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Oh, for the sound of silence

Sachin KalbagOnce upon a time, the faithful would go to a house of worship to pray. It was a quiet affair, and communication between devotee and God was mostly in hushed tones. Temples would be a place where people went to be one with God. For believers, therefore, silence was a legitimate and effective language to speak with God.

The prevailing equation, though, is dangerously different: the louder the noise, the greater the reverence.

What is even more alarming is that a large multitude of people actually believe it to be true. Thus, during the nine days of Navratri this year, leading up to Dussehra, the embodiment of the victory of good over evil, the noise level in Mumbai was 104.5 decibels.

Navratri is not an exception. In 2012, Mumbai recorded its loudest Ganpati festival, with the noise level crossing a mind-numbing 120 decibels on the day of Visarjan. In everyday situations like the bumper to bumper traffic on the Eastern and Western Express highways as well as on SV Road, the noise level could go up to 95 decibels due to persistent honking and the sheer vehicular density.

Fight to the noise polluters
Bleeping loud: In our city of 16 million people, there are only a handful of people who are willing to take the fight to the noise polluters

According to experts, even though the “Pain Threshold” of noise is 130 decibels, humans start feeling the effects of noise at 85 decibels.

In 2000, the Central government, in an attempt to curb noise pollution, framed the ‘Noise Pollution (Control and Regulations) Rules, 2000’ in which it specified the standards for maximum noise level for various zones.

According to the rules (the document is available online at the ministry of environment and forests website), the recommended level for industrial areas is 75 decibels during day and 70 decibels at night. For commercial areas, the figures are respectively 65 and 55. For residential areas, the corresponding figures are 55 and 45, while in silence zones the recommended noise level is 50 decibels and 40 decibels respectively.

It would be hard to find a zone in Mumbai that does not violate these guidelines. And in a city of 16 million people, there are only a handful of people who are willing to take the fight to the noise polluters.

Try convincing a Navratri Mandal or a Ganesh Mandal organiser to reduce their volume. There will two stock answers. One, “But we are celebrating our God. If others in the locality do not have a problem with the volume of the loudspeaker, why do you?” The second: “Why don’t you raise your concern when the Muslims use their loudspeakers and trouble the neighbourhood every morning?”

Mumbai’s tragedy is that even noise pollution is now communalised.

Why do Mumbaikars make so much noise? More important, why do Mumbaikars tolerate that noise?

Here’s why we should not tolerate loudness. According to one of the most cited scientific papers on noise pollution (and available for free reading at the American National Institutes for Health website) by W Passchier-Vermeer and W F Passchier of The Netherlands, “Exposure to noise constitutes a health risk. There is sufficient scientific evidence that noise exposure can induce hearing impairment, hypertension and ischemic heart disease, annoyance, sleep disturbance, and decreased school performance.”

The paper adds that these effects are seen not only for industrially developed nations, but also in developing nations. “A high priority study subject is the effects of noise on children, including cognitive effects and their reversibility. Noise exposure is on the increase, especially in the general living environment, both in industrialised nations and in developing world regions. This implies that in the twenty-first century noise exposure will still be a major public health problem.”

One reason that Mumbaikars do not stand up against noise pollution could be that they are not aware of the long-term effects of loudness. The second is the futility of it all. How do you fight traffic jams, for instance? How many car windows would you knock and tell the driver to not honk? Or, for that matter, do you expect policemen to manage traffic or tell car drivers to not honk? Our neighbourhood festivals are funded by local politicians, and police stations rarely take action on the complaints made against them.

Religion, thus, is big business and community festivals are possibly the easiest way to build a vote bank.

In this process, silence has become the most expensive luxury good in Mumbai.

In their groundbreaking song ‘Sound of Silence’, which has been interpreted a thousand different ways because of its intriguing lyrics, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel eloquently refer to silence as a growing cancer.

Whatever your interpretation of the song is, Mumbai needs this cancer to grow.

Sachin Kalbag is executive editor, MiD DAY 

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