Tackling India’s Noise Pollution

Noise pollution is a severe problem in India.

Romi Jain Updated Headshot

 

The music blessed by Providence
sucked gently my mind into abyss
pouring into cochlea divine elixir;
gloom retracted like a tortoise
and I can show it its predator anytime!…

– Romi Jain

 

 

Noise pollution is a severe problem in India with deleterious consequences for human health, such as hearing impairment, rise in blood pressure, cardiovascular ailments, headache, mental distress and loss of sleep, apart from hindering academic studies and causing discomfort to patients. It emanates from diverse sources such as industrial activities, construction activities, vehicular horns, fire crackers, generator sets, loud speakers and music systems.

Unsurprisingly, India’s Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in 1981 considers noise pollution an air pollutant. In 2000, the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules set ambient air quality standards in respect of noise (in decibels, dB) for industrial, commercial and residential areas and silence zones, as shown in the table below. They also direct state governments to undertake measures for “abatement of noise” resulting from vehicular movements and horns, fire crackers and loud speakers or public address systems, and to ensure that noise levels do not exceed the permissible limits.

Ambient Air Quality Standards

 Confronting Noise Pollution in India

Source: Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India

Moreover, civil society organizations have combated noise pollution by taking up the matter to local development authorities or by taking legal recourse. On its part, Indian judiciary has sought to provide respite to tormented petitioners through a number of judgments. For example, the Supreme Court has banned the use of loudspeakers and “bursting sound-emitting” fire crackers between 10 pm and 6 am. Nevertheless, the issue of noise pollution is unrelentingly grave. This is primarily because of poor law enforcement, owing to the absence of accountability for police and civic administration almost across the country, and the lack of civic sense among people.

Cacophonies of Noise

Honking the horn incessantly and impatiently is a prominent feature of ear-splitting activities in India, especially on busy roads or as a signal to overtaking another vehicle. It is also done as a precautionary necessity when pedestrians are neglectful of the moving vehicles, when one can expect a vehicle to emerge abruptly from a corner or when a stubborn wild animal is not moving aside.

Religious festivals such as Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi and Navratri create euphoric moments of merriment among people, boost social gatherings and enable the devotees to please their deities through devotional songs and observance of fasts. These occasions become a source of erosion of mental peace and atmospheric calmness because of noisy celebrations. State pollution control boards have been reported to be generally lax in monitoring pollution levels even during such events.

It is imperative to note that the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests launched the Real Time Ambient Noise Monitoring Network in 2011 to address the lack of real-time data. Under its first phase, automatic monitoring stations were set up in seven cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Lucknow. The data received from these stations showed that the noise levels were far above permissible limits. For example, commercial areas reported 93 dB in breach of the 65 dB limit, whereas the entire city of Chennai reported noise levels at over 100 dB, prompting an article in the Times of India (April 27, 2011) to equate living in Chennai with “living in a factory!”

Availability of such data should be helpful to state pollution boards in curbing pollution. No doubt, state-of-the-art technology is vital to combating environmental problems. At the same time, the acid test lies in undertaking proactive actions, based on outside-the-box thinking, by state governments or implementing agencies.

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How is politics sometimes a hindering factor? Jawahar Nagar, a posh colony of the Jaipur city in Rajasthan, is equally notable for its slums that mushroomed up once encroachment on the costly land began. Divided by a road, where for a long time the incessant movement of trucks had been a nightmare for slum and non-slum dwellers, the slums exist closely parallel to the non-slum area and are progressively hiding the beautiful hills by proliferating upward. While the slum dwellers’ zest for life is admirable because of their enthusiastic celebrations of festive occasions and organization of devotional programs, their ear-piercing, hoarse voices over loudspeakers in daytime and at night, accompanied by the blare of music systems, sound the death knell of peace.

Temples are not only the centerpiece of these noises but also the strategic armor to the slum inhabitants since the development authority would dare not demolish these temples (a politically and religiously sensitive issue) to evacuate the encroached land. It is an open secret that these inhabitants, who constitute a vote bank, have the moral and at times material support of the local politicians.

In Delhi the situation is worse. As reported by India Today (November 4, 2012), the noise level is 16 times higher than the prescribed limit, mostly because of the “unregulated and overloaded” trucks, sparing not even the patients in AIIMS and Safdarjang Hospital. In the Capital and other parts of the country, operation of factories in residential areas is another source of day-to-day distress, especially affecting the students and ailing residents. Schools and tuition classes in residential areas have a share in producing consistent noise – shrill of kids at play, horns blown by school buses and taxis, hullabaloos at canteens – as well as congesting the streets as students’ vehicles intrude on residents’ parking lots.

Lack of Civic Sense

The noise nuisance stems largely from unethical commercial practices. Young guys love riding bikes in streets using shrill hooters. At Diwali, few parents instruct their children not to light noisy fire crackers at night. Jagrans or late night devotional songs take place regardless of the inconvenience caused to others especially the elderly. In fact, individual selfishness lies at the root of the routine acts of incivility such as encroachment on a neighbor’s parking area or a user’s negligence in flushing a public toilet. Similarly, the absence of social obligatory sense, apart from the apathy of local administration, accounts for noisy commercial activities in residential areas.

Hence civic sense is quite essential. It is, of course, a Herculean task since the notion of civic obligation is alien to a multitude of people in the country who seem to be more aware of the “democratic ritual” of casting votes at periodic elections. As such, civic sense should be inculcated at an early age at schools. Moreover, imposition of heavy penalties on wrong-doers is imperative, whether they are individuals or commercial organizations, regardless of the status of an offender. Realistically enough, in the absence of civic sense, respect for the law is unlikely to take root unless the fear of punitive action is present.

Someone jokingly commented: “There is no perfect atmosphere to commit suicide in India. It is so noisily lively!” This is perhaps the silver lining!

This article has been updated since original publication in Sharnoff’s Global Views.

Romi Jain is Vice President of the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs.