Breaking the noise barrier

Noise levels in Mumbai are reducing every year due to increasing public awareness about noise pollution and peak noise levels. Hopefully, 2016 will see a dramatic fall.

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:18 am IST

Published - January 17, 2016 09:47 am IST - Mumbai

Committed citizens like 9 to 12-year-old children from the BDD chawls who measured noise during festivals in 2015, gynaecologist Dr Mahesh Bedekar, who has fought through the courts to control noise levels from festivals which disturbed patients in his maternity home in Thane, Ajay Marathe, who controlled noise from a mosque and a school next to his house, those who controlled noise from a construction site next to their building, give us hope that the trend of lower noise levels in Mumbai will continue and that we can aspire to a noise-free Mumbai in the foreseeable future.

While the Christian community was among the first to bring their celebrations in line with the Noise Pollution Rules several years ago by concluding their Christmas Midnight Mass before midnight, noise levels in 2015 during Diwali and Eid-e-Milad were lower in Mumbai than they have been for several years. Awareness campaigns in schools such as those conducted by NGOs Sanskar India Foundation, Akanksha and others and government campaigns in municipal schools have resulted in children educating their parents about the ill effects of noise during Diwali and a marked decrease in the use of firecrackers. Muslim clerics and activists announced their opposition to noise pollution during Eid-e-Milad this year for the first time and urged their community to not use loudspeakers.

Dr Yeshwant Oke, Dr PN Rao and Saad Ali were among the first to oppose rising noise levels in the country, even before the Noise Rules were notified. Awaaz Foundation, with professional pro bono contributions from advocates Ishwar Nankani and others, began work on noise pollution in 2002 and has campaigned continuously since then, generating primary data, approaching the courts and creating awareness. Today, noise pollution has been recognised as a civic and health hazard that is taking its toll on all citizens in Mumbai, regardless of their religious, social or other status, and citizens have become increasingly vocal and active against high noise levels; many have taken effective action to control noise in their neighbourhood.

Mumbai is the first city in India where citizens have gradually realised the ill effects of increasing noise levels on their health, and its example is spreading to big cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and smaller cities like Nashik, Benares and Aurangabad.

Citizens’ pro bono contributions of professional expertise in effective awareness campaigns, like those designed by award-winning adman Josy Paul and his team at BBDO India, against noise have contributed towards this. The courts have also taken noise pollution seriously and have passed effective orders to implement the Noise Rules. Citizens’ individual successes have motivated others to follow – from being an unknown and ignored pollutant a decade ago, noise pollution is now recognised as a major health hazard for urban populations. Mumbai has been declared the noisiest city in the world by the Central Pollution Control Board.

Festivals, though occasional, create the highest noise levels and cause acute distress to bystanders, particularly vulnerable ones like infants, the elderly and ailing. Animals also suffer distress. Pets can become disoriented and lost; bird populations can reduce and migratory birds can lose their way. This acute source has been the first from which general awareness about noise pollution and its adverse effects has arisen, and many have taken various actions to control it.

Awaaz Foundation has measured noise levels for almost 15 years and obtained orders from the Bombay High Court to control loudspeaker use. Dr Mahesh Bedekar filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay HC resulting in strict orders for implementation of the Rules. Gaurang Vora obtained a clarification from the court that firecracker use cannot be extended beyond 10 pm, even on Diwali, and Ashok Ravat led residents of Shivaji Park to have it declared a Silence Zone.

Other sources of noise which continue throughout the year contribute to making Mumbai the world’s noisiest city. Traffic and construction are two unregulated noisy events which cause distress to almost everyone. Increase in awareness about noise pollution has resulted in citizens’ action in this field as well. Awaaz Foundation measured the noise from traffic and construction and filed a PIL against noise from these sources in 2007. In 2008, Awaaz conducted the first No Honking Day with the Mumbai Traffic Police, which was replicated in other cities. Other citizens too have taken up this cause. Dileep Nevatia obtained an order from the National Green Tribunal restricting the maximum permissible decibel level of horns. The Pali Hill Residents’ Association and some residents of Andheri have controlled the timing and decibel level of construction in their areas, even in the absence of formal administrative guidelines to control noise.

Responding to citizens’ activism and court orders, the government has also recognised the necessity of controlling noise pollution in our cities. In 2010, after Awaaz Foundation led a signature campaign to amend the Noise Pollution Rules to include construction and other forms of noise, the MoEF amended the Rules. Draft Firecracker Rules have been issued by the police, and the Maharashtra government has implemented measures like mandatory noise barriers on new flyovers, announcing a noise-mapping study, conducting awareness programmes in municipal schools and demarcating Silence Zones. The police have set up a (mostly) effective system to address anonymous citizen complaints. This system, while effective most of the year, often fails during peak festival season.

To monitor effectiveness of police action, Awaaz has set up a Facebook page called Citizens’ Noise Map. Any citizen can download a free decibel meter to their Android device or iPhone, measure noise levels, complain to the police and post their observations on the page. Along with our decibel readings, citizens’ observations are periodically compiled and sent to the appropriate authorities.

Exposure to excessive noise can result in deafness, high blood pressure, heart disease and mental illness. Hearing tests on traffic policemen and children exposed to high noise levels have revealed increased levels of deafness. However, we have hope for the future: due to rapidly increasing public awareness on noise pollution, peak noise levels in Mumbai during certain festivals are reducing every year, government authorities are undertaking noise mapping projects and installing noise barriers. Citizens are volunteering their time towards controlling noise from various sources in their neighbourhoods. I hope to see a dramatic fall in noise pollution from all sources in 2016.

When citizens start participating in cleanliness initiatives against various types of pollutants, it becomes possible to control pollution and better our quality of life, moving away from the burden of disease. Initiatives like the Citizens’ Noise Map, PILs against pollution filed by ordinary citizens and other initiatives give us hope. More citizens need to participate in the anti-noise pollution campaign and ensure effective implementation of Noise Pollution Rules to safeguard their own health and well being.

What you should know

Noise Rules are applicable to all, regardless of religion, economic status.

Police take anonymous noise complaints on helpline number 100. Request a complaint number.

Police are equipped to measure decibel levels during a site visit.

Loudspeakers are allowed up to midnight for only 15 notified days a year. Firecrackers are not allowed beyond 10 pm.

Time extension up to midnight does not apply in a Silence Zone. No noisy instrument can been used in a Silence Zone.

Even when loudspeakers are allowed up to midnight, decibel levels have to remain below prescribed levels.

Traffic Noise

1 Horns beyond 87dB are not permitted on any car.
2 YAll multi-tone horns, including reverse horns, are illegal.
3 Shrill horns are illegal.
4 Please complain on the traffic police website with photographs if you spot illegally fitted horns.
4  Please post your findings on FB page 'Citizens’ Noise Map'.

What is noise mapping?

1. Noise Mapping is an established method to capture existing noise levels and predict levels in case of change of land use like new infrastructure projects etc

2. Noise Mapping in the UK is accessible to citizens through NGO Defra's interactive website

3. Awaaz Foundation recommends the government should integrate noise mapping into the Development Plan

About the author

Sumaira Abdulali is Mumbai's best known anti noise-pollution activist. Since 2003, Ms Abdulali has worked, individually and through NGO Awaaz Foundation, on environmental issues such as noise pollution, illegal sand mining, mining in bio-diverse forests, marine pollution and oil spills, eco-friendly festivals, protection of trees and on civic issues including laws on sale of tobacco to children.

Awaaz Foundation networks with citizens’ groups and other NGOs to achieve maximum impact and has organized volunteers, offered support, legal advice and education to people suffering from excessive environmental noise. Ms Abdulali has relentlessly monitored noise levels of loudspeakers, construction equipment, traffic and firecrackers and interacted with authorities to ensure their support and co-operation. Due to pressure, the Mumbai Police set up a dedicated phone number to tackle citizens’ noise complaints and are strictly implementing timings and other requirements of the Noise Rules.

Following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Awaaz Foundation, the state government commissioned noise barriers, noise mapping studies and policy change including a draft Firecracker Rules, and notified Silence Zones in Mumbai.

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