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IN PLAIN SITE

June 18, 2017
Karachi’s new advertising clutter is draped in wall pastings (above) and alucobond hangings (below). The former is allowed by municipalities while the latter’s legality is up for debate | Photos by Basil Andrews
Karachi’s new advertising clutter is draped in wall pastings (above) and alucobond hangings (below). The former is allowed by municipalities while the latter’s legality is up for debate | Photos by Basil Andrews

There was a time when Shahid Afridi’s face was plastered across Karachi. On the busy Shahrah-i-Quaideen flyover, for example, the former Pakistan cricket captain would simultaneously be selling a soft drink, a bubble gum, a shampoo, a men’s fairness cream, and a mobile phone — all of them along a stretch of barely 500 metres.

But Afridi began disappearing from the city after May 5, 2016 in the wake of a ban slapped by the Supreme Court on all forms of outdoor advertising on public property. The bar came on the pretext of hoardings posing grave danger to the “life and property of the common man” and were “against the civil rights of citizens.” The billboards subsequently came down and the corporate marketers lost their favourite son.

Over a year later, the ban remains in force but outdoor advertising is back — albeit in a different form: hoardings have now been replaced by alucobond or compressed aluminium sheets that are being put up in place of billboards. And going by what industry insiders claim, it poses far greater danger to the lives of citizens than hoardings ever did.

Unlike the bulky and protruding hoardings, alucobond is lightweight and sleek, only a few millimetres wide. It is screwed onto a 1 inch by 1 inch metal square pipe as opposed to the large area occupied by a hoarding. “It is like a giant blade,” explains Syed Hamid Hussain Zaidi, vice-president of the Karachi Advertisers Association (KAA). “Wind will tear alucobond apart and if it falls [vertically] to the floor, it will slice anything in its path.”

Public safety concerns prompted the Supreme Court to ban outdoor advertising on public property in Karachi last year. Today, it has returned thanks to creative circumvention of the law

Alucobond has been used for architectural purposes for a long time but its use in advertising is relatively new. Much of the apprehension around it stems from how it is installed. Without an independent watchdog to regulate industry practices, those vendors using alucobond for advertising purposes often take perilous shortcuts. If installed improperly, alucobond can be fatal.

Meanwhile, in Shahid Afridi’s place, medians on the same Shahrah-i-Quaideen flyover for the first week of Ramazan were occupied with Jamaat-ud-Dawa pole signs about Kashmir. These were only taken down after the direct intervention of the district municipal administrator. By the second week, the same sites were occupied by pole signs of the Jamaat-i-Islami-run Al-Khidmat welfare organisation. A few months ago, these poles were occupied by a hosiery and household items company.

“Nobody was granted permission from us to put these pole signs up,” asserts District Municipal Corporation (DMC)-East Chairman Moeed Anwar. “These are entirely illegal.” It is worth noting here that in civilian-run areas of the city, District East has access to the most sites available for outdoor advertising. This in turn means that the district generates the most revenue under the advertising head among all district municipal corporations.

On many other medians and pavements are pole signs and banners put up by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in praise of their respective central leaderships. These too are banned. On some pedestrian bridges are calls for zakat donations put up by hospitals and welfare organisations. Notwithstanding the philanthropic ideals of these banners, these too are not allowed by law.

WHEELING, DEALING AND STEALING

Whether the message is commercial or political, outdoor advertising on public property continues apace despite being declared illegal. But the resurgence of outdoor advertising is logical given the size of the industry in Karachi — an estimated 10 billion rupees.

“The principle usually is that the kickback is the same amount that you have paid in tax for a site,” explains one industry insider. “If you have paid 200,000 rupees in taxes for a site, then 200,000 will be spent in kickbacks. Everyone budgets according to this principle.”

Before the ban was imposed, such transactions spanned the entirety of outdoor advertising operations — both in the public and private sphere. Today, these deals take place on putting up wall pastings, one of the two methods of “legal” advertising in the city.

Wall pastings or vinyl stickers work the same way as wall papers do. They are large stickers, simply plastered on to visible wall spaces. Whereas hoarding sites used to be publically auctioned, walls are owned by private entities. The rent is negotiated with the building owner, typically about 100,000-500,000 rupees.

The principle usually is that the kickback is the same amount that you have paid in tax for a site, explains one industry insider. If you have paid 200,000 rupees in taxes for a site, then 200,000 will be spent in kickbacks. Everyone budgets according to this principle.

Industry insiders describe that there are 60-70 legal sites for wall pastings across the city but the actual number of wall pastings far exceed those. Typically the size of each wall site is 30 x 60 feet and clients will typically be charged one million rupees for a space this size. Those buying rights to wall sites obviously need to pay tax but, unfortunately for them, it isn’t a simple one-to-one transaction with the government.

Tax is determined by two factors: site size and location. Depending on the eyeballs a site is expected to gather, tax rates vary from 187-625 rupees per square feet. Tax for a 30 x 60 feet wall site is therefore calculated as 30 x 60 x (tax rate) — this is a quarterly sum.

In principle, the challan for tax is issued by the local municipality concerned. Here’s the twist: while the government issues the challan, the receipt is held hostage by a “frontman” (third party representative) till a copy of the bank draft for the quarterly tax is brought to him. An equal amount is deposited to the frontman in order to obtain the challan receipt.

Three separate industry insiders confirmed bureaucracy collusion with the mafia. “Over 1.5 billion these days,” says the second industry insider when asked to put a number on kickbacks made. “In the days of hoardings, it was 10 times this amount.” Another agreed with the ballpark figure while a third refused to comment saying he couldn’t verify the exact sums involved.

What makes matters worse for outdoor advertisers is that “temporary” challans are issued, usually for a period of three months (even though the established practice is to pay a year’s taxes in full). On the challan, it is clearly stated that these permissions can be deemed null and void at any time — thereby using the cover of plausible deniability to evade the law.

But this is the story of legal advertising; the story of unauthorised advertising sites is altogether different.

In the days of hoardings, a mafia alleged to be working with criminal elements associated with various political actors in the city enjoyed immense privilege and immunity in the outdoor advertising sector. There were murmurs that part of the reason for the blanket ban on outdoor advertising was to choke terrorism funds. Privately many industry insiders concede that there is a great degree of truth to these rumours but nobody is willing to speak on record.

What one insider did state, while requesting anonymity, was that the end of hoardings did not mean that the mafia went away. It simply reinvented itself. “The same mafia has entered wall pastings too,” he explains.

“They have their private wall sites, don’t pay taxes, and even those that are doing legal business have exploited legal lacunae very well.”

The legal lacunae he alludes to emerge from the definitions outlined in the interim order handed down by the Supreme Court tribunal [see box overleaf]. So for example, while the court had barred any “billboards/hoardings on rooftops and over-han[g]ing on footpaths, roads and triangles”, alucobond sheets could be slipped through the law because the court hadn’t explicitly ruled on these.

LEGAL, ILLEGAL

Although billboards were removed on the pretext of safety, the visual clutter in the city has assumed a new form: wall pastings | Photo by Basil Andrews
Although billboards were removed on the pretext of safety, the visual clutter in the city has assumed a new form: wall pastings | Photo by Basil Andrews

Revenue raised from the lease of hoarding spaces, as per the law, used to go to the local municipal authority concerned. What differentiates the outdoor advertising sector from others is the fact that payments used to be made in advance to the local municipality and receipts issued accordingly. In the public sector, advance payments are an anomaly since the flow of money is usually staggered. But with advance payments being made, the flow of money would be eased out for the local government and governance functions would be easier to execute. It is for this reason that outdoor advertising was a crucial head in the revenue generated by the local government.

But the ban ground this practice to a halt. Its impact was felt most severely by two kinds of stakeholders: the elected local government and the small vendors (along with associated labour).

“Revenue generated from outdoor advertising was the main avenue available to the local government to generate funds,” explains DMC-East’s Anwar. “The Sindh government has clipped our ability to generate funds and has simultaneously been squeezing the Karachi administration financially. This is a grave concern.”

Indeed, governance functions and civic upkeep have both suffered particularly in areas manned by the KMC and its subordinate DMCs. Unlike the last time a local government was elected into power and enjoyed sweeping powers, this time round the provincial government is fulfilling many of the functions that the local government ought to have performed. And therefore, the ban on outdoor advertising on public property has only amplified the cash crunch faced by the local municipalities.

Under the Mustafa Kamal-led city government, for example, revenue from outdoor advertising constituted about one-seventh of the total revenue earned by the city government. “We have lost one billion rupees in revenue due to the ban,” explains Syed Abdul Ghani, DMC-East’s Advertisement Director. “This was before the advertisement head was devolved to the DMCs. We have had to reconfigure our targets: this year we are looking at collecting 10 crore rupees (100 million rupees) in revenue from District East.”

After the ban was imposed last year, various stakeholders entered discussions with the local government and sought clarification on what was allowed and what wasn’t. “The mayor and our district administration both went through the court order and the relevant rules,” explains Anwar. “After consultations with our lawyers, wall pastings were deemed legal. As was mobile advertising, where advertisements are placed on vans. The rest is all illegal.”

The distinction between legal and illegal advertising is important: the former is defined in terms of government-approved hoarding sites as well as payments being made in full for a stipulated period of time. The latter is either about licenses having lapsed or, about hoardings being erected without due process and therefore without handing the government its due in taxes.

“We believe that wall pastings are also illegal since the relevant laws do not apply here,” argues Zaidi of the KAA. “While the rest of the market was involved in advertising on skins, only a handful used vinyl stickers.” Skins could be produced faster and therefore most vendors imported and operated machines that could churn skins at a fast rate. When the ban on billboards and hoardings came, those associated with the production end of the industry found themselves in no man’s land.

Cognizant of the financial blow to the various municipalities, the Supreme Court tribunal at its March 14, 2017 hearing also sought financial records for the past five years from the federal, provincial and local governments which indicated how much revenue was collected from advertising alone. It has also asked for details of how this revenue was utilised.

Industry insiders are apprehensive, however, that once the Supreme Court checks compliance of its order once again, it will ban wall pastings too. “District East generates the most revenue but that also means that it has the greatest visibility over eyeballs,” says one insider. “After East declared that wall pastings were legal, others followed suit. And now you have the same overbearing presence of outdoor advertisement that was once associated with billboards.”

However, Ghani refutes the idea that it was because of DMC-East that wall pastings emerged in other parts of the city. “Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) for example had taken down wall pastings and then initiated a debate on whether they were legal,” he says. “Eventually, they resolved that indeed wall pastings were legal.”

In the civilian sector, the devolution of power that handed DMCs the right to collect advertisement revenue instead of the KMC has affected the process of accountability. Not only are most arrangements localised, sometimes even the illegal is presented as legal. “Alucobond is safe,” claims one government official. “No permission for alucobond has been granted,” retorts DMC-East’s Anwar.

LABOUR, NO MORE

Legal outdoor advertising of course takes place in both the public and private sectors, but the size of the public sector dwarfed the private sector. Office-bearers of both the KAA as well as the Outdoor Advertising Association (OOA) estimate the number of workers associated with the six branches of the trade — advertising, fabricating, flex-fitting, electrician, printing and procuring steel — to be between 150,000-200,000. In the words of OAA President Rahat Muhammad Ali, “About 90-95 percent of the sector has been wrecked.” In other words, this is that segment of the industry which was directly tied with the advertisement business that was taking place on public property.

KAA’s Zaidi explains that the majority of this labour is unskilled and illiterate, and does not have any other immediate ways of gainful employment. “We are talking 200,000 families here, not just individuals,” he says. “If you take away one person’s job, you are depriving five to seven members of their family. The total number of affected people should therefore be counted as over one million.”

Indeed, Al-Karam Square, the hub of all kinds of outdoor advertising needs in Karachi, now paints a sorry picture. Situated smack in the middle of a working class locality, vendors and the staff they hire come from around the area. Not too long ago, business was bustling with work coming in from the government, multinational giants, non-profit organisations and even political parties. Today much of the labour force has been laid off, some have already migrated to other parts of the country where outdoor advertising is still booming, while various vendors are selling off their machinery to recoup investments made.

Mohammad Naeem is one such vendor who was running a booming business in Al-Karam Square. “Has outdoor advertising stopped anywhere else in Pakistan?” he asks rhetorically. The answer is no but for this vendor, it has larger ramifications. “I needed money to pay off one of my employees who I had to let go as well as for some personal household expenses,” he narrates. “Last week, I sold off one of my machines to a vendor in Mianwali to meet these costs.”

This is a line of reasoning that echoes with DMC-East Chairman Anwar: “Most of the labour is moving to Punjab because there is an advertising boom in Lahore and other urban centres.” Other sources also list Sindh’s smaller urban centres such as Hyderabad and Larkana attracting the same labour. The inference is clear: why is Karachi being singled out?

Among the claims made by small and medium outdoor advertising vendors is that many of them have been priced out of the market because the kickbacks involved in the industry have suddenly increased.

But there is another element at play: alucobond is expensive and therefore only a few can afford it. The end-clients for these are largely multinationals and big corporations — those who can afford to pay inflated prices quoted by the advertiser. “It is business as usual for them,” claims Naeem, “but there is no business for the little guy.”

Meanwhile, other industry insiders smell a war of competing advertising interests. “Brands tend to divide their advertising budgets into print media, electronic media and outdoor advertising,” explains one advertiser. “So if there is a ban on one kind of advertisement, where is that money being diverted to? The other two heads, of course.”

Imran Khuwaja of the OAA is inclined to agree. “Newspapers and the electronic media have played a major role in knocking down the outdoor advertising industry,” he claims. “They all portrayed throughout that the business is illegal even though the sector is governed by separate laws.”

This conspiracy theory might have few takers outside the industry, however. And yet, the resounding resurgence of wall pastings has dented the argument that all outdoor advertisement has been taken down. It is only the unsafe ones that have been deemed dangerous to public interest.

ACCOUNTABILITY AND REGULATION

Although there is great internal politics in the sector over representation and vested interests, what even rivals agree on is the need for greater transparency and proper regulation in the sector.

“Things ought to be regulated, not banned outright,” asserts OOA President Rahat M Ali. In fact, both the OOA and KAA agree on the fact that advertisers’ positions were misrepresented in court and the tribunal was misled.

“It all started in December, 2012 when an advertiser named Munawwar Younas moved the Sindh High Court against inflated taxes levied by the Cantonment Board Karachi (CBK),” explains Khuwaja. The high court ruled in favour of the advertiser but the CBK headed to the Supreme Court for relief. The Supreme Court upheld the high court’s decision and asked CBK to withdraw their application. Once this chapter was closed, the Supreme Court began enquiring about the relevant laws that allowed outdoor advertising as well as those that allowed tax rates to be jacked up.

“Our government responded that no by-laws existed,” explains Khuwaja, “even though all 17 land agencies collecting taxes from outdoor advertising have their separate laws to govern the sector in their respective jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Munawwar Sahib never recovered the extra money he had been forced to pay.”

In the discussions that followed, KAA officials began arguing that an independent technical committee ought to be constituted which could ensure quality standard checks on billboards and hoardings, and periodically also physically inspect them.

“Currently all you needed for a hoarding site was a certificate issued by a structural engineer registered with the Pakistan Engineering Council,” explains KAA’s Zaidi. “We have proposed that one central authority be constituted for this purpose so that things can stop being run on an ad-hoc basis.”

Zaidi explains that hoardings used to have a certain set of safety guidelines and manufacturing standards. “When you’d put up a skin on a billboard, that skin ought to tear when high-speed wind hits it,” he says. “If the skin doesn’t tear, that means that the billboard has not been placed properly and will cause peril at some stage.”

In an attempt to guarantee safety, the KAA also proposed the need for a central regulator — a suggestion that has gained traction among other small and medium advertisers. Not only would that put to rest safety concerns with respect to hoardings and billboards but it would also ensure some uniformity in advertising by-laws. Where there are multiple sets of laws governing outdoor advertising in the city, there would be one. Where there are arbitrary rates set on site rent, there would be scientific costing. In a nutshell, all murky practices would be mainstreamed and the mafia slowly driven out.

“Selecting sites without prerequisite data and analytics permits opaque pricing,” explains H. Kashan, Team Lead at 24Grey, a Karachi-based outdoor advertising technology and analytics agency. “The buyer has no leverage other than to negotiate the price down on whatever is available. The vendor or the agency has no interest in selling the most efficient site because they want to sell the most profitable sites.”

For the client, this data is crucial: the greater the number of eyeballs gathered, the greater the “awareness” of their brand. More awareness translates (at least in principle) into greater interest, desire and ultimately the act of buying (a product) or consuming (an idea). Not having the right data means that the client has been sold a false promise.

But this was the theory. The outdoor advertising sector was blighted by the curse of shortcuts and a lack of transparency. Only a handful of agencies practiced measuring impact, the others went by crass estimates or made-up numbers. For most, however, it was clear that in order to do business, they had to pay off the mafia rather than make their business practices more transparent.

“The price opacity and structural weaknesses of the outdoor advertising industry not only allow but promote collusion,” argues Kashan. “If a product is sold without discussing any of its merits, purely on the price alone, there is nothing stopping the agency or the vendor to want to sell subpar quality material.”

For labour, though, these are concerns that ought to be ironed out at the top tiers of the industry.

“This was the first season for schools when they couldn’t properly advertise admissions,” says Zaidi. “What used to happen was that they’d budget between 25,000 and 50,000 rupees every year. They would usually get sites that would charge between 15,000-20,000 rupees. And they’d put on a banner or a steamer (small-sized pole-mounted ads), maybe a pole sign proper. All that has stopped after the Supreme Court explicitly banned steamers.”

“The negative press that billboards garnered over the last few years due to safety hazards in the monsoons season turned the public’s opinion against this industry,” argues Kashan. “Unfortunately the outdoor advertising industry never came together to counter or alleviate the public’s concerns.”

“A middle ground is needed and only an independent watchdog can ensure transparency,” says KAA’s Zaidi.

Ahmed Yusuf is a member of staff.

He tweets @ASYusuf

Basil Andrews is a freelance journalist who works on urban spaces and the politics of consumerism. He tweets @_BasilAndrews

THE BAN AND ITS LEGALESE

On May 5, 2016, a Supreme Court tribunal led by Justice Amir Hani Muslim and including Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain slapped a ban on billboards or hoardings of any nature to be installed on public property. The order read as follows:

“There is no law which permits KMC, DMCs, cantonment boards or any other agency in Karachi to install billboards or hoardings on a public property. Such an act on the part of [the] permission granting agency is against the civil rights of the citizens. The civil rights of the citizens cannot be hampered with by erecting the billboards or hoardings on the civic amenity meant for the use and benefit of public at large. Besides such an act would endanger the life and property of the common man.”

Public property was also defined by the court in an attempt to “avoid any discrepancy.” The following were classified as public property (see adjacent illustration):

1) Roads

2) Sidewalks

3) Islands in the centre of a road/service lane — including but not limited to “sponsored islands” whereby the entire island is maintained by a private person who displays his name and products on the traffic signs

4) Overhead bridges and underpasses

5) Overhead pedestrian walkways/bridges

6) Roundabouts — including but not limited to, sponsored roundabouts, whereby the entire roundabout is maintained by a private person/or any organisation who displays his or their name and products on the traffic signs

7) Green belts/dividers between a road

8) Pedestrian lanes

9) Nullahs (storm water drains) and the banks of nullahs which abut roads

The court ordered civic agencies to file a compliance report at the next hearing, scheduled for August 2, 2016.

Some 29 days later after the order was issued, civil society groups gathered at Teen Talwar to protest against trees being felled to make space for billboards and hoardings. Although the court had slapped a ban, not many were giving it much shrift. The protest spurred the authorities concerned into action: slowly but surely, hoardings started being taken down.

At the next hearing, on August 2, 2016, the court also banned “billboards or hoardings installed on rooftops or hanging on the walls of commercial markets/malls/plazas, abutting the roads/footpaths, pavements or overshadowing public places in private properties.” The August 2 order warned of holding any authority in contempt who granted permission to install billboards or hoardings thereon. It granted a month for all existing structures to be taken down. The only exemption made was for Independence Day (August 14) that year, where banners, flags and buntings were permitted albeit temporarily.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 18th, 2017