Maharashtra pushes for relaxing norms around Mumbai’s silence zones

Activists accuse government of abdicating fundamental responsibility of ensuring good health of citizens

By Akshay Deshmane
Published: Wednesday 13 March 2013

The Maharashtra government is once again pushing for relaxing noise regulations around silence zones like educational institutions and hospitals. This has once again pitted the government against anti-noise pollution campaigners who say political pressure is being created to do away with the deterrence effect on offenders.

In mid-February, the chief minister’s office released a booklet, which detailed 50 demands of the state government for which backing was sought from the state’s 37 members of Parliament (MPs) who would then push for these at the Centre. One of these was about changing norms pertaining to silence zones.

Politicians v activists
  • In September, 2012, Maharashtra home minister announced that all police cases registered across the state against violators of noise pollution norms will be withdrawn. This provoked a fresh campaign against noise pollution in the city
  • In October 2012, the Shiv Sena was given last opportunity by the Mumbai High Court to organise the political partyÔÇÖs historic Dussehra rally and was asked to shift the venue, which has remained the same since 1966, to the MMRDA grounds inside the Bandra-Kurla Complex
  • In the same month, Mulund-based Navyuvak Mitra Mandal was permitted to conduct Navratri festivities in a silence zone till late night
The state environment department has also sent a proposal to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), justifying the change in norms. “It has been found that the imposition of rules regarding decibel levels is extremely difficult to be implemented in a metro city like Mumbai. The city has innumerable number of educational institutions and religious shrines. Demarcating an area of 100 metres around all such establishments and to observe the noise regulations is a challenge and affects the social, religious and cultural life of the citizens. In view of this, the state government had taken up several steps to relax the criteria for declaration of silence zone,” the letter states.

Tweaking rules

The specific modifications sought by the department for relaxation of norms concern four areas: educational institutions, hospitals, religious places and courts. The department has maintained that only areas having educational institutions with a minimum number of 500 students should qualify as silence zones and that the related restrictions be applied on working days only. Similarly, the restrictions should apply to only areas with hospitals having at least 100 beds in urban areas and 25 beds in rural areas; the 100 metre radius of all registered shrines and, in case of courts, only working days be made mandatory for observing restrictions concerning decibel levels, says the department.

The latest move comes barely three months after Mumbai witnessed some high-profile legal clashes between activists and politicians over the issue of organising large public gatherings in big open spaces in the city’s silence zones.

Beginning mid-2010, silence zones in Mumbai have been controversial with Ganesh mandals and politicians seeking to change norms relating to permitted noise levels in such areas. However, each time an attempt was made to modify norms at the state or Union level, it failed as courts and MoEF opposed changes in the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) (Amendment) rules, 2010.

Why silence zones are needed

Anti-noise pollution campaigners have reacted sharply to Maharashtra government’s proposal. “Despite Mumbai now becoming the noisiest city in the world, it is very disappointing that politicians rake up the issue every time. Noise is primarily a health issue and it is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the government to maintain conditions which ensure good health of citizens. Many nursing homes and smaller hospitals in the city have intensive care units. Limiting the definition to a 100 bed hospital would mean only patients in big hospitals like Jaslok and Breach Candy, for example, are shielded from noise pollution. If you are being treated in a small hospital, does it mean your life is less valuable? Also, many schools and colleges have night classes for their students, just as there are holiday courts operating during weekends. Instead of applying its mind to enforcing noise limitations in silence zones, the state administration has been trying to find all ways of making the rules weak,” said Sumaira Abdulali, convener of Awaaz Foundation.

Resident of Shivaji Park and co-founder of Wecom Trust, Ashok Rawat, had filed a public interest petition in the Mumbai High Court to get the locality declared a silence zone and has been campaigning ever since against noise pollution. “Will you say that tests of pilots be made lenient just because the passing percentage is dropping? Decibel levels have been decided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) keeping in mind concerns of public health. It seems that a delegation of WHO officials needs to be taken to the chief minister to convince him about this. The only reasons why politicians these days prefer Shivaji Park over other open grounds in Mumbai is that it costs only Rs 250 for a day to rent it as against the MMRDA grounds in Bandra Kurla Complex, which costs Rs 40,000. When it comes to public health, no other concern should be allowed to override it,” he said.

However, municipal and environment department officials justified the move to relax norms for silence zones. “If we follow all the rules, all of Mumbai will become a silence zone. There will be hardly any locality left without silence zones in it as educational and health institutions are abundant in the city. We have already demarcated hundreds of silence zones in the city and the list is available with the police. Since the rules are so generic, the issue is how to define them. Having some sort of clarity will help,” said additional municipal commissioner of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Mohan Adtani.

A senior environment department official, requesting anonymity, said, “The idea is to make rules governing silence zone norms practically implementable. As on today, despite being demarcated, silence zones also witness so much noise because the norms are not practical.”

Advocate Mohana Nair who represented Awaaz Foundation’s case in the high court said there are many practical options available to ensure that public events can be held in silence zones without flouting norms. “Using distributed sound systems instead of large loudspeakers; restricting time limit for public events can ensure that decibel levels don’t shoot up. There are several such ways in which noise can be regulated in silence zones but it requires administrative will to do so and that is absent,” said Nair.

Abdulali said, “We are not even addressing the residential areas, silence zones being critical areas are at least being discussed. However, the enforcement of norms in these areas is failing because the civic body has failed to properly demarcate them on ground. When citizens raised their voice about this, the civic body installed some boards in silence zones but no proper demarcation is done on the city’s official maps to help aid the understanding of the city police.”

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