Writing on the wall: Beware Visual Pollution

  • Naveed Suhail
  • Publish Date: Apr 23 2018 1:49AM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 23 2018 1:49AM
Writing on the wall: Beware Visual Pollution

The clutter of hoardings, posters, utility poles and cables, graffiti, garbage mounds, open drains that has come to dominate Kashmir’s public spaces isn’t merely an eyesore. It is a socio-economic problem and a health hazard.

 

Have you walked somewhere and felt disturbed by the clutter of hoardings, posters, buntings and such? Well, you had good reason: environmentalists are increasingly warning about harm from visual pollution. 

Just like any other type of pollution – air, water, soil or noise – visual pollution damages our environment. Specifically, it harms the visual environment, which refers to all visible things, and thereby our wellbeing. According to the World Health Organization, “people who have a bad view out of their window are up to 40% more likely to fall prey to depression”. No wonder, environmentalists and public health professionals, especially in the West, are increasingly paying attention to the surroundings people live in. 

Kashmir, being a predominantly rural setting, was mostly free from visual pollution until not long ago. But increased urbanisation in the past quarter century or so has dramatically altered the landscape, especially in towns and big villages. Today, eyesores abound. 

Visual pollution, or visual overload as it is sometimes referred as, encompasses all irregular and unwanted formations, smoke, dust, unorganised cables and wires, randomly dumped litter, billboards, posters, wornout buildings, heaped construction material, utility poles, open drains, graffiti and anything else that would affect a person’s ability to enjoy a vista. Bills and stickers on vehicles and walls, especially if misarranged, are considered visual pollutants. The major source of visual pollution is the advertising industry.

Though there are laws that can combat visual pollution such as the Defacement of Property Act, 1985, they are rarely enforced, if ever. It’s illegal, for example, to paste posters or bills on public property, yet they are everywhere – at bus stands, on utility poles, flyovers, compound walls, vehicles. Painting on walls is also not allowed but it is quite common in Kashmir. “Space for hoardings is sold to advertising agencies by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation to generate revenue but writing on walls is illegal, especially on government property,” says Imtiyaz Ahmad, Revenue Officer, SMC. “It isn’t difficult to file a chalan but the process is cumbersome as the person either has to go to court or come to office until the case is solved.”

Partly, it is also due to the lack of awareness about the harmful effects of visual pollution. 

Though a few advertising agencies that Ink spoke to claimed they no longer take contracts for wall paintings, fresh paintings appear quite regularly in the city and beyond. 

Clearly, this violates the law. But is the administration doing anything about it? “Cases against Vodafone, Idea, Khyber, TCI, Tata and several other companies have been filed under the Defacement Act and are being fought in the courts since 2014,” says Akhtar Jeelani, General Head Manager, Revenue Department, SMC.

Visual pollution isn’t just an aesthetic issue, it is also a health hazard and is detrimental to our economic health, civic sense and the quality of living generally. Moreover, an overabundance of advertisements – in the form of hoardings, banners, wall painting, posters – is said to reduce “opinion diversity”, especially if the advertisement scene is dominated by a few big players, which, given the nature of today’s economy, is generally the case. It also gradually causes the loss of “place identity”, especially in urban areas.

Then, there is the safety hazard. Overcrowding of utility poles and hoardings around roads and at crossings is a matter of concern. They distract passersby and even cause accidents. In some cases, drivers have missed traffic signals because of dazzling billboards, leading to accidents. “Festive seasons are challenging as all kinds of decoration, particularly near shrines, makes it difficulty for drivers,” says Aijaz Ahmad, a driver. “Roads should be free from all this.”

Researchers have found that different communities have varied sensitivity to visual pollution. Most people living in urban regions, even children who grow up in the vicinity of visual pollution, don’t generally feel the need to correct the picture, so to say. Some studies have even suggested that crime is less in areas with less visual pollution, emphasising the need for pollution-free environment. Others have found a connection between visual pollution and the fact that “driving through a city generates much more stress than driving on country roads”.

Another reason for increasing visual pollution is our degrading civic infrastructure. Some of the visual pollution is a by-product of other forms of pollution. For example, the SMC’s sweepers clean the city’s roads almost every morning but in the absence of a proper waste management system, their effort ends up yielding little more than mounds of rubbish and huge amounts of dust particles in the air. “The 3,500 safaiwalas can’t clean the whole of Srinagar. The number of our safaiwalas has remained the same as 30 years ago while the city has expanded threefold,” says an official of SMC, who asked not to be named. “I must accept, even though I am part of the municipal corporation, that the situation is bad.”

“Some land filling sites are controversial, people don’t let us dump,” says another official, “The Municipal Act and various other schemes have not been properly implemented and targets have not achieved. People should be penalised for burning of waste but burning waste has become a norm even in government establishments. Everything is on paper but not on the ground.”

Combating visual pollution also makes economic sense, not least because tourism is vital to Kashmir’s economy. More than anything, perhaps, Kashmir sells its “scenic beauty” to visitors. And obviously, scenic beauty and visual pollution don’t go together. Indeed, many countries whose economies are largely dependent on tourism have taken strict legal measures to tackle visual pollution. 

Kashmir too must urgently take steps to address this problem. For one, the administration needs to better regulate outdoor advertising, encourage use of biodegradable materials, install multi-utility poles, use camouflage where possible, maintain buildings, roads and other structures better. Most importantly, we need to generate awareness about visual pollution and its hazards.