Make a noise

Many years have passed in lax interpretation of noise pollution rules. It is time authorities took stringent action on citizensí complaints

Sumaira Abdulali | October 24, 2016


#Supreme Court   #Noise Pollution   #Pollution  

Photo: Sumaira Abdulali

This year, for the first time, noise levels during the Ganeshotsav festival reduced in Mumbai. Although the decibel (dB) level remained beyond the permissible limits and the safe norms, it reduced from a high 123.7 dB last year to 116 dB. This was due to stricter enforcement by the police and cooperation from the Ganpati mandals to implement a court order.

The Bombay high court recently passed a comprehensive order against noise pollution from sources like urban planning, traffic, construction, aviation, administrative structures and festivals.

In 2003, the Bombay HC had passed directions to identify ‘silence zones’ for the first time. The Navaratri festival was the first to comply with the new rules. However, there was no implementation in other places, particularly during politically organised festivals like Ganeshotsav or religious places. In fact, in the last decade, some previously quiet festivals like Dahi Handi became noisier as they became increasingly commercialised with the backing of political organisers and celebrity endorsements.

In 2005, the supreme court ordered that no loudspeakers could be used during night time (between 10 pm and 6 am) and could not be used in the silence zones at any time. While these orders were well implemented for most of the year and administrative systems were set up by the police to take action on citizens’ complaints, implementation remained lax during certain noisiest times of the year, like the entire festival season.

The SC also ordered that loudspeakers could not be used during night time except for 15 days a year to be designated in advance by the state government. It made it clear that during these 15 days, even though the start of night time is extended from 10 pm to midnight, the decibel level could not exceed the night time limit stipulated in the noise pollution rules for residential areas. It also clarified that the time extension would not be applicable in the silence zones.

In 2009, the Maharashtra government made a determined effort to dilute the silence zone rules by asking the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to redefine hospitals as silence zones only when they exceeded a capacity of 100 beds and to permit urban helipads for private use on rooftops. They relied on the so-called ‘Delhi model’. The Delhi model was an incorrect interpretation of the noise pollution rules where the silence zone rules were applied only in hospitals with over 100 beds. The MoEF rejected this proposal and notified the noise pollution rules 2010, where definitions were clarified. Areas comprising not less than 100 metres around all types of hospitals, courts, religious places and educational institutions were declared as silence zones. The new rules included noise from vehicular traffic and construction.

The MoEF also filed an affidavit in Awaaz Foundation’s pending public interest litigation (PIL) stating that urban helipads were ‘avoidable’ due to their high noise levels which would increase noise pollution in cities that are already noisy. The minister of MoEF wrote a letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra stating that no private urban helipads would be permitted in any Indian city.

This year, a number of connected PILs were clubbed together and heard by the Bombay HC. A 2003 petition, filed by Dr Yeshwant Oke, Dr PN Rao, Bombay Environmental Action Group and I, had resulted in detailed orders clarifying that the silence zone rules could not be violated through the use of loudspeakers at any time. In 2005 and 2008, the SC had confirmed orders of the Bombay HC. In 2016, the Bombay HC reconfirmed all these earlier orders while passing its final judgment.

Other petitions finally heard in 2016 included PILs filed by Dr Mahesh Bedekar and Santosh Pachalag for strict implementation of the noise pollution rules during politically sponsored festivities and religious places respectively, a petition filed by MS Rane to control noise from unnecessary honking from railways, a petition filed by Awaaz Foundation to control noises from infrastructure during the urban planning processes and the need of noise pollution rules to control noise from firecrackers, horns, traffic movement, construction and aviation.

In spite of the SC’s specific direction that the power to grant time extension can only be exercised by the state government and cannot be delegated to any subordinate authority, district collectors continue to exercise this power to grant exemption for different days in different districts during the festival season. Since this was often done at the last minute and was not publicly advertised, a great deal of confusion about the extended time period made it difficult for citizens to complain.

The district collectors continued to exercise this illegal power on Ganeshotsav this year, in spite of the reiteration of the Bombay HC that the SC order must be complied with. After the order was forwarded to the government by Awaaz Foundation and reported in the press, the district collectors’ notifications were hastily withdrawn and the state government re-issued the notification on the first day of Ganeshotsav, when their offices were specially kept open for this purpose.

The HC also passed detailed directions on the administration of noise pollution rules. The implementing authorities’ duties include the need for awareness programmes and setting up of anonymous citizens’ grievance mechanisms through SMS, social media and telephonic complaints. Unfortunately, these mechanisms were never advertised by the police, Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) or any other authority.

Awaaz Foundation undertook a ‘Citizens’ Noise Map’ through use of social media and findings of citizens through free smartphone apps to measure noise levels. The complaints received are collated and forwarded to the government, police and courts. As a result of the court orders, and numerous complaints by citizens, the Ganesh mandals decided not to permit the use of battery operated loudspeakers atop trucks. Noise levels reduced this Ganeshotsav for the first time.  However, during Navratri and Dussehra, there was blatant violation of the rules and court orders when political parties organised festivals in silence zones and violated silence zone norms in the presence of police.

They exceeded decibel limits and time limits in many parts of the city and the police did not respond effectively to citizens’ complaints.

The Maharashtra pollution control board along with Awaaz Foundation has been measuring noise levels from firecrackers since 2004. After several Right to Information (RTI) applications and disclosure of findings of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), noise pollution from firecrackers has reduced. Overall noise levels during Diwali have reduced consistently for the past several years. Educational programmes in schools have also resulted in reduced use of firecrackers in Mumbai.

Noise from vehicular movement, horns, and construction are unregulated at the moment. The government has been directed by the HC to file an action plan on all these by December 2016. The court has also directed the government to carry out noise mapping of all major cities in Maharashtra.

This mapping would identify the levels and sources of noise in different parts of urban areas and suggest appropriate mitigation measures. The court also directed that noise control measures should form a part of the draft development plan of Mumbai, currently being finalised by the BMC. Noise mapping is the accepted base line study used for noise control in European cities. Initial physical readings are used to predict future changing noise levels, when any change is made to the existing location such as additional roads, loudspeakers, etc. The development plan can take into account these findings to appropriately place noisy activities and infrastructure away from places requiring quiet atmosphere such as hospitals and educational institutions.

Abdulali is convenor, Awaaz

(The article appears in the October 16-31, 2016 issue)

Foundation, Mumbai.

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