Feature Img

billboardSometime in the early hours of the 3rd of August, as the city slept in the holy month of Ramadan, a well prepared army of billboard hangers must have descended upon the Bangladeshi capital and executed the final task of putting up thousands of posters with self-proclaimed achievements of the ruling Awami League. It was no mean task to diligently collect, collate and colourfully portray, print and drape them over existing commercials — many up-to 40 feet tall or higher. The poster designers know who provided them with the statistical data; the printers know who paid for the printing; the workers know who instructed them to carry out this stunt. This was clearly something that has been in the works for weeks — if not months.

The very next day, on the 4th of August, a few newspapers attempted to investigate and file reports on their pages; the opposition made their not-so-unexpected attempts to harvest maximum mileage of this stunning publicity campaign. Ruling party and the civil servants pointed fingers at each other — perhaps unwittingly admitting guilt for this embarrassing faux pas — when asked to shoulder responsibility. Ruling party spokesmen seemed to say it was the “Government” that was highlighting its achievements — only to be rebuffed by the ever so clever, astute, yet fundamentally timid bureaucrats (who are amazingly well versed at shedding responsibility of any kind at the drop of hat) that the tell-tale seal of the Government of the Republic is missing from these posters.

The general feeling on the street — at the looming conclusion of this Awami League led government — is that indeed more development work was undertaken by the incumbents than their BNP predecessors. Various flyovers in Dhaka have been completed while others are work in progress; Mr Obaidul Quader deserves to be singled out for his hard-work and sincerity. As for all the other claims on these billboards, they’ve had very little impact – if any – on my simple distracted mind – even when I’ve cared to look up and read them.

That a political party should feel the need to advertise their achievements to the electorate on the eve of a general election — especially after conceding damning defeats in numerous significant mayoral elections — is itself totally understandable. I would even go a step further to say that in the context of cyclical dynastic rule for the last two decades in Bangladesh, the electorate should be grateful that their leaders – soon to be candidates – even to think it is important to publicise achievements out of a sense of accountability! The electorate should thank the lord for small mercies that their political leaders consider the former to be worthy of this gigantic publicity effort — even if this empowerment is destined to be short-lived. This sense of obligation to the electorate even as a fleeting thought in the minds of the powerful and the mighty of the political leadership is indeed a positive trend.

While the principle of this gesture is laudable, its execution has had a damning and negating effect on the very audience it was supposed to have impressed. This in the heels of repeated episodes of disconcerting turmoil of degenerating political violence, insecurity of life and limb in the notorious garments industry, the financial scandals, allegations of corruption by the World Bank etc., has not helped precipitate the intended positive impact.  Whether this was a miscalculation, a tactical error or an inability to read the pulse of the public on part of the brains behind this campaign is hard to tell. But that it was a confounding and absurd act of arrogance, there is no doubt.

From what I’m told, the billboard spaces and structures on public land are owned and managed by the city corporation authorities who rent these out to various private agencies for a significantly less price than what the end customer – the advertiser – has to pay for them. Newspaper reports suggest that neither the fee paying customer nor the retail agents were given any prior notice of what has effectively and simply been a breach of contract. A former president has aptly termed it an act of “billboard hijacking”. The thriving private sector — the wealth generators of the country — comprising of traders, manufacturers, service providers who want to advertise their product have been deprived of their purchased rights. I don’t imagine they are too happy about this slap in the face. As they say, it is often not what one does but how they do it that ultimately matters.

Why then stoop to this childish level in the first place? Given that most of these billboard spaces cost up-to tens of millions of taka per year, where is the sense of fairness and moral responsibility on part of those who planned and executed this brazen act in such a precise and military fashion? Why this game of hide and seek between the spineless bureaucrats and the party publicists when harm has been done, legal rental contracts have been breached and a sense of aggression is being spread? Will someone stand up and take responsibility or will they remain silent in the hope that all of this fuss will go away and this gross infraction will be forgotten and forgiven? Perhaps many feel that they have a right to do whatever they want — and that is something many have come to accept in these lands over the last two decades; any disquiet may very well be dealt with by violent reprisals. Then the essence of the laudable gesture of humility behind this publicity campaign vanishes into smoke.

Bangladesh needs to take ownership of its due responsibility and patch disrepairs in time before they become infamous human tragedies like the Rana Plaza; persistent finger pointing and claiming ignorance will only create another national comical and embarrassing Amanpour moment in the international media. If sense were to prevail, someone who is someone in the thrones of power would effect the return of the billboard spaces to their rightful fee paying customers — quickly and tactfully. It can only be done by an astute and master politician. As for the Awami League, they should know that whoever is responsible for hijacking the billboards is only making their entire party look arrogant at best — not something any candidate or party would want right before an election.

The proof is in the pudding — no matter how glitzy the icing may be. As always, time will tell.

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Shabbir A. Bashar is an electrical engineer by training and is currently a Director at a leading transformer and sub-station manufacturing company in Bangladesh.

18 Responses to “To bill boards or not to bill them”

  1. DR MUHAMMAD SHAMEEM HASSAN

    I DO NOT SEE ANY PROBLEM IN HANGING BILL BOARDS BY THE GOVT,OPPOSITION WILL NOT FOCUS ON THE SUCCESS OF THE GOVT, IT IS GOVT TO FOCUS ON IT. THE PROBLEM IS THIS THAT THE WAY THE BILLBOARDS WERE HANGED IS NOT CORRECT.THEY SHOULD HAVE FOLLOWED DUE PROCEDURE TO HANG IT OR SHOULD HAVE FIND OUT OTHER PROCESS SO THAT NO CONTROVERSY FLOATS. BILLBOARDS ARE SAYING THAT THEY WILL LOOSE 150 MILLIONS TAKA!!! OH..I SEE THERE ARE MILLIONS IN THIS BUSINESS,CHECK IF THEY PROPERLY PAY THE TAX?

    AND JUST TAKE A NOTE LAST TIME THE DURING THE JOTE GOVT THAT’S WHY THE BILLBOARDS BUSINESS WAS TAKEN OVER BY MR KOKO WHO IS NOW REFRESHING AT MALAYSIA AND WAITING FOR A FRESH VENTURE AGAIN BY NEXT YEAR. THERE WERE UPROAR THAT TIME ABOUT THIS BILLBOARDS BUSINESS WHEN ALMOST ALL THE BUSINESS WAS TAKEN OVER BY MR KOKO BUT THE MEDIA NEVER ROARED LIKE THIS…….

  2. Rezaul Karim

    As elections are near, how much money is spent in billboards and other means should be limited by the election commission. Otherwise it will be an election of money.

  3. ET

    কি যে বাজে দেখতে এই বিলবোর্ড গুলো! কার মাথা থেকে এই ডিজাইন বের হয়েছে।

  4. Adnan Bakir

    I want to know where the money came from? Did it come from the government fund or the AL fund? If government, then what right do they have to use up people’s money? Why aren’t anyone asking these questions? WHERE DID THE MONEY COME FROM?!!!

  5. Jillur Alam

    The achievements, if there is any, will speak for itself. No need to take over the city with ugly looking billboards.

  6. Latifa Hamid

    এই না হলে সরকার! কোন কিছুতে transparency নাই

  7. Sadiqur Rahman

    There are many other problems in our country. important problems. write on that. billboards are non issues.

  8. Bellal Alam

    আসল মালিকদের ক্ষতিপূরণ দিয়েছে? আমি তো শুনেছি তারা কিছু জানতই না!

  9. Hannan

    oshubidha ta kothay ami bujhlam na….billboard nieche to hoyeche ki?

  10. jahid

    I don’t see any problem with billboard campaigning. It’s done in many other countries.

    • bangalee

      In many “other” countries, government or ruling party cannot or will not take people’s property by force or without consent or without compensation. Rule of the law applies to everyone unlike in Bangladesh which does not apply to elite ones.

  11. Taher

    The government can definitely take up the billboards but why in such nontransparent way? Till date we don’t know who was behind it. AL, govt, or city corporation.

  12. Niamul Aziz Sadeque

    kono somossha nai unnoyone vashche desh, kintu billbord jara taka dia kinche tago taka ke dibo?

  13. Ahamad Ullah

    My guess is bilboard politics well bring a problem for awami leauge.

  14. Ehsan Ali Chowdhury

    Did the government or the campaigning agencies or the city corporation, whoever has taken over all the billboards, did the compensate the lawful owners whose billboard they replaced? Did they even notify the previous owners? I have heard from a few that none of them were notified. If that’s the case it’s not only illegal but extremely unethical.

  15. Hannan

    These billboards are the biggest eye sores especially when stuck in traffic jam. Whoever has designed these billboards have the worst taste.

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