Sentinels of Sound

When noise levels rise over 55 decibels, sound becomes unsound. Isolated pleas against the racket of revelry have fallen on deaf ears. But a clutch of conscientious citizens across India have collectively clamoured and crusaded against the decibel din. Their struggle has been strenous in the face of official apathy and lax law enforcement. But it has made the judiciary sit up to these unsound practices

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Tuesday 14 June 2016

Sentinels of Sound

Credit: Preeti Singh

The persistent honking of a car stuck in a traffic jam. The blaring music playing at a wedding in the nearby community hall.

The mind-numbing splutter of gensets every time power breaks down in the neighbourhood, or the noisome grating of gravel at a construction site next to your house.

It gets to you, makes you want to plug your ears, mouth profanities or helplessly scream in sheer exasperation. But that's about as far as most go.

A handful of citizens have, however, transcended the 'bystander syndrome' and stepped into the spotlight to crusade against the menace of noise pollution and clash against an obdurate system that does nothing about it.

Unfortunately, the 'noisemakers' lobby, including politicians, police and the elite, is strong. Consequently, activists who have approached the court and received positive judgements, have had to fight further for the implementation of the legal order by the local authorities.Several cases against noise pollution are pending in various courts of the country.

Law: A paper tiger The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, which came into being in February 2000, stipulate that loudspeakers cannot be used at night between 10 pm and 6 am. But noise often continues much beyond the curfew hour. Probably because the noisemakers are also the law keepers or backed by them.

For instance, the Mumbai police used blaring loudspeakers much beyond 10.00 pm while celebrating a function on communal harmony in January this year.

Not further away, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar also conveniently toned down the rules by declaring that as long as the noise did not become a 'nuisance', merriment could continue well past midnight during Christmas.

In Mumbai, when Pandit Jasraj was asked to stop his concert midway, one evening in January this year, he demanded that rules imposing noise curfews must be scrapped.

Such misdemeanours probably continue, as the ink framing the law, is still wet. Before these rules came into being, the Environment Protection Act (epa) of 1986 made a passing reference to noise pollution. Fourteen years later, in February 2000, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (mef) woke up to the dire need for regulation and formulated the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules. Although used by the court, these are still mere words on sheets of paper.

Festival time in Mumbai
Noise levels during religious festivals
Festival Noise levels in decibels, Year 2000 Noise levels in decibels, Year 2001
Ganesh Utsav

Avg. 85 -105 Db
In places where there were firecrackers, avg. was 115 - 120 dB

Avg. 85 - 90 dB
Firecrackers banned
No loudspeakers after 10 pm
Navratri Avg. 80 - 105 dB Avg. 90 -110 dB
Source: Pratibha Belwalker, Mumbai Grahak Panchayat


The rules state that:

  • the state government, as the implementing authority, should initiate the process of controlling noise pollution by classifying areas as industrial, commercial, residential or silence zones.
  • It should ensure that noise does not exceed the prescribed limits.
  • It should also consider noise pollution and its effect on people while carrying out developmental projects.
  • It should ensure that loudspeakers and public address systems are not used without written permission from the 'authority' and at night (between 10.00 pm and 6.00am).
  • The designated authority is either the district magistrate, the police commissioner or any other officer given the mandate to implement these rules.

Noise pollution is treated as part of air pollution and the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb), is the monitoring agency. However, cpcb does not even have a special officer to deal with the problem.

Moreover, noise pollution levels are generally monitored only during festival time and that too, in a few specific areas (see charts: Festival time in Mumbai, Mahakumbh mela in Allahabad). But then, authorities consider it politically incorrect to meddle with religion and cultural celebrations during this time.

For the major part of the year therefore, expensive noise measuring equipment simply gathers dust. With no documented proof of noise levels exceeding prescribed limits, it becomes all the more difficult to nail the culprits.

Official apathy aggravates the trouble further. For instance, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (tnpcb) outright refused to measure noise levels in Kodaikanal, when asked to do so by the Consumer Protection Association of Kodaikanal on the pretext that the area was not under its jurisdiction.

Mahakumbh in Allahabad
Noise levels on major bathing dates
Occasion Main bathing dates Average sound level in decibels
Patish purnima
Makar sankranti
Manui amavasya
Basant panchami
Magh purnima
Maha shivratri
Source: Ecological and Environmental Research Laboratory, Department of Botany, University of Allahabad, poster presentation at Second International Conference on Plants and Environmental Pollution, February 2002, Lucknow


The crusaders campaign

Since 1960, only stray voices of decibel activists kept gunning for noise pollution. However, after the inclusion of noise as a pollutant in the Environment Protection Act in 1986, this movement strengthened and received active support from various high courts and the Supreme Court (see box: Mumbai, Kodaikanal, Alappuzha and Kolkata).

The Solution: Still elusive

Although legislation, active implementation and awareness are the keys to fight noise pollution, it has to become a peoples programme.

There is a dire need to educate law enforcers about the hazardous nature of noise.

It is also suggested that a separate cell should be set up to receive and tackle noise pollution related complaints. Each complaint should be given a docket number, and the officer who takes down the complaint should write down his name alongside the grievance. In keeping with this suggestion, a special panel to monitor noise has been formed in the state of Maharashtra.


Prescribed noise levels
Maximum sound permissible
Day Night
A – residential area 55 45
B – commercial area 65 55
C – industrial area 75 70
D – silent zone (hospital area, educational institutions and other relevant areas) 50 40
Note: dB(A)Leq – denotes the time weighted average of the level of sound in decibels on scale A which is relatable to human hearing.
Source: Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, Ministry of Environment


However, noise pollution cannot remain an issue just for politicians and the ruling party. "People must start making noise about noise pollution," says Sumanan, a crusader from Kerala.

P N Rao, chairman of the Anti Noise Pollution Committee, goes one step further to suggest banning of "all noise-generating instruments, unless it can be proved that they are not violating any rule (see chart: Prescribed noise levels )".

What can you do? At an individual level, all you need to do is make a little less noise today. The rippling effect of this one step will be a giant leap towards a better tomorrow.

With inputs from Jayanta Basu, Kolkata


The high-decibel revelry during festivals like Durga Puja and Diwali prompted the State Pollution Control Board and experts from the Kalyani University in 1993 to probe deeper into the harmful impact of noise.

A year later, a religious organisation went to court with an appeal against the police directive of not allowing them to play bhajans using microphones, contending that it amounted to infringement of their fundamental rights. Contrary to their expectations, however, Justice Bhagabati Prasad Banerjee ruled in 1996 that nobody could be made a ‘captive’ listener and therefore permission would be needed to use loudspeakers. Even then the sound level should not reach unsound proportions and must remain below 65 decibels.

By Diwali 2001, noise levels became deafening in spite of at least 20 monitoring teams, with high-tech equipment, spread all over the state. Gitanath Ganguly, the special officer appointed by the high court, was flooded with complaints. According to environmentalists, the judiciary has virtually left the decibel drive to the administration and this hasn’t helped matters.

The noise level around the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) head office often goes up to a high of 79 dB. Near King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM), it touches 68 dB. The prescribed daytime norm is not more than 65 dB for a commercial area like the BMC, and 50 dB for a silent zone like a hospital.

In 1985, the Anti Noise Pollution Committee (ANPC), an association of medical consultants and other organizations concerned about noise pollution, filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court.

An extensive study was subsequently carried out on the extent of noise pollution in Mumbai city. The study conclusively revealed that noise levels clearly surpassed the standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). But even this failed to prod authorities into taking remedial action.

Instead, more shockingly, “in 1994, the government of Maharashtra actually went ahead and upped the limit for use of loud speakers from 11.00 to 11.30 pm,” laments Y T Oke, secretary, ANPC. “It even gave discretionary powers to police commissioners to extend the limit beyond 11.30 pm,” he adds.

The coalition once again filed a case in the high court in 1995, this time contending that the rules prepared by the Maharashtra government were contradictory to those prepared under the EPA of 1986. The high court directed the state government to bring all rules in conformity with the EPA.

However, authorities blatantly extended the time limit for use of loudspeakers for dandia, (a Gujarati dance during Navratra, or the nine nights before Dasera) to 1.00 am in 1996. The ANPC contempt petition is still pending in court.

Incidentally, “the average age of deafness has gone down from 70 years to 50 years,” says Pratibha Belwalker of the Mumbai Grahak Panchayat, a voluntary agency working for noise regulation in the city.

During the mid-80s, the sleepy town of Kodaikanal woke up to commercialisation and well, noise. Worried, locals, school principals and doctors of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), Kodaikanal branch, approached the police against the increasing noise levels. Disappointed with inaction, they complained to the Consumer Protection Association of Kodaikanal (CPAK), recently formed in 1993, to cater to public grievances.

However, CPAK lost this case in the Madras High Court in 1998, when the inspector of police proved in court that the area was noise free.

Fortunately, around this time, CPAK received a favourable order from the Madras High Court. This was its second case filed by its individual member, Minoo Avari. The interim order forced the inspector of police to control noise levels in the city. The authorities disallowed the use of cone speakers during local elections.

Another serious source of cacophony are religious performances in churches, mosques and temples. Ramraj Kumar, a doctor at the Van Allen Hospital, filed a petition in the Madras High Court against the illegal and unabated use of loudspeakers in religious places nearby, on the plea that the cacophony has an adverse effect on the performance of doctors and delays patients’ recuperation. Another petition filed by V Rajeswari, registrar-in-charge of Mother Theresa Womens University pleads that the religious racket does not allow students to study and affects the performance of the teaching faculty.

However, religion and noise have become intimately intertwined. This mindset needs to be changed.

In this small district of Kerala, P P Sumanan, a retired arts teacher, tormented day and night by loud noise emanating from religious institutions in his Kalarcode neighbourhood, approached the Principal Municipal Court of Kerala in 1981.

Though the verdict went in his favour, local authorities refused to implement the court’s directives. Sumanan again went to court. When the High Court of Kerala at Ernakulam directed the authorities to implement noise pollution rules, it came to light that the town had not even been divided into sound zones as per the CPCB standards.

Exasperated, the court directed the authorities to classify the areas and only then move on to seek permission for use of loudspeakers. This raised the hackles of the Kerala Sound Services Association, that provided loudspeakers for public functions. It protested against the court order.

Later, Sumanan had to seek police protection on receiving threats from religious groups and loudspeaker associations. On the positive side, the Devaswom Board, sent notices to all the temples it controlled in the area asking them to stick to the court order on the use of microphones. The archbishop of Alappuzha also sent a similar directive to all the churches in the area.

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