Friday, June 12, 2009

Digital hoardings - How the government maintains an illegal stand, unofficially

Here is a classic case of how a government does what it wants, irrespective of, what the high court tells them and what they tell the high court. This is about the digital hoardings that have become the latest(though it cannot actually be called latest, since it has been ther for a few years now) fad. Everybody wants a digital hoarding for everything. If somebody (actually a nobody) is coming to Chennai or some area of Chennai, and his chamchas want to gain favour with him, they line up the medians and the pavements with hoardings of this guy walking in a suit or talking over cell phone, with a stupid grin on his face. These highly irritating hoardings actually do the trick. They do give them good publicity.

Political parties are the major offenders. They come up with hoardings for everything. I have been so infuriated with this, that I have gone to 3 police stations so far and filed complaints against this. And everywhere I was told that these politicial hoardings are allowed for 3 days before and 2 days after the political event for which these were raised. The misuse is rampant. Nobody really bothers. They just put up hoardings even if there are no events. And even in cases where there are genuinely some events, these hoardings come up much before 3 days and will stay there till long after the 2 days after the event. So whenever I complain to the Police, I had to do it, only if there was no political event, or if the hoardings were there even after the stipulated 2 days.

But I also wondered how such orders can be given by the government, where in the hoardings can be allowed for 3 days before and 2 days after. Illegal hoardings are after all illegal hoardings. The most serious problem with these hoardings are that they pose a safety threat to road users. That being the case, how can the government say that safety can be ignored for 3 days before and 2 days after an event. That could be easily challenged in the court. So I filed an RTI with the Chennai Corporation, asking them to give me copies of the relevant orders wherein it has been specified that hoardings can be allowed before and after an event. The RTI application was sent from one place to another and finally, I received a reply from the office of the Commissioner of sub-urban police citing the GO(MS) No.62, MAWS 16-May-2007. But they told me that they did not have a copy of the GO since their office was newly formed.

When I looked up the GO on the internet (it can be seen here). This GO did not talk about the time stipulations of 3 and 2 days, but only talked about formation of committees to oversee the removal of unauthorised hoardings. Then I had the first inkling, that there probably was no formal order from the government. So I immediately filed an RTI with the MAWS (Municipal Administration and Water Supply department). But not wanting to wait for 30 days I used Section 4(1)(c) of the Right to Information act, which says that the government should voluntarily "publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public;". For this I went for inspection on 10th June 2009. Surprisingly, they did show me the file related to this. When I asked the person there as to the present status, he said that I had asked to go through the files and so I should find the details on my own in the file.

When I went through the file, I understood the whole story. There have been no official orders that Digital Hoardings can be allowed for 3 days before and 2 days afte the event. There were only 2 press releases, which can be seen here (1 & 2). That these were made after discussions with the Chief minister Mr.M.Karunanidhi clearly shows that it was under the CM's oders that such press releases were issued. The first press release says that Political Parties and other Public institutions that erect hoardings for events should do so only 3 days before and 2 days after the event. Other that there has only been a DO letter (whose copy I dont have right now, but will get soon) which said the same thing. A report in the Hindu in this regard, can be seen here.The government was playing it safe as we will soon see.

In this regard Traffic Ramasamy filed a PIL hoardings with the high court (case no 14965/2007). In this case, the high court had asked from the Chief Secretary, the rationale behing the press releases and the DO letter. There the Cheif Secretary made a complete u-turn and said, that the press release only means that licenses for hoardings can only be given for 3-days before and 2 days after the event. He also added that the press release and DO letter does not mean that licenses are not necessary, but only that licenses should be given only for 5 days. This was clearly not what he meant when he issued those two press releases. But now, realising that, the court is asking him for the rationale behind the press releases, he did a u-turn. But, in his affidavit, he did not stop at that . He went on to say that the implementing authorities should not be bogged down with such pres releases and DO letters. What crap! The Chief Secretary and the CM hold a meeting and issue a press release. A year later when the high court hauls them up asking for explanations, they say that their press release ought to be ignored. Does he really mean that what the CM and the Chief Secretary says ought to be ignored. This is so absurd.

But what has now happened is that, the press releases were initially widely publicised. And every police station now says that the government has allowed for hoardings to be set up for 5 days. But nobody knows about the Chief Secretary's volte face. So, though today there is no official order, or even an official stand, that illegal digital hoardings can stay for 5 days, for all practical purposes that is the ground reality.

Am waiting to lay my hands on that affidavit by the Chief Secretary and the DO letter. Once that is in my hands, I will go the press about this, and then use the press articles when I go to police stations.

1 comment:

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