Noise is the permanent background score to life in bustling cities and towns. But when it exceeds a threshold, it disrupts the thought process and causes great annoyance. The World Health Organisation says it also affects health. Prolonged exposure to noise at particular levels can lead to hypertension. Other problems arising from chronic exposure include sleep disturbance, poor communication in classrooms, and hearing impairment. A decade ago, the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000 issued under India’s Environment (Protection) Act 1986 promised to bring about change. Although the law is clear about the exposure limits for noise, the penalties, and the authorities responsible for enforcement, it has been unable to control the rising din. Given this background, it is difficult to imagine that the recent amendments to the rules notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests will by themselves substantially reduce ambient noise. The amendments seek to make the rules more enforceable by bringing specific high-noise sources under their ambit. Thus horns, sound-emitting firecrackers, and sound-producing instruments may not be used in silence zones; protection from noise at night is also strengthened. State governments must now announce, in advance, the number and particulars of days on which there will be a regulated relaxation of norms for cultural or religious festive occasions.
The Environment (Protection) Act empowers the central government to plan and execute a countrywide programme for the prevention, abatement, and control of environmental pollution. Noise pollution is a good place to start. The State governments, which have enforcement authority on the ground, must act here and now. There is no justification, for example, to allow transport vehicles such as autorickshaws to tamper with silencers to generate noise for ‘visibility’ on the road. The amended rules stipulate that the noise level at the boundary of a public place should not exceed the legal noise standard by 10 dB(A) — the decibel unit — or 75 dB(A), whichever is lower. After a long era of poor voluntary compliance and enforcement, the first order priority is obviously to create greater awareness in the community on the effects of noise; vigorous enforcement can follow. Improving the motoring culture to restrict the use of horns through campaigns and strong persuasion is vital. Governments can take the lead and contribute directly to lowering of noise levels by replacing the large number of rickety transport buses that they run — and by repairing roads.