The emotional plea of Subhasri’s father that his daughter’s death should be the last one caused by a hoarding on the road should ring in our ears till the menace ends. The difference between knee-jerk outrage and a permanent solution, between a catalyst of change and a mere statistic, lies in stinging legal deterrence.
Political functionaries wear their loyalty on their dangerous hoardings. Bigger the designation, larger the hoarding. When one bloke’s family wedding or birthday is another man’s funeral, its time to call out the nonsense. That a few parties have embarked on self regulation is some consolation. But it’s no match for the heady cocktail of money and muscle power, fuelled by sycophancy and ulterior motives for special favours. Go to the root of the issue. These are people who are already representatives of citizens or those currying favour for tickets to represent us. How dare their activities endanger our life?
Why can’t we amend the Representation of People Act to include cases of hoarding deaths in the long list of offences under Section 8(1) to attract disqualification from contesting elections? If offences like promoting enmity between groups, cruelty to women, practising untouchability or foreign exchange and narcotics related violations figure in that list, why shouldn’t acts of political grandstanding, leading to the death of people the accused claim to represent, not be brought under the disqualification rubric? The parting words of the Supreme Court in Public Interest Foundation Vs Union of India are contextually relevant. “The country feels agonized when money and muscle power become the supreme power. Substantial efforts have to be undertaken to cleanse the polluted stream of politics by prohibiting people with criminal antecedents so that they do not even conceive of the idea of entering into politics. They should be kept at bay.”
If we can have such stiff penalties under the new Motor Vehicles Act, how is the act of erecting illegal hoardings any different from drunken or rash driving? Anything that endangers human life must be met with zero tolerance and exemplary punishment. Speaking of which, how on earth is Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Open Places (Prevention of Disfigurement) Act of 1959 remotely a deterrent? These are not offences that merely mar the city’s skyline. These are offences that have the potential to cut lifelines. Section 4 of the statute cited prescribes imprisonment which may extend to 3 months or a fine of two hundred rupees! Contrast this with the more stringent and relevant Chennai City Municipal Act. Section 326 -I stipulates a 3 year jail term and a ten thousand rupee fine. Even this needs to be amended so that those causing deaths by unauthorised hoardings should be made to cough up a hefty compensation to the families of the victims. Invoking sections 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for culpable homicide not amounting to murder or section 308 IPC which is an attempt to commit culpable homicide must be norm in such cases.
There is a clear prohibition of hoardings that are “hazardous” and cause “disturbance to the safe traffic movement, so as to adversely affect free and safe flow of traffic and which is in existence immediately before the date of the commencement of the Tamil Nadu Municipal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2000.”
The Madras high court in Traffic K.R. Ramawamy Vs Collector of Chennai and others was firm that “erection of digital banners without appropriate license would attract the provisions of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Licensing of Hoardings and Levy and Collection of Advertisement Tax Rules, 2003 and no digital banner can be erected, whether for a temporary period or for a more extended period, without license from the appropriate authority. If there is any violation, obviously the appropriate authorities can take action in accordance with the provisions contained in the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, 1919, the Tamil Nadu Public Property (Prevention of Destruction and Loss) Act 1982 and the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Licensing of Hoardings and Levy and Collection of Advertisement Tax Rules, 2003.”
Rules 6(3) and 6(4) of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Licensing of Hoardings and Levy and Collection of Advertisement Tax Rules, 2003, clearly disallow hoardings “on both sides of the roads with a footpath of less than ten feet width. In roads with no separate footpath, a minimum of ten feet width shall be available between the road margin and the hoarding for use of pedestrians. Further, the hoarding shall be erected only parallel to the footpath or road and not across the footpath or road margin.” Most hoardings are a flagrant violation of such rules.
There have been repeated reminders and warnings from the Courts. The First Bench of the Madras high court in N.Karthik Vs Government of Tamil Nadu ruled that “the erection of arches, placards and display boards, banners with poles, etc., abutting into public streets and pavements, which obstruct free and safe movement of traffic or free and safe movement of pedestrians or obstructs visibility of drivers is patently illegal.”
If the traffic police do not give No Objection Clearances for hoardings and the corporation does not permit them, and they are still erected so brazenly, who should bell the cat? When political party workers assault even government officials, it would be naive to expect common citizens to lodge complaints and face reprisal. Senior police and corporation officials on rounds are empowered to order action on the spot. The drive can be videographed and uploaded on official sites to enable us to see the faces of those who try to prevent officers from doing their duty.
Let the law bite the offenders. Barking just won’t do.
(The writer is an advocate at the Madras high court, columnist & author)...