It’s raucous, ear-splitting, hellraising. A cacophonous soundtrack most of the time. Irritable static when the “shows” wind up. Never unplugged.

The city has become an auditory hell, as heavy, discordant notes boom from multiple sources — “devotional” music from places of worship (the temple festival season is nigh), background scores of political meetings, rabble-rousing, honking, loudspeakers exhorting, plugging, pleading … The din never stops. At least in decibel levels, the city is neither sleepy nor serene as it is made out to be.

But the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000, have set standards with regard to noise, classifying the environment into four and setting a permissible level for each. The night — 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. — has a separate limit. But a recent baseline survey conducted by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board shows all rules drowned in the noise. Silent zones simply do not exist.

Decibel levels

When the prescribed limit is 50 decibels (dB) during the day in silent zones (which is defined as 100 metres around hospitals and educational institutions), the survey reveals measurements that go up by at least 20 dB.

For instance, at the Government Medical College Hospital, 77.5 dB was recorded in November 2012. In February 2013, 77.8 dB was recorded at the Ayurveda College junction, 76.1 dB at the General Hospital junction, 74.6 dB at the Government Mental Hospital at Oolampara, near Peroorkada, and 75.3 dB at the Government Women’s and Children Hospital, Thycaud.

At the Sree Chitra Thirunal College of Engineering, Pappanamcode, 80.1 dB was measured when the survey was done in 2013. At the Government Girls’ High School, Pattom, the level touched 76.3 dB, and at the Swathi Thirunal Music College junction, 89.4 dB. These figures are off the charts even by “industrial zone” standards, where the limit prescribed is 75 dB during the day.

In commercial zones, the limit is pegged at 65 dB, but locations such as the Statue junction (78.3 dB), the Chala market (76.6 dB), Manacaud (90.7), and Attakulangara (93.2 dB) recorded far higher figures. These measurements were taken in March 2013.

Measurements were taken at around 100 locations first in 2011-12. Thrideep Kumar, Environmental Engineer of the board, says the findings of the two baseline surveys are inconclusive, but taking these measurements will help establish a pattern in time. Fluctuations of only a decibel or two were found in the same location in the two surveys. Unsurprisingly, not even a slight reduction in noise levels was detected anywhere.

In 2012, the board carried out a separate survey in 31 locations during the Attukal Pongala festival in March. None of the figures dipped below 75 dB, with the “average energy” or noise index peaking at 101.1 dB at Palayam. At VJT Hall, 99.2 dB was measured, and at the largely residential area of Sreekanteswaram, 78.6 dB was measured.

(To compare, 50 dB is attributed to a quiet suburban area or conversations at home. Eighty dB recorded at many locations is the equivalent to the sound produced by a freight train from 15 metres away. Prolonged exposure to this level will lead to ear damage. A motorcycle 25 feet away is said to produce 90 dB.)

K. Sajeevan, Chairman of the board, says the results of the surveys will be used as a foundation for a far more elaborate ambient noise mapping programme in the capital city. “It is an ambitious scheme, but it will provide results that are far more accurate than that of any previous study, and enforcement of rules can be better carried out. We have already had talks with the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. They are the ones with the technology and the software that will help us put together so much data,” he says.

Several “environmental accreditors” will be calculated, including temperature, humidity and the height of buildings.

No respite

But, for the time being, there is no respite from the noise for the denizens of the city. Balakrishna Pillai, perhaps, might find himself on top of the list of noise pollution victims in the city. A security guard at a jewellery shop near the busy Manacaud junction, he is exposed to the blaring horns and other harsh sounds of passing vehicles all through the day. Occasionally, as in the past week, devotional and film music from loudspeakers during a religious festival add to the noise.

“I can use a towel to protect myself from the dust, but there is no escaping the noise here. Though one gets used to it after a point, there surely is damage to the ears. Many times, I have requested the organising committee to keep down the volume, but they never take me seriously. People sitting behind closed doors do not have to endure so much noise daily, as people like me do,” Mr. Pillai says almost shouting over the loudspeaker sounds.

In a residential colony at Pattom, the residents are jolted out of their sleep much before sunrise by devotional songs blaring out from a place of worship.

“Despite the number of rules and repeated warnings, these people keep on playing songs in full volume. Now that the election time is approaching, the political parties will also start torturing us. Really, there is no point in having all those regulations if they are not implemented strictly,” a resident here says.

An office-bearer of a residents’ association here says that in recent meetings, they were swamped by complaints about noise. The most affected are the infirm and the elderly whose health takes a turn for the worse. Students fall victim as they find it impossible to study. One student who lives near the Karyavattom campus of the University of Kerala conveyed the gravity of the situation at the head office of the board recently as he barged into a senior official’s room and broke down. An official assured him that the board would coordinate with the police station to check the noise.

“The route open to harassed residents is to first approach the police station in their vicinity, not the board. The board is primarily responsible for industrial areas, as they present a permanent source of noise. Regarding public address systems and firecrackers, the police have the authority to take action against offenders and they are the licensing authority. They can come to us for support; for instance, they can ask us to measure the sound levels in an area where most complaints are reported,” S. Sudheer Babu, Chief Environmental Engineer of the board, says.

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