lots assigned to it at cut-throat rates. A number of ads now occupy Panthakunja and surrounds the roundabout, while the citizens have been barred from entering the park since September last year, when its face-lifting completed. The case is the same for the road medians, the roundabout and roadsides of Manik Miah Avenue.

Besides, Arkay installed a huge digital ad display board at Farm Gate. Though Arkay officials refused to disclose the rate, business insiders said, on an average, it charges a client Tk 10 lakh to 12 lakh a month for displaying its advertisement on the huge screen hung on the side of a cinema hall.

According to sources, Advance AD charges its clients Tk one lakh to as high as Tk 10 lakh a year for a billboard, depending on its size. In case of unipoles, it takes Tk 3 lakh to Tk 5 lakh based on its size and advantage of the location.

But, according to the Tax Schedule of 2002, the rate for billboards on private property was only Tk 3 per square foot and Tk 6 per sq ft on lands owned by the DCC or the government. Even though the government has restructured the rates recently, fixing them at Tk 50 per sq ft in case of private property and Tk 150 in case of DCC or government land, the charges Advance AD make are really exorbitant.

The rates for neon signs have also been increased from Tk 30 to Tk 75 per sq ft in case of private property and from Tk 75 to Tk 150 in case of DCC or government land.

Business sources alleged, using their political clout, Advance AD and Arkay Group have been making the DCC and other government agencies concerned, like Roads and Highways, cancel existing deals with other ad firms on outdoor advertisements and then grab those themselves.

It was why, some firms alleged, the DCC evicted the ad firms from Airport Road about two years ago, stating that no ad would be allowed there from then on. But, later it handed the route over to Advance AD.

A victim of that eviction said, "I also had a number of ads on Airport Road. After the DCC had issued the order, I withdrew the billboards. When my firm and a few others, who had also been evicted, tried to get permission from Bangladesh Railway and the Dhaka Cantonment authorities to set up billboards on their lands as an alternative, we failed. But Advance AD did get it."

From Zia International Airport (ZIA) to Uttara, Advance AD has installed unipoles and billboards, breaking the road dividers, in violation of the DCC advertisement guidelines, which prohibits setting up any billboard on road medians. It also has installed unipole ads on Bangladesh Railway land along the rail-tracks parallel to Airport Road.

The firm also has received permission to install advertisements on the road median of Manik Miah Avenue, which no company ever did. Driving out another house, it is now in the process of setting up a digital billboard on Panthapath too.

It charges extremely high rates for displaying billboards along the road from ZIA to Uttara. It takes Tk 10 lakh to Tk 15 lakh a year per billboard, meaning its annual income from this route alone is around Tk 30 crore.

Mizanur Rahman, an official of Advance AD, however claimed, "We have installed the billboards with permission of the respective authorities. It's not true that Advance AD is using power for doing business, rather, it's doing business according to the general rules and regulations."

When The Daily Star tried to contact Advance AD Chairman Arafat Rahman, one of his employees conveyed his reluctance to talk on the issue.

However, Arkay Group Director Mizanur Rahman did talk. He said over telephone that they have been doing business legally and suggested contacting the DCC in this regard.

The Daily Star contacted DCC Chief Executive Officer and Beautification Cell Convenor M Saifuddin Ahmed for his comments on the issue. He said, "We will look into the matter, so that in future advertisements of other organisations are not installed on (beautified) road medians."

Earlier, on July 15, 2003, a meeting chaired by the then DCC chief executive officer maintained that billboards had mushroomed in the city and needed to be brought under control. The meeting decided to remove the billboards and other outdoor advertisements from DCC land and not to renew the ad contracts expiring on June 30, 2003.

The DCC in the last two fiscal years (FY04 and FY05) has earned only Tk 70 lakh against its target of some Tk 30 crore from the ad sector.

On July 19, 2003, after expiry of the contracts with admen, the DCC dismantled the advertisements expressly to beautify the city by reducing 'vision pollution'. They then decided to allow only a small number of billboards to be installed. But, now the city sky has once again become cluttered with a huge number of unapproved billboards, unipoles, neon signs and other ads, thanks to whom?