What is it with Indians and noise? When was the last time you experienced silence? For me, finding a moment of silence in a bustling city like Mumbai has become a search for El Dorado.
There is no respite on the road, as we Indians relish driving with one hand continually pressing the horn. There is no respite at home, as television chatter is a constant along with other household sounds.
I am yet to find a restaurant that does not have music blaring through its speakers, and one must strain their throat and ears to have a conversation with their companion.
All public places be it pubs, bars, parks, or temples are subject to the assault of noise. The incessant honks, the sirens of police jeeps or ambulances, construction noises, loudspeakers blaring film or devotional songs, religious and wedding processions, and political rallies contribute to the cacophony of everyday life.
The problem of noise in India goes deeper than the general indifference towards following the rules. We are a loud culture, or at least we have become one in the recent past.
Once upon a time, we respected the people who took the vow of silence and called them ‘Muni’. Now, the requirement to be a holy man, the corporate guru specimen who hobnobs with politicians and industrialists, is to be as loud as possible.
Spirituality in India, which started with seeking within, listening to the silence inside, has been hijacked by religion and has become vulgar in its exhibitionism.
Being loud has become a prerequisite to entice followers. There is no solemnity, even in prayers. Religious establishments call for prayers and services, and play devotional songs through loudspeakers with no concern for God’s peace or the plight of hapless humans around.
Before the invention of electricity and amplifiers, one wonders how did the prayers of the devout reach the heavens? In festive seasons, entire streets are hijacked by a few, with thundering drums, clanging cymbals, and screechy horns in the name of religion.
The use of firecrackers multiplies the din, and such religious processions show scant regard for the silent zones in the cities, whether they are near hospitals or schools. Loud wedding processions are another menace that cocks a snook at all noise pollution laws regularly. When society tolerates and even encourages a culture of disregard for others, it would be least bothered about the noise pollution created by the construction industry, incessant honking in our streets or the pervasive loudness everywhere.
That we have become indifferent to the nuisance of noise does not mean that it is not hurting us. Media cry hoarse about the horrible air quality levels of our cities; 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India.
The lesser we speak about our holy rivers, the better. However, all these kinds of pollutions are at least talked about, forcing governments to pretend that they are doing something.
Noise pollution is the poorer cousin of air and water pollution, and is rarely a part of public discourse. Of course, there are some rules against noise pollution, and there are silent zones marked here and there in our cities, but like traffic rules, these are often ignored.
Noise is linked to chronic stress and sleep disruption, permanent hearing loss, increased blood pressure and chronic heart diseases. A 2018 study by the Indian government’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) analysed noise readings from Mumbai and found that in residential areas, the average noise level at night was about 80 decibels or as loud as a vacuum cleaner. People are subject to an average of 70 to 80 decibels throughout the day in the city.
Chennai has the highest sound pollution in the country among major cities as per the Central Pollution Control Board study of 2018 the last year in which the research was conducted.
Constant exposure to such noise is causing mental disorders, irritability, depression, and stress. According to the World Health Organisation, about 1.1 billion young people (aged between 12-35 years) are at the risk of hearing loss due to noise exposure.
And like air and water pollution, Indian cities hog the top spots in noise pollution too. Activists raise noise against specific festivals like Deepavali and express concern about the effect of loud crackers on birds and animals.
While this is welcome, this should not be at the cost of ignoring the relentless noise pollution all of us suffer. India needs laws with teeth and the will to implement them.
We can start by banning the use of loudspeakers for prayers and public streets for weddings and religious processions.
If we can’t even pray silently and need a megaphone to blast it out, it is hypocritical to blame other offenders. It is not the law that defines a society but its culture. But when culture mutates into a raucous monster with little concern for its own moorings or for humanity, we need to take recourse in the willful implementation of the law.
Anand Neelakantan firstname.lastname@example.org
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy