Fighting the noise in India's 'Maximum City'

by AFP/Phil Hazlewood, Feb 16, 2009 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

Mumbai, February 10, 2009 - Retired doctor Yeshwant Oke is old enough to remember the 1940s, when only the rumble of electric trams filled the streets of Bombay.

Six decades on and the city now known as Mumbai is one of the noisiest on earth, battered day and night by car, taxi and auto-rickshaw horns, factory noise and ear-splitting construction work.

For anti-noise campaigners like Dr Oke, the health of Mumbaikars and other Indian city dwellers is increasingly at risk through sustained exposure to loud noise but calls for urgent action are falling on deaf ears.

"People and patients are silently suffering as they feel helpless," the former consultant, who is a little hard of hearing himself, said by email.

"People feel agitated and angry, impotent to some extent. Indians are very docile. They would rather suffer than have enmity with the neighbours.

"But lately patience is wearing thin, and more and more people are complaining to get relief."

Kanu Desai also remembers the calm of the 1940s. Now 80 and recovering from a spinal operation, he has been fighting a lengthy battle with the authorities about a factory generator next to his central Mumbai flat.

The noise, measured at 90 decibels (dB), lasts from morning until night, he said.

"It's continuous noise. It's difficult to sleep. My servant has become deaf in one ear. He's 75. I have to shout," he said.

"I'm an old man. In the afternoon I like to rest. There are 10 senior citizens in this building, ladies and gentlemen. Children can't study because of the noise. They can't concentrate."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that some 120 million people worldwide have hearing difficulties. Loud noise can be a contributory factor for high blood pressure, heart disease and exacerbate mental health problems.

According to Sumaira Abdulali, who has taken readings across India's Maximum City, people here have to endure a constant 80-85 decibels of outside noise -- nearly twice as loud as the safe levels WHO recommends for cities.

"I think all Indian cities are pretty noisy but Bombay has such a dense population and has both slums as well as the richest people," said Abdulali, who runs an environmental charity the Awaaz (Voice) Foundation.

"Both of them feel they have a right to make noise because the other one can't tell them what to do. Each one is quite self-righteous about it."

Three-wheeled auto-rickshaws are among the worst noise polluters, said Abdulali. Drivers often tamper with the silencers to get better mileage, nudging the high-pitched buzz of the two-stroke engine to near 100 dB.

Horns -- which are sounded at every opportunity -- then have to be louder to compensate.

Construction work can be louder still. Pile-driving for the foundations of the many high-rise buildings springing up across Mumbai can reach 110 dB -- equivalent to the sound of low-flying aircraft or a jet taking off.

But that is nothing compared to the din of firecrackers, drums and loudspeakers during India's many religious festivals and street processions.

Abdulali has tested firecrackers on sale for the annual Hindu festival of light, Diwali and found typical readings in the 125 dB to 145 dB range.

"They were painful. These things need to be completely stopped," she said, calling them "unauthorised explosives".

Oke cites an example of an elderly woman with a heart complaint who died of a heart attack after a Diwali firecracker exploded outside her window in the middle of the night.

Firecrackers were set off last year in the grounds of a hospital.

Noise regulation laws were introduced in India in 2000, setting limits in industrial, commercial and residential areas, with stiff fines for offenders.

The use of loudspeakers is now restricted, there have been poster campaigns, "no-honking days" and plans for a noise-mapping project in Mumbai. City authorities are also drawing up new construction industry guidelines.

But campaigners say there remains little awareness about the dangers of noise pollution while legislation is not enforced because of a lack of police resources or vested interests of politicians or the powerful construction industry lobby.

Desai is disappointed at the response to his complaints.

"They (the authorities) just come and give us hopes," he said with a shrug.

Abdulali fears that urban planners in Mumbai are forcing its 14 million residents to accept extreme noise as part of life.

"Indian culture is essentially one of the noisiest in the world" with little concern that individual actions affect others, said Oke, adding that children and young people need to be educated about the impact of noise and harsher punishments should be introduced for those who break the law.

Oke said that as the WHO warns that developing economies are more affected by noise pollution, doing nothing could affect India's growth.

"Noise reduces efficiency and productivity in general," he added.

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