Saffron, Green and White Noise

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Image: Duncan C (Flickr)

Mr. Sonu Nigam, he of the erratic hairdos and of the voice serenading the heartbreaks of a generation, has recently been the subject of much controversy for tweeting that he does not approve of the “forced religiousness” when the azaan from a nearby mosque disrupts his sleep. Many people have accused him of pandering to the Hindu majoritarian psyche currently in  political favour fo singling out the religious practices of a minority community. When a maulvi responded with a fatwa awarding a sum of Rs. 10 lacs to anyone who shaves off  Sonu Nigam’s hair, Sonu himself shaved it off in response.

I cannot claim to know of the inner workings of Sonu Nigam’s mind, unlike most writers waxing eloquent on this subject, but I can discuss the issue that Sonu seemed to have touched upon, that of severe noise pollution currently legitimised in our country by the politics of our identities, to an extent that we have romanticised the noise as part of Indian culture.

Noise has power. In a country where people are continuously fighting for space, and airtime, and when sections of society are marginalised, noise serves as an important message to society, yes, we’re here. I would argue that there is a social function to be served by ensuring that certain sounds continue being loud, so that the fringe identities associated with that noise remain in the public eye (ear?). Noise serves the innate function of announcing the presence of elements in our society that we would rather pretend do not exist, so while we can remove them from our sight, they will always be within earshot. Women in boardrooms or in a court of law must be loud, because of how frequently they are manterrupted and mansplained to. Loud protest marches force authorities to take into consideration issues, which are simply not allowed to be heard in well-mannered ways. Which comes to the question of the elitism of silence. When the rules of etiquette were being formed by Victorian England, the well bred could afford to not be loud, because Britannia ruled the waves regardless.

However, this use of noise to assert identity is used to its extreme in our daily lives in India. Which is where I think Sonu Nigam might have a point. That religious institutions seem to be engaged in a competition of sorts, not just to occupy the vote bank and the public consciousness, but also the soundwaves; with each pandal and mandal competing for cacophony.

As a lawyer having worked on noise pollution disputes, it is extremely disheartening to see how aggressively people defend their use of noise pollution for religious and community activities. There is a special escalation of simultaneous noise sources during Ganesh Chaturthi, Navratri and weddings. With the multitude of festivals and funds available for them, hiring gigantic speaker trolleys blaring out everything from patriotic songs to Bollywood item numbers has become de rigeur. I am not making a value judgment on the content of the music, but it is difficult to legally defend these activities under freedom of religion when they are so far removed from any religious purpose. I am not sure what purpose it is intended to serve, except maybe assert power  by making a statement that one’s celebration is of more importance than statutory decibel limits or the health and well-being of fellow citizens.

Let’s not even get started on our national addiction to honking horns, whether it is a method of flirting, harassment or just a vent for anger, annoyance and frustration, never mind the fact that people with homes along major roads cannot hear their own voices talking at the dinner table.

It is understandable that in a nation inflicted with severe cases of air and water pollution, we tend to accord noise pollution negligible thought. However, it is important to note that in 1987, the definition of ‘air pollutant’ in The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act,1981 was amended to include noise.  “s. 2 (a) “air pollutant” means any solid, liquid or gaseous substance 2[(including noise)] present in the atmosphere in such concentration as may be or tend to be injurious to human beings or other living creatures or plants or property or environment”

The Parliament enacted the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 under the Environment Protection Act, setting forth the procedure for the designation of silence zones around residential, educational and hospital establishments, and prescribing the decibel limits for various zones such as industrial, residential etc. In 2005, in the judgment In Re: Noise Pollution, the Hon’ble Supreme Court heard a public interest litigation dealing with noise pollution instituted when “a 13 year old girl was a victim of rape (as reported in newspapers of January 3, 1998). Her cries for help sunk and went unheard due to blaring noise of music over loudspeaker in the neighbourhood. The victim girl, later in the evening, set herself ablaze and died of 100% burn injuries.” The judgment contained certain crucial directions which are rampantly violated because of  a combination of governmental and citizens’ apathy.  Some of these directions are:

  • “There shall be a complete ban on bursting sound emitting firecrackers between 10 pm and 6 am. It is not necessary to impose restrictions as to time on bursting of colour/light emitting firecrackers.”
  • “Vehicular Noise No horn should be allowed to be used at night (between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.) in residential area except in exceptional circumstances.”
  • “The States shall make provision for seizure and confiscation of loudspeakers, amplifiers and such other equipments as are found to be creating noise beyond the permissible limits.”

If this is an issue close to your heart (ear?), I urge you to install apps such as SoundMeter (They are not paying me for this endorsement …yet) in your smartphone and measure the sound pressure level from noise sources. Identify what zone your home or workplace falls under, and verify whether the noise is within permissible limits. If you think your complaint is valid, please contact the local pollution control board office; they are bound to inspect and take action against the same. This is a simple and affordable way of dealing with the nuisance of noise, as opposed to the largely ineffective method of tweet-based justice. A common thread of argument I have encountered when criticising noise pollution during Hindu festivals is that I have some sort of personal vendetta against Hinduism, and I am trying to lower the morale and spirit of Hindus being the sickular libtard that I am. I think we could all do with ensuring that our religious freedom is not ensconced within woofer systems, at the cost of legal compliance.

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