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     Volume 9 Issue 22| May 28, 2010|

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Cover Story

The Sign Wars

Syed Zain Al-mahmood
Photos: zahedul i khan

Dhaka is billboard city. From small wooden boards mounted on poles to massive rooftop hoardings, billboards dominate the urban landscape. Love them or loathe them, if you live in Dhaka, there is no getting away from them. Many consider the huge signs a necessary part of the urban consumer lifestyle while others oppose them on grounds of safety and aesthetics. For years, the Dhaka City Corporation and outdoor advertising companies have been locked in a dispute over the billboards. The DCC claims most of the ads are illegal and a threat to public safety. The advertisers say that the DCC has collected taxes from them and argue that the signs can't really be so bad if the city has neglected to take them down for decades. In the heated atmosphere, finding common ground has proved elusive.

What little greenery remains in the City is often blocked from view by a wall of billboards, leading to calls for regulation of outdoor advertising.

For homeowner Shawkat Hossain Khan, the freshly inaugurated Bijoy Sharani-Tejgaon link road has opened up new horizons. Not only has his roadside plot of land and three-storey building gone up in value, he is also able to charge more rent for the two floors he chooses to rent out. But Khan isn't done yet. He hopes to make up to Tk 1.5 lakh a year by allowing two billboards on the roof and the side of his building.

“The advertising company came to me and wanted to rent my roof,” says Khan, surveying the newly built iron frame on which the billboard would soon go up. “I spoke to my wife and she said why not! With the high cost of living and the bank interests, we certainly need the money!”

Khan says he did his duty as a responsible citizen by asking the advertising company whether they had a trade license and tax papers. “Apart from that, whether I choose to rent out my property for

Digital LED boards that display video ads are a new addition to the urban landscape.

advertising is my business.”

Not so, contends the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC). According to the DCC, of the 3000 or so billboards and mega signs in the city, 90 percent were erected without permission and therefore must be taken down. The DCC has vowed to dismantle existing billboards and is severely restricting new ones.

The issue of billboards was thrust under the spotlight when a large hoarding on Gulshan 1 collapsed during a storm on March 15, killing two people in the road below. Such incidents have happened before, and this time attention was focused on the DCC's failure to oversee the mushrooming billboard industry. The authorities were forced to act. A committee was formed by the DCC to regulate public advertising and an eviction drive against illegal billboards was launched immediately. But advertising agencies claim the authorities have gone from inertia to trigger-happy destruction.

Ripon Talukdar, runs a small advertising company in Uttara. He started up in 2007 with a loan from a relative, and now employs 12 people. He says four of his billboards were knocked down by a DCC team overnight without warning.

“I have lost about Taka 12 lakh,” says Ripon, gloomily surveying the wreckage. “They say we are operating illegally, but it is the DCC that has kept us outlawed. We approached them many times for permission, but although they take money regularly, they haven't given formal permission.”

Ripon says he is in trouble not only because he has lost his billboards but because he has taken advance payments from his corporate clients. “I don't know how I will make payroll and meet bank payments. My billboards have been here for several years. The DCC could have spoken to us instead of dismantling everything. We would agree to any condition.”

Although the tragic accident in Gulshan focused public attention on the billboard issue, the battle lines were drawn many years ago when the DCC tried to ban rooftop advertising. In 2005, DCC imposed a ban on installation of billboards on building tops and decided to remove the existing ones. But the move was challenged by advertisers who said it infringed on their basic rights. The Outdoor Advertisement Owners' Association (OAOA) filed two writs -- one against the DCC and the other against Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk).

Landlords looking to make a quick buck often rent out the facades of their buildings, blocking windows.
Banners and festoons on a foot overbridge blocks the view, making it unsafe at night.

“No one should try to stop installation of new billboards as the advertising business is a growing industry around the globe,” says Rafiqul Islam, President of OAOA, and the Managing Director of Neptune Group. “Advertising is necessary for the economic growth of the country. Also, it is a thriving industry and the livelihood of 10 Lakh people is connected to advertising. This is why we challenged the DCC in court.”

The court issued an interim stay order on the DCC until the writ was resolved, and the matter dragged on through the courts. After the accident in Gulshan, a citizens group filed public interest litigation as a result of which the court ordered all illegal billboards to be removed. The earlier writ was also dismissed after DCC and Rajuk lawyers appeared in court for a hearing of the petition. Many analysts are critical of the DCC's failure to vacate the stay order for so long.

“It's clear that the DCC made little attempt to have hearings on the writ and dispose of the matter,” says Barrister Raghib Chowdhury of the Supreme Court Bar. “It is unusual for a stay order to remain for so long.”

Since the stay order was vacated, the DCC has launched a drive to dismantle the city's rooftop billboards which they say are illegal and unsafe.

“We will not let illegal and hazardous billboards to remain,” says Sirajul Islam, Chief Planning Officer of the DCC. “We have launched new guidelines on how to apply for billboards. Under the rules, every billboard structure must be certified by a structural engineer as safe. They must also be consistent with the city's beautification plans.”

Rafiqul Islam, a pioneer of outdoor advertising in Bangladesh, says he has no problems with the new guidelines, but accuses the DCC of inconsistency. “They don't consult us as stakeholders when they draw up these rules. The implementation is also not uniform, and this gives rise to corruption and nepotism. In the past, I have proposed that Buet engineers should inspect and certify my structures. Now they want to tear down all the billboards. Why not just ask the owners to have them certified? Those that are defective can be strengthened and retrofitted.”

Poorly constructed billboards can be a safety hazard during storms.

The word “illegal” rankles with Islam. “We pay a model tax on the billboards which is about Tk.50 per square feet. How can you collect tax from something that is not legal?”

According to the OAOA, the DCC collected “model tax” on the billboards until fiscal year 2008-2009. “They stopped collecting tax in 2009-2010 because their lawyers probably said it was weakening the court case,” suggests Rafiqul Islam.

“We are ready to pay the taxes but it seems DCC is not willing to take it," he says. “If installation of billboards is legal elsewhere, then what is the problem in Dhaka?”

Many experts suggest the DCC is inconsistent and poorly equipped to deal with the advertising industry. The city corporation does not have a specific cell to deal with billboards and outdoor signage. The matter of billboards has been shunted about from section to section in a bizarre game of bureaucratic musical chairs. Initially, the Revenue section was in charge, after which the Estate section, the Waste Management (conservancy) section and the Planning section took turns in overseeing advertising matters. Two weeks ago, the Waste Management division was finally given the responsibility of supervising the city's billboards. DCC officials refused to comment on whether the Corporation considered the boards waste material.

Sirajul Islam, Chief Planning Officer of the DCC, admits the Corporation lacks the manpower to adequately oversee the outdoor signs, but says a separate cell to deal with this is on the cards.

Although the safety issue has become paramount following the fatal accident in Gulshan, many analysts say it is a regulatory problem rather than a problem with the medium itself.

“Building a billboard is not rocket science,” says Prof Dr Sekender Ali, a structural engineer and professor of civil engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet). “In itself the gravitational load isn't much. But you have to make sure it can stand the wind load. During a storm, there is wind suction, which tends to lift the billboard. For that, you have to anchor it with a strong cement base, and steel bracing. Unless the billboard is very large, there shouldn't be a problem with most buildings.”

Although the Gulshan tragedy resulted in plenty of bad publicity for outdoor advertising industry, Rafiqul Islam says lax enforcement by DCC is to blame. “Because of corruption and lack of regulation, a lot of people with no experience have entered this business. I heard the billboard in Gulshan was erected by the owner of the shopping mall on which it stood. A professional advertising man would never make such a mistake.”

Apart from safety issues, many city residents oppose the massive billboards on aesthetic grounds, considering them an urban blight. Dr Shamsul Islam Akand, a general practitioner and resident of Dhanmondi, looks on outdoor advertising as a pollution of public space -- space that should be reserved for the public good.

“You can't even see the green that Dhaka was once famous for,” says Dr Akand. “There is advertising everywhere. You cant turn it off. It's always in your face.”

But others support the billboards, saying they are an important part of a free market economy. They point out that the advertising industry has grown on the back of near seven percent growth and an emerging middle class. “Advertising is part of business growth,” says Abul Kashem Khan, President of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Billboards are a part of city life everywhere. The rights of Bangladeshi businesses to advertise must be protected, keeping in mind safety and aesthetic concerns. But any extreme measure like a blanket ban on billboards would be counterproductive.”

In many countries, the right to advertise is linked with the right to freedom of expression. In the United States, attempts to ban billboards is often resisted by advertisers by invoking the First Amendment of the constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and expression. Many experts argue that in a country like Bangladesh, where literacy and the penetration of the internet is low, billboards play an important role in informing consumers about products and services. There is however an emerging consensus that the outdoor advertising industry must be regulated an opinion to which the leader of the outdoor advertisers subscribes.

“There should be a separate entity to deal with the outdoor advertising industry,” says Rafiqul Islam. “There should be members from Rajuk, the home ministry, academia and other stakeholders. It should not be wholly controlled by DCC, because that's how corruption and inefficiency starts.”

Many advertisers accuse the DCC of trying to be the judge, jury and executioner. “They say they want to take down all the billboards,” says the owner of an advertising firm who did not want to be named. “But eviction isn't the solution. It will force even more irregularities. There will be a new round of corruption with the new permits.”

Advertisers like Ripon of Uttara are afraid that once DCC and Rajuk take down the existing billboards, permission will be given to new people who will be even more inexperienced. “Why not begin a dialogue and allow us to conform with the new guidelines?” he asks.

Over the years, the advertising industry has grown more and more sophisticated and invested in newer technology. Ummay Habiba Nila, Managing Director of Opus Sign Limited is one of the few women entrepreneurs in this field. She started Opus with a technician and an office boy five years ago, and now employs 60 people.

“We have brought in latest machines,” says Nila, who does digital printing for the billboard companies. “Business has been growing. But if billboards are banned, we will suffer. Most of my clients are in outdoor advertising. I hope the government will find a formula where the industry will flourish. Everything is quite haphazard right now.”

Many legal experts are also critical of the penalties that might be imposed if a billboard collapses. In the case of the Gulshan tragedy, a murder case was filed against the owner of the billboard.

“In such cases, negligence must be established,” says Dr Asif Nazrul, professor of law and Dhaka University. “It's clearly not homicide, but it can be murder by negligent act under section 304A of the penal code. If the case is not properly filed, it will be dismissed.”

The DCC seems intent on freeing the Dhaka skyline from billboards for now. Although they say the drive is against illegal billboards, they admit most billboards have not received permission. “If you flout the law, you will be punished,” says Sirajul Islam, Chief Planning Officer of the DCC.

While the City Corporation seems to see the issue only in terms of procedure and beautification, the advertising industry and many business leaders consider a ban to be too extreme a measure that might harm small businesses by making it nearly impossible for entrepreneurs to advertise.

Properly constructed and tastefully placed billboards can enhance the urban landscape.

“Television and print advertising is expensive and is in the public eye for a limited time,” says Rafiqul Islam. “Billboards are there 24/7 and costs a fraction of the amount. I call on the government to save the industry. We are prepared to do our part to beautify this city.”

Back in Uttara, Ripon is bitter as he surveys his wrecked assets.

“The bureaucrats and politicians are good at covering their tracks,” he says. “They allowed this situation to get out of control and now they want to tear everything down. They don't care. But for us, this is our bread and butter. I have mouths to feed.”


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