GONE are the 20ft-long bars of Dairy Milk. Gone the models with Veet-shaven legs. And gone the handsome cricketers, inviting you to open a refreshing can of Pepsi. Over the past 20 months officials have stripped Karachi, Pakistan’s throbbing business capital, of all billboards on public property. On a drive through its traffic-clogged streets, fresh views of concrete highways and pedestrian overpasses greet the eye. “The city is barren by comparison,” beams Sumaiya Zaidi, who campaigned for the purge.
The clean-up jars with Karachi’s reputation, for two reasons. First, the local government usually fumbles even basic tasks. Mafiosi sell water to many of the city’s 15m residents, driving tankers down pot-holed or unpaved roads. Second, the megacity is the heart of Pakistan’s retail market, whose latest annual growth of 8.2% is about the fastest in the world, according to Euromonitor, a market-analysis firm. Keen to hawk their wares within its bounds are the country’s biggest businesses and its most outrageous hucksters (including one entrepreneur arrested for painting stray dogs and selling them as pedigree chums).
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Why, then, the ban? “Civil rights” is the official answer. In 2016 the Supreme Court vaguely claimed that a rash of billboards endangered the “life and property of the common man”. Local media had reported injuries after monsoon winds blew over rickety structures. Pedestrians complained about the blocking of pavements. And during the trial a judge warned that the sight of a giant woman eating a biscuit could distract male drivers, causing them to crash.
Yet the unofficial answer aligns better with Karachi’s cut-throat reputation. The rate that established firms in the outdoor advertising industry had been able to charge for a billboard had plummeted before the ban, notes a retired official. A clutch of small businesses had been making signs using cheap laser printing and illegally flinging billboards up across the city. The fact that the concerned citizen who originally petitioned the Supreme Court seems to have vanished has fuelled speculation that he was acting on behalf of struggling advertising firms, says a journalist, Mahim Maher.
The ban has hurt the trade’s small fry. Only a few workers remain in Al-Karam Square, a cavernous building that used to thrum with flex-fitters, steel-workers and laser-printers. “I had to let go of 90% of my staff,” sighs the despondent Naeem, whose unventilated workshop reeks of paint fumes. Around 125,000 labourers are thought to have lost their jobs. Some, drawn by the still-billboard-strewn streets of Pakistan’s other big cities, have moved.
There is also a political dimension to the ban. It feeds into a long-running battle for control of the city between the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a party of migrants from India which dominates the city government, and the liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which rules the province of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital. The city government manages to collect only a tenth of the municipal taxes it is due, the World Bank estimates. It used to earn around a seventh of its revenue by letting space for billboards. Some advertising firms say they also paid the MQM bribes equal to the official fee. Today the party is split, demoralised and cash-starved. MQM leaders claim the PPP engineered the ban to sabotage its preparations for a general election this summer.