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There is a billboard epidemic in India!

September 5, 2007

Call it them examples of advertising vandalism, visual pollution or label them as the pox of outdoor advertising…or simply call them hoardings or billboards!

Though I am not against advertising, the number of billboards in our cities have reached epidemic proportions and I have developed an allergy to them. And guess what…most of them are illegal!

Ours is one of the few countries in the world where permission to put up hoardings is given easily (without urban skyline assessment) and where illegal billboards are ignored, specially those put up by political parties.

This inspite of the 1997 supreme court order banning hoardings (order to MCD, Municipal Corporation of Delhi) because they were “hazardous to traffic”. In 2004, Punjab and Haryana high courts passed similar orders. In March this year, the Delhi high court reiterated that the Supreme Court order had to be followed.

Action Plans
Something is happening. Rumbles of discontent from as as far back as a decade ago are now bearing fruit! In almost all the major cities of India, a move to get rid of billboards or at least regulate them, is gathering momentum. About time too, considering that the law has made it mandatory.

I first read about the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) wanting to ban hoardings in the city, and decided I would find out what was happening in the rest of the country…as well as a little about the rest of the world.

First Mumbai. The BMC wants to ban hoardings, whether illegal or legal. Areas are to be designated as “no-hoardings zones” and in other parts of the city, ugly hoardings will be substituted with “backlit, back-to-back advertisements, building wraps, neon signs and trivision ads.” And all this is slated to happen within the next 5-6 months.

Over the past few years a battle has been on in Pune to prevent hoardings from defacing the city. There are indications that the city plans to come down hard on illegal hoardings, but there is no visible sign of improvement as of today.

In Uttar Pradesh the urban development department does not want hoardings on highways (national, state and district) in the state. Municipal bodies of different cities also want dangerous hoardings removed from the roof tops of buildings, specially as many are poorly maintained and in danger of collapsing.

In Tamil Nadu the government is set on a plan to get rid of all illegal hoardings in six corporations – Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai, Tiruchirapalli, Salem and Tirunelveli. As for hoardings which are erected for functions, they will be allowed only for three days before the function and two days after. Then the government will pull them down.

In Delhi, all hoardings that compromise road safety are to be removed.

In Bangalore, the BBMP (Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike) is launching a drive to remove all illegal billboards from this month onwards.

In Hyderabad there are demands to remove hoardings from city junctions as they are a hazardous to traffic.

In Kolkata, there is a drive to pull down illegal hoardings.

Strong protests from the outdoor advertising lobby
While no one can protest too much about the razing of illegal hoardings, the outdoor advertising lobby is up in arms against Mumbai’s proposal to ban hoardings in large parts of the city. Some feel that such decisions are harmful, specially as many of our country’s populace is illiterate and need the hoardings! They feel that the outdoor advertising industry is being unnecessarily targeted, and that hoardings should be simply regulated, not banned. Naturally, they would feel so – a lot of money is involved.

Sure, billboards can be regulated, but first of all get rid of 60-70 percent of them! (It is believed that these many are illegal, many of them the small ones) In any case billboards, whether legal or illegal, should not be allowed to deface natural beauty, the city’s skyline, or cause safety hazards. No-hoarding zones as the BMC has proposed are the need of the hour!

The rest of the world
All over the developed world, billboards are regulated. The laws regulating the places where hoardings are to be put up are strictly enforced. But there are countries that have had billboard problems. Greece for example.

As recently as the year 2000, Athens city “embarked on a successful four-year project demolishing the majority of rooftop billboards to beautify the city for the tourists the games (2004 Summer Olympics) will bring, overcoming resistance from advertisers and building owners.” And just this year São Paulo, Brazil put in place a billboard ban to get rid of what their mayor called “visual pollution.”

In Japan, there are plans to strengthen the already strict rules for outdoor advertising, including a ban on rooftop advertising in certain cities. The aim is to preserve the skyline.

So while I do not completely echo the feelings of environmentalists who believe that “billboards and advertising in general contribute negatively to the mental climate of a culture by promoting products as providing feelings of completeness, wellness and popularity to motivate purchase,” I certainly feel that the advertising clutter that we are experiencing today in the modern world borders on vulgarity and is a sight for sore eyes. Outdoor advertising in particular can border on advertising vandalism because you can’t switch it off and you cannot keep it away.

(All pictures are copyrighted to me. They have been taken in Mumbai and Pune)

Update: A news report today says that residents need not give permission for billboards to be put up on their builidings! This indeed seems strange to me. Another thing, fines of Rs 1000/- to Rs 2000/- are too little to deter the offenders and that is why there are so many illegal hoardings. There is a move in Mumbai to increase penalties and come down heavily on repeat offenders.

Related Reading: Uglification of a city by advertisement banners during the Ganesh Festival
What political hoardings do to a city
Setting advertising standards in India

More: Pesticides poisoning India
Clotheslines are an eco-friendly way to dry clothes
Where have all our sparrows gone?
Shocking pollution during the Ganesh Festival
A way to tackle sound pollution
Clothes contain chemicals that could harm you

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2007 9:43 am

    Good that lot of cities are having a regulation on these hoardings. They really ruin the beauty of a city.
    Look at this link, as to how French are so keen on the aesthetics of their cities.

  2. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 5, 2007 11:48 am


    What a pleasant surprise, a self-confessed diehard supporter of free-market capitalism opposing something that is (wrongly, to my mind) considered as an inescapable part of marketing, which in its turn is supposedly the lifeline of business. (If there is no demand, create it! Buy, not because you need it but because we, the producers, must earn, and earn fabulously!!)

    Since the argument so far is purely on the grounds of aesthetics, why not extend it to include TV commercials? It is terrible to see, on channels with generally sane programming such as National Geographic, Discovery and the History Channel, interminably long and repetitive advertising slots interrupting every 5-7 minutes of programme. I believe there are regulations and guidelines about how much time per hour of telecast should be given to advertising, how frequently, and how long in a tranche, but these are observed mainly by default.

    On the other hand, coming to hoardings on roads, it should be all right if they are few and far between, aethetically pleasing, witty and not a hazard in any way (including distracting drivers).

  3. September 5, 2007 12:08 pm

    Vivek, I maybe a capitalist, but am not an extremist. 🙂
    And yes, I agree with you on tv advertising too. Not just that. Its the kind of advertising that is targeting children that I am completely against. In fact I am a strong believer in the consumer movement and if you read my posts in the category of consumers you will see how strongly I feel about the subject. All capitalist countries have a strong consumer movement, which is to counteract the side effects of capitalism. In India, the consumer lobby has made some inroads and I think is getting stronger every year. In fact I am a strong believer in consumer rights! One of the reasons why I want the retails chains in India. 🙂

    Vasuki, thanks for that info.

  4. B Chopra permalink
    September 5, 2007 1:11 pm

    Great, It’s good to see govt. actively regulating them.. that make sense.. Also, I would love to see govt. acting strongly on misrepresented or false advertisement too.. BUT I strongly support advertisement – Just imagine that you spent years of research and millions of investors’ money for developing an idea that could save or prolong hundreds of thousands of lives. You put your product on the market and advertise.

  5. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 5, 2007 2:42 pm


    Re. TV ads, even worse than targeting children is their casting of women in sterotyped “home-maker” roles. And feeding the Indian obsession with complexion through the “Fair & Lovely” genre of ads. Why are the women’s groups not raising their voices about it?

  6. September 5, 2007 2:49 pm

    Vivek, I think the womens groups feel that its not that important. I guess there are so many atrocities happening that this must surely be trivial to them. but yes, I think they should not let it go, if an ad is offensive, they should protest.
    btw, there is an advg standards council (link is on my blog) where people can complain about ads. you might be interested to know that in india very few people bother to complain. that is typical, isn’t it! in developed countries, an offensive ad can get thousands of complaints! that also inspite of their population being so small as compared to ours! I think there is a general apathy in our country about consumer issues. Maybe its the lack of education…

    Bharath, ofcourse ads are very necessary for a thriving economy. but unfortunatley in india the advg watchdog (advg standards council) is weak. No teeth. I have written a very long article on this (published in the A&M mag) about how the courts in developed countries take serious congnizance of the rulings of ad council bodies there, and how even traders can be made to boycott those products and companies which flout the norms and decency in ads. that is why companies there immediatley toe the line and withdraw the offending ad. in india there are various instances of companies continuing to air misleading ads inspite of the ruling going against them.

  7. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 5, 2007 4:19 pm


    Don’t you think that by letting the “trivial” pass we are in fact feeding the bigger atrocities? For example, a guy marries a girl for the fat dowry she brings. Then he decides she is not fair enough for his liking, and starts treating her badly, and matters go from bad to worse…

    These things have to be nipped in the bud. Make such a noise about the tiniest infringements that people will think twice before moving on to bigger things.

    BTW, where can I find the prescribed programming-to-ad time ratios for TV channels shown in India? Which is the watchdog body to monitor adherence to the standards? Can I complain as an ordinary citizen? While the snob in me looks down upon TV as being just a stupid opiate, I do once in a while like to watch particularly the three channels I mentioned in my earlier post, and also, rarely, a film that has won critical (not “popular”) acclaim. I find it simply unacceptable to have civilised programmes being frequently interrupted by something as innately uncivilised as ads. In a magazine I can just flip past the offending page and continue reading. But on TV, since I cannot do that, I find it offensive and intrusive (also, in a mag you don’t see the same ad repeated ad nauseam in the course of a single issue). Surely there must be a body which looks into the grievances of a minority such as the one to which I belong?


  8. September 5, 2007 5:17 pm

    “Billboard Epidemic” – nice way to put it! Ha ha!

    I completely agree. I returned to India last year after being away for a couple of years, and found that in this time, the number of hoardings had literally exploded to every nook and corner of every major building on every street!

    It’s obnoxious. For me, the advertising works the other way around. If I see the same billboard 50 times in a 20-km drive in the city, I feel nauseated about what they’re advertising!

  9. September 5, 2007 5:47 pm

    I always wondered if the billboards really work in Mumbai,.. we are so accustomed to ignoring ads on websites (we just don’t see them) isn’t it. The only times I was reeeallly pissed off at them was when I was trying to take pictures in Goa or Kerala. Your post also reminded me of an episode in the show Office-Office.

  10. September 5, 2007 5:50 pm

    I wonder how u manage to find such socially relevant topics and write on them in detail everyday..good blog

  11. September 5, 2007 6:09 pm

    Vivek, for some odd reason your comment went into my spam box! I think this spam collector of mine is malfunctioning! Anyway, to answer your question, yes ofcourse I feel these things are also important.
    About complaining about TV, I can only think of the Information and Broadcasting ministry. In developed countries they have Oxham or some such organisation, but in India I do not know of one. I only know the ad one. Finding that infor you want wlll be difficult to my mind as even though there are technical mags giving information about tv viewership (available in ad agencies), that kind of info is usually not given. Also as these are private companies, they will not officially give it to you.

    Mahendra, this happens to me on tv! If I see the same ad again and again I get irritated with the product!

    Priyank, you know I myself don’t notice the brands that we see on billboards, have got so immune to them. But people do notice. I think as far as these advertisers are concerned if one in a hundred persons passing by notices, its okay by them! Outdoor advertising cost per view is pretty cheap. Cheaper than tv or print. If a billboard is around for say a month (rentals are usually for longish periods like this) then they can rake in quite a few views.

    ரவிசங்கர், thanks for the appreciation. Comments like yours make my day. 🙂

  12. September 5, 2007 11:28 pm

    I have a question for the world renowned Objectivist thinker and pro-capitalist political commentator, Mahendrap:
    As free market advocate, why do you ‘completely agree’ to this post, which suggests a need to curb the right of people to their private property??

  13. September 6, 2007 9:02 am

    In the 90s, AOL sent out CDs by the cases to every household in the US. To get them to learn about the error of their ways, one enterprising guy started a campaign asking everyone to send the CDs back the AOL HQ en masse. The CDs flooded the AOL offices and in due time this ‘marketing campaign’ stopped.

    Now if everyone can gather the reliance, hutch, pepsi and coke hoardings and plaster it over the gated communities of their marketing heads. Lets see if they can savor the view out of their windows with the sight of their own advertisements!

  14. September 6, 2007 10:16 am


    Please see the context of “completely agree”: I am completely agreeing to the title of the post, that there is a billboard epidemic in India. I understand the possible ambiguity involved, as a comment can be reasonably expected to apply to the whole post, but I thought the context made it clear. Anyway, I apologize for the confusion.

    That being said, I am definitely against all illegal hoardings. If advertisers or their sponsors think the law is wrong, let them fight and win it in court and then proceed. As a consumer, I’m also pointing out the negative effects of such mindless advertising.

    Right to private property also cannot be looked at in isolation. For e.g. in areas surrounding airports, even though you may own some property, you would be prohibited against putting up tall towers with lights that may confuse plane navigators/pilots.

    //world renowned Objectivist thinker and pro-capitalist political commentator//
    Uh? Where did that come from? Is this a joke?

  15. September 6, 2007 10:24 am

    Supermaneesh, yeah that would be fun wouldn’t it! Thats what advertisers often ignore…that every human being is free only to the extent that he does not infringe on the rights of others. Whether it is sound pollution, visual pollution or air pollution! I mean there have to some sort of standards!

  16. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 6, 2007 2:19 pm

    Thanks, Neeta! You would agree, then, that what applies to the freedom of individuals also applies to the freedom of markets, marketers, corporate entities, advertisers etc. etc. etc.

  17. September 6, 2007 2:27 pm

    I am not sure what you mean Vivek, but I believe in free markets because I believe that they help human beings, alliviate misery and poverty. I consider my religion to be that of humanity.
    If a person is doing something to profit himself, its fine as long as he is not cheating anyone or harming the environment.
    And certainly I am not the kind who blindly believes in anything. I will never apply any of my beliefs sweepingly. I am too much of a pragmatist for that. What I mean is, every instance and situation is different and needs a different approach.
    But then that is another discussion.

  18. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 6, 2007 2:35 pm

    What I meant is the right of small businessmen to earn a livelihood vis-a-vis the right of corporates to bulldoze them out of business.

  19. September 6, 2007 3:08 pm

    May the best man win. this is what works best in public interest in the long run. no one bulldozes the other, but outsmarts him or outmonies him, and I say hurray. those who are not smart enough to make a living can ask for welfare from the government…I do believe in welfare. but the idea that anyone should interfere in business is shocking to me. Evil, in fact, because this is what leads to mass poverty…
    but really, not too relevant to this discussion on environmental issues.

  20. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 6, 2007 3:24 pm

    I don’t agree with you at all, and it is very central to this discussion, but if you say so, let it be!

  21. vish permalink
    September 6, 2007 4:43 pm

    ‘I do believe in welfare. but the idea that anyone should interfere in business is shocking to me. Evil, in fact, because this is what leads to mass poverty…’

    and the same applies to big coroporates…why they approach the government asking for sops! and they contribute and help politicians to win elections irrespective of the party or ideology! expecting them to return the favour once they are in power. As an i’ndividual’ I cannot do that and you cannot say I am not ‘smart’..

    Today’s news, goverment is planning to slash the customs excise for medium and big cars in order to help the automobile industry to sustain and stay in business…whose money is at stake! and what is left for the welfare from the public money? Would you support or allow the industry to die and we all can import cars in a free market?

  22. September 6, 2007 4:54 pm

    Vish, we were not a free market economy at one time and changes have to be done gradually, but they have to be done.
    And about the actual case you mentioned (about customs duty) I do not have enough knowledge about the issue to give you a proper answer…but my beliefs do not sweepingly apply to all things.
    And I too have some disgust for the way some corporates operate…but at the same time I believe their presence is necessary. As to the kind of things they do, not all are right, and we need to have a greater vigilance. but the root of the problem is our politicians, if they are not corrupt industry can straighten out quite a lot. we need greater transparency about how election funds are collected, but thats another story!

  23. September 6, 2007 8:49 pm

    Nita, not sure if this movie would be available in India, but it’s an excellent documentary on corporations and their history:

    In the US, corporations get subsidies from the government – that’s tax-payer’s money. So, what we have is a mixed economy, not a free-market economy. I doubt if there’s any single country that has implemented capitalism in its purest form – the governments always ensure that the corporations get an unfair advantage.

    Regarding billboards, I’d think that the local communities, residents and municipalities should decide what’s best for their community to balance aesthetics and need for ads. For me personally, I’m more for aesthetics than blighting the natural spaces (e.g. along the highways) with ads.

  24. September 6, 2007 9:16 pm

    Amit, yes, I have heard of these subsidies. I believe even the agricultural sector gets huge subsidies. I think America does try to achieve some sort of balance, as do all countries with a democratic form of government. That is how it should be.
    And I agree with you entirely about the aesthetic part. I think one of the reasons why one’s quality of life is poor in India is because everywhere one sees dug up roads, ugly constructions, billboards gone haywire, lack of gardens and open spaces, traffic jams, etc…it can really get to you!

  25. Prachi permalink
    September 26, 2007 3:04 pm

    Why is it that everytime one mentions of banning hoardings in south Mumbai the pictures and images shown are of the wards not in question? They are of Bandra or Mahim area. Another thing that I’d like to mention is If aesthetically unappealing hoardings are to be done away with and replaced with newer aesthetically appealing ones then why aren’t the hoarding owners asked to do so by the BMC why ban a perfectly legal trade and ask for tenders from other parties? How can trivisions on already congested if at all existing footpaths be an answer to doing away with hoardings? Won’t they create more congestion and force people to walk on the roads and in turn create more traffic hazards? If illegal hoardings have already been removed and also the ones in ‘heritage’ areas have already been removed by Court Orders how can the BMC supercede the court and ask for a blanket ban. And how can you’ll as free thinking individuals not do a decent study before supporting such ridiculous bans.

  26. September 26, 2007 4:03 pm

    Er Prachi, the picture in my post where I am talking of Mumbai has a picture of an hoarding in South Mumbai. Nariman Point, and its a picture I took myself.
    Also most citizens will not feel very involved with BMC’s decision to call for tenders from other parties, and not from the present hoarding contractors.
    Also I don’t think that I have said anywhere in my post that I support trivisions.
    And as far as I know the BMC is discussing this issue with citizens groups…and as for doing a ‘study’ frankly that is beyond the capability of ordinary citizens. And that is all I am…I am not an interested party, neither a hoarding contractor or a government representative and nor do I own a shop which is blocked by a hoarding. I am simply an Indian citizen and I strongly object to visual pollution.

  27. Prachi permalink
    October 25, 2007 5:54 pm

    🙂 Please define Visual pollution, there are two snaps the one at Nariman Point according to most ordinary citizens would not qualify as visual pollution. That said all i request any ordinary citizen is that one should not form an opinion or comment on issues or support either directly or indirectly any cause or ban based on ones likes and dislikes but after reading both sides of the story. We all hate hutments tehy are eyesores and they need to go, but can they just go without us considering the people who will suffer and wouldnt we ,as ordinary human beings first opt for their rehabilitation before the final axe falls? That’s what i’m saying, before the final axe falls, compensate the legal hoarding owners, contractors and all the people who would suffer because of this unfair ban. Any ordinary discerning human being would and should do that. What say Nita? :))

  28. October 25, 2007 6:21 pm

    Ofcourse, I am not saying take arbitary decisions. Some sort of solution can be worked out where legal hoardings are concerned. It also has to be examined how legal they are. Just because the BMC gives permission does not make them legal in my view. All sorts of permissions are given by our esteemed BMC people as the proliferation of slums show.
    However I do not think that we can equate the proliferation of hoardings and slums. It is a question of life and shelter where slums are concerned, a fundamental right of citizens. The state owes them at least that. That is my view Prachi.

  29. Abhi permalink
    May 23, 2008 8:46 pm

    Hi all I m working in advertising field & i m one of the printer who do print billboards.

    According to me Bill board advertisement is the way of communicating with the society.Many advertise do help u to make a decision in our daily busy schedule,many people do not read,do not see television,but they can see these bill boards/hoardings while traveling.

    Hoardings are placed as per Municipal corporations permission,rules & it provides them good earnings through taxation.

    But as a producer of these bill boards,I myself feel that the material used for this purpose must be recyclable & plastic contents must be less because this material (PVC/Flex) creates pollution.

  30. Sabnam permalink
    June 25, 2010 4:13 pm

    Hi, If a person is doing something to profit himself, its fine as long as he is not cheating anyone or harming the environment.
    And certainly I am not the kind who blindly believes in anything. I will never apply any of my beliefs sweepingly. I am too much of a pragmatist for that. What I mean is, every instance and situation is different and needs a different approach.
    But then that is another discussion

  31. bibek permalink
    August 7, 2010 6:05 pm

    hey can anybody tell me about the cost of different outdoor advertising medias in india???

  32. October 20, 2011 7:44 pm

    Fed up with the hoardings in Bangalore…wondering if there has been any improvement in other cities from the time this article was written? How about getting together to solve this problem in some way?

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