By Himal Kotelawala, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

Hoardings, hoardings everywhere. Since the mid '90s, hoardings and billboards have been springing up like mushrooms not just within the Colombo city limits and other urban areas but all over the country, with the exception perhaps of the war torn north and east. Eye-catching they may be, but their uncontrolled proliferation and what seems to be a lack of checks and controls by the authorities concerned has many ordinary citizens worried.

Take a train or bus to Kandy or Nuwara Eliya and you will be amazed by the countless hoardings along the way. Not only do they mar the natural beauty of the countryside, planted as they are in the midst of lush paddy fields and misty hillsides but they also act as a dangerous distraction which could prove fatal in the event of a motorist taking his eyes off the road to glance even momentarily at a the picture of a beautiful woman draped across a gigantic billboard on the side of the road.

The Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) is the authority when it comes to handling these structures in municipality controlled areas in Colombo. The Urban Development Authority (UDA) and the Road Development Authority (RDA) oversee the construction of hoardings outside Colombo together with local authorities such as municipalities and Pradeshiya Sabhas.

RDA General Manager R. W. R. Premasiri says that about a year ago there was a problem of unauthorized hoardings being put up on RDA property but these were later removed. But in terms of its Thoroughfare Ordinance, there is not much the RDA can do about hoardings put up a certain distance away from the road, he points out.

"The regulations are there, formulated through our Thoroughfare Ordinance that hoardings cannot be put up on roadsides without our permission," he says. “But people put up hoardings outside the Right of Way. It's ugly and it's a distraction."

For Class A roads, billboards cannot be constructed within 50 feet from the centre of the road even if it's on privately owned property. For B class roads, the distance given is 40 feet.

"If someone puts up an unauthorized billboard we can take legal action against them," he adds.
There is greater awareness among authorities about this growing problem, The Sunday Times found, but whether the action being taken is concerted and sustained enough to make a difference is the question. Urban Development Minister Dinesh Gunawardene says that when it comes to areas outside of Colombo the UDA works together with local authorities such as municipalities and Pradeshiya Sabhas.

"We have been dismantling some of the billboards near schools. There are certain areas where billboards should not be allowed at all. But highways and roads are handled by the RDA. They have given permission for some hoardings," he says.

The Minister adds that although the UDA has certain powers, it doesn't have police powers, meaning they can't take down hoardings as they see fit. However, they can work hand in hand with the local authorities under the Local Authority Ordinance.

UDA Acting Chairman Rama Anuja says that in areas like Anuradhapura, the UDA and the RDA need to be consulted before putting up billboards.

"When it comes to billboards outside of Colombo, especially on highways and roads, billboards are allowed as long as they don't disrupt the traffic. But we don't allow billboards one after another," he says.

Approval and guidelines.

CMC Director Engineering Projects U.A. Leelananda explains that applications for displaying hoardings are processed and approved by an advertising committee of the CMC. "The committee was changed from time to time. Sometimes it wasn't functioning properly. Up to 2003 there weren't many hoardings in Colombo. Only a few had been approved," he says. But at present there are around 820 hoardings on council maintained roads alone - not counting the UDA maintained ones, which the CMC considers to be just like any other private property.

A set of guidelines for putting up billboards were drafted a few years ago and former Commissioner Dr. Jayantha Liyanage decided to implement these, says Mr. Leelananda.

"But they couldn't be implemented as most of the advertising companies went to court as a lot of hoardings would have had to be removed if the guidelines were implemented," he says.

The guidelines specified that hoardings cannot be put up in close proximity to schools and places of worship, that only three hoardings are allowed within 300 metres of a roundabout and just one within100 metres of a T junction. All of these, of course, are being blatantly violated. But then no action can be taken against these "violations" since the guidelines are not law.

Mr. Leelananda assures that the guidelines will, in fact, be implemented sooner or later.
"The new Commissioner is in the process of implementing the regulations. It's up to the courts," he says.

These guidelines, if and when they are adopted will drastically reduce the number of hoardings in Colombo. For instance, hoardings will not be allowed down Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Independence Mawatha and Parliament Drive up to Devi Balika, and Galle Face. Even those already there will have to go.

"If we implement it, 150 hoardings can be removed," says Mr. Leelananda. That is quite a number although it may seem an insignificant reduction compared to the 1023 hoardings that have been granted approval, 200 of which are pending installation.

Loss of income

The technicalities behind putting up billboards are such that you cannot have your own billboard in your own private property without playing a display tax. Mr. Leelananda of the CMC charges that most billboards are displayed in private locations without paying the relevant taxes. As hoardings are considered "hard structures" they are taxable and anyone who wishes to put a billboard, even in their own backyard, must apply.

"We're losing an enormous income because of this. There are very few who actually apply," he says.
A billboard cannot be removed until a notice is sent to its owner and a case is filed. But there is a catch. Every billboard that has been given approval by the CMC comes with a reference number. It is compulsory to display this number, otherwise it is considered unauthorized.

During the recent Vesak holidays Mr. Leelananda did a survey and discovered that there are 820 hoardings in Colombo, 116 of which did not carry a registration number. "We can't warn them (the owners) if there is no registered number," he says wryly.

Some billboards have become a serious threat to pedestrians quite apart from being an eyesore. Some are built in the middle of pavements while others are potential killers threatening to fall onto an unsuspecting pedestrian during a windy day.

But the CMC asserts that the owners of the billboards are responsible for whatever damage caused.
Mr. Leelananda suggests that the CMC should identify proper locations in Colombo for displaying hoardings as per the guidelines and then go for a tender to control what he calls this "uncontrollable situation".

"That way it'll be easier to control this and get more income for the CMC," he says. The CMC, UDA and RDA have professed their readiness out to put a stop to the hoardings 'outbreak' and the Western Provincial Council (WPC) too is threatening to remove all unauthorized hoardings in Colombo by seeking the support of the army and the police to dismantle them. But whether this, like many other initiatives will be carried through, only time will tell.

Perhaps the onus is also now on the companies themselves that seek to advertise their products and services to be more conscious of their corporate social responsibility and thus be restrained in the number and size of the billboards they choose to have and also in their choice of locations to prevent Colombo and the rest of the country from being turned into an unsightly billboard jungle.

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