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Sonic doom: Rising levels of noise in India's cities

Ineffective implementation of decibel limits in India has put urban dwellers at risk of hearing loss and psychological illnesses
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 21:53 IST

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New Delhi: Legend has it that Julius Caesar took the first step against noise pollution when he prohibited the plying of horse chariots in Rome’s cobblestone streets for several hours in the day and the night. His administration enforced the ban strictly.

After 2,000 years, in a country 6,500 km away, it is the lack of enforcement of noise pollution norms that impacts people.

Pragati, an engineer in Bengaluru, has spent the past five months in agony. With the construction of two mega-apartment complexes, there is not a moment of peace in her locality in Electronic City. “My partner and I even went on to raise complaints with the police because construction activities continue even at night. The police intervention only changed the situation for a day or two. Then the activity resumed,” she says.

Pragati and her partner work from home two days a week. They initially thought it was a blessing, but soon the unbearable metallic clanging and drilling turned those days into an ordeal. “We close all doors and windows, and still need to wear headphones,” she says.

“We used to have a beautiful green view with our balconies. Now, we do not use them due to the disturbance. We have good ventilation and light but cannot enjoy these as we keep the doors closed. It gets difficult to focus on work and sleep at night,” she says.

Noise pollution is the largest preventable cause of hearing loss and is the second most common avenue of environmental pollution after air, explains Santasabuj Das, director of the Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad.

It can also trigger several non-communicable diseases and psychological illnesses and impact kids’ learning abilities. The World Health Organisation notes that excessive noise can cause annoyance and increase the risk for ischemic heart disease and hypertension, sleep disturbance, hearing impairments, tinnitus (humming sound in the ear) and cognitive impairments. Today, there is also increasing evidence of noise pollution’s health impacts on birth outcomes and mental illnesses.

For over two decades, India has had regulations to limit excessive sound. Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000, specifies the day and night-time ceilings on sound levels in four broad areas — industrial, commercial, residential and silence zones. However, awareness among people is abysmally low and implementation is worse.

Take the example of Rajasthan, where the state pollution control board (SPCB) monitors the noise level continuously at 178 locations in 36 cities.

In May 2024, the RSPCB found that noise levels in silence zones (around schools, hospitals and government offices) in the state capital were higher than permissible limits. During the daytime, the permissible limit is 50 dB and the night-time limit is 40 dB. At the heart of Jaipur, near the Santokba Durlabhji Hospital, sound levels were found to be 66.3 dB during daytime and 62.9 dB at night, even as an extreme heatwave kept people indoors.

In residential areas, the noise levels are mandated to be within 55 dB during the day and 45 dB at night. However, the study found it to be 75.5 dB (day) and 72.7 (night) in Science Park, Shastri Nagar, a major locality in Jaipur.

In commercial areas, the permissible limit is 65 dB during the day and 55 dB at night. Again, the noise levels in a commercial area like Choti Chaupur near Kotwali thana, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, were recorded as 72.9 dB (day) and 75.4 dB (night). Only the industrial areas fared well in Jaipur.

Since decibel – the unit to measure the sound volume – is a logarithmic scale, a sound at 60 decibels is 10 times louder than one at 50 decibels, but 100 times louder than a sound at 40 decibels and 1,000 times louder than 30 decibels.

According to a 2022 National Crime Records Bureau report, Rajasthan contributed 98.9% of the total cases (7,378) filed under the Noise Pollution Act. The reason why such a high number of cases was registered is because it is the only state that makes contravention of the Act a cognisable offence under Section 7 of the Rajasthan Noise Control Act, 1963. Most cases (around 99%) have ended in a conviction because the prescribed penalty is a meagre fine of Rs 250 for the first conviction.

In case of a second conviction, the person may be imprisoned, with terms extending up to one month, or a fine of Rs 250 may be imposed, or both. As penalties are minimal, the fear of police and the law is also minimal.

Monitoring systems

Still, Rajasthan is one of the few states that at least has a system in place to monitor noise levels and take some form of punitive action. Many others do not even have systems in place to penalise excessive noise pollution.

In neighbouring Gujarat, the state pollution control board had issued a notification in 2019, making the installation of limiters in sound systems mandatory for DJ trucks, loudspeakers and musical instruments exceeding the permissible limit during public events. The rules are yet to be implemented, forcing concerned citizens to knock on the doors of Gujarat High Court, which has reprimanded the government for not taking action.

A source from the Gujarat police says that the Deputy Superintendent of Police in districts and the Assistant Commissioner of Police in cities have been appointed as the nodal agencies to check noise pollution, but implementation of the norms largely remains on paper.

In Kerala, police officials say they are unaware if the department has sound metres, even though an Indian Medical Association official claims such metres have been donated to the force.

The Kerala State Pollution Control Board Chairperson S Sreekala says it is for the police to take action against the kind of noise pollution that city residents encounter on a day-to-day basis. The KSPCB officials inspect the noise level in industrial areas and act only when there is a specific complaint.

Honking on the road — mostly unnecessary — is one of the major culprits, but very little action is taken on the ground. Traffic officials in Bengaluru say there are currently no provisions to book road users for incessant honking. At present, they take up special drives only to book drivers for “shrill” horns — which, in their definition, are modified multi-toned horns with music.

C Mallikarjuna, Additional Commissioner of Transport (Enforcement, South), notes that since modifying horns to make them shrill is illegal, the department has the power to suspend the registration certificates of vehicles found to have such modifications. “There are high court judgements stating that people must not honk near courts and hospitals. We routinely take up drives and create awareness about this,” he says.

Traffic police in Bengaluru have not been provided with sound meters to measure the decibel levels.

“Tackling noise pollution is a complex issue,” admits Sumaira Abdulali, founder of Awaaz Foundation and one of India’s foremost activists against noise pollution. Vehicular traffic and construction activities are two primary sources of pollution, but both are necessary for urban growth.

“Construction is part of the development agenda, but development should have a humane face. Contractors do not follow any norms and the police often fail to enforce the law. Construction activities go beyond permissible time and often happen after people go to bed,” she says.

Health impact

Abdulali says that in Mumbai, the noise levels exceed 100 dB in some areas in the city on normal days and that too, late at night, affecting infants, children and senior citizens.

For Meghana* a marketing official in Bengaluru, who has been suffering from chronic anxiety for the past few years, exposure to such ear-splitting noise aggravates her problem.

“I have been taking medications for the past two years. However, living in a noisy city does not make it easy to live with anxiety. When too intense, even the noises can trigger panic attacks,” she says.

It is not that there are no solutions. More mechanisation in the construction sector, use of sound-absorbing material, reduced concretisation, more vegetation on the roadside, greening open spaces and better traffic management can go a long way in lowering people’s exposure to damaging levels of sound.

“Infrastructure projects need to be sanctioned after noise barriers are installed and equipment used in the site should be masked properly,” says Abdulali.

Festivals like Ganesh Puja in Maharashtra or Durga Puja in West Bengal are other sources of sonic trouble. Nabaneeta Deb Roy*, a resident of Dum Dum in Kolkata has been adversely affected. With microphones blaring all around, her household and ailing in-laws come under attack during every Durga Puja, making it impossible even to talk over the telephone.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), on Deepavali nights, the decibel level varied between 67 to 86 dB at six monitoring stations in Delhi, between 2013 and 2017. The CPCB has not released any such report after 2017.

As per data shared by Awaaz Foundation, a combination of drums and banjo used in Ganapati processions created the highest noise at 115.6 dB at the Babulnath corner of Marine Drive in south Mumbai and 112.1 dB in Bandra. Such a loud volume, doctors say, can cause serious damage to the ear, if a person is exposed for a long time.

“Two weeks ago, I saw a youngster who suffered hearing impairment after participating in a big music concert where he was exposed to high-volume sound. When he came to me, he could hear sounds only above 70 dB. After administering steroid injections, he can now hear sounds above 55 dB. Further treatment is being provided to him,” says C John Panicker, an ENT surgeon in Kerala, who heads the National Initiative for Safe Sound of IMA.

Ritesh Vijay, a senior scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, says technical solutions are available but strong policy support is necessary to contain the monster.

Scientific considerations

“The upper limit of noise range for horn should be capped to 100 dB instead of current practices of 112 dB. But it is up to the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to implement it for automobile manufacturers,” adds Vijay, a member of a NEERI team that submitted noise pollution management plans for 27 municipalities in Maharashtra at the instruction of Bombay High Court.

His team has also invented noise-absorbing acoustic panels that can be used to construct footpaths and sidewalks on busy roads to dampen the traffic noise. If such panels are used in combination with the right type of vegetation, noise reduction capability will increase.

“Using such technologies may increase the project cost a bit, but should be accepted because of the health benefits,” says Das.

Those who are continuously exposed to high decibel levels do not even realise when their health parameters fall. “Initially, the incessant honking irritated me a lot. Gradually, I got used to the sound so much that it feels odd to not hear the honking when I am not on the roads,” says a constable from the Whitefield traffic police station in Bengaluru.

A 2015 study on 150 traffic police officials in Jammu showed that officers who had been on the job for at least three years experienced about six times as much hearing loss as officers who had spent less time on the streets.

Another study conducted in Vadodara, the third-largest city in Gujarat, found hearing loss in 80 out of the 88 traffic police tested. A 2018 study, published by researchers in Chennai, checked the hearing of 30 auto rickshaw drivers and diagnosed 23 with hearing loss.

“Our study on weavers in textile mills shows that almost all weavers, irrespective of age, and length of exposure to occupational noise, suffer from hearing loss,” says Das. The NIOH conducted studies on people exposed to loud noise like those who work in the mining industry, metal scrap, steel sector and railways. Health consequences are always present.

For commoners surrounded by deafening noises, there are hardly any places to turn to, as the traffic police and transport department barely take effective punitive action.

“There is a theatre near my house that might not have proper acoustics. They have early morning and late night shows on most days of the week and we can hear the booming music. Several travel agencies are located near my house and the buses honk unnecessarily late into the night. No one is there to take action on our complaints,” says Vanitha Dalwani, who lives with her family in Yeshwantpur, Bengaluru.

“In the USA, noise reduction is part of sustainable development. But in India, it is so underrated,” says Vijay.

(* names changed on request)

(With inputs from Arjun Raghunath in Thiruvananthapuram, Mrityunjay Bose in Mumbai, Rakhee Roy Talukdar in Jaipur, Satish Jha in Ahmedabad, Udbhavi Balkrishna and Varsha Gowda in Bengaluru)

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Published 06 July 2024, 21:53 IST

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