THE recent spell of monsoon rain in Karachi has brought the menace of billboards to the Supreme Court’s attention once again. A few days ago, a large hoarding near the city’s Metropole Hotel broke loose from its moorings during a thunderstorm and injured two motorcyclists passing on the road below. Taking note of the incident, the apex court on Monday ordered that all billboards and hoardings on public buildings and properties across the metropolis be taken down. Further, the three-judge bench asked the city commissioner to inspect billboards on private buildings and have them removed where they pose a threat to the public.
Urban centres in Pakistan have long been blighted by the mushroom growth of outdoor advertising. In 2014, Karachi alone had an estimated 3,000 plus hoardings and billboards. The sale of outdoor advertising is an extremely lucrative business for government officials, cantonment authorities, and outdoor advertising agencies. Even green belts and footpaths in some places are commercialised, a blatantly illegal step given they are amenities and hence cannot be put to commercial use. In 2016, when over a dozen 20-year-old trees were chopped down to make space for billboards on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, the Supreme Court took the view that the law did not allow for outdoor advertising on public property and ordered the KMC, DHA and cantonments boards to remove it. Moreover, it ruled that billboards and hoardings clutter the city’s landscape, increase visual pollution and pose risks to pedestrian and drivers alike. The land authorities took their time to comply with the court’s directives. In several places, the infrastructure to mount billboards was left intact in anticipation of the storm blowing over and resumption of business as usual. Sure enough, hoardings and signboards have begun slowly popping up all over the city; sometimes, even when mounted on private property, they defeat the considerations of public safety. Only when corrupt elements in the district municipal corporations and cantonment boards are punished will this game of whack-a-mole end.
Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2020